It was one of the roughest trips out on a dive boat I’ve ever taken, but it was totally worth it. Every single nauseating second.
While visiting Key West in November, SVV and I booked a two-tank dive with Lost Reef Adventures to check out the USS Vandenberg, the world’s second largest artificial reef (the first is in Pensacola) and the largest recreational wreck dive.
Leading up to dive day, it sounded like a good idea, but when I woke up at 6am on the final day of our vacation, I was having second thoughts. Instead of spending the better part of the day wiggling in and out of a too-small piece of Neoprene, I could work on my tan. Hmm, that option sounded tempting.
Luckily, I tucked that thought away in the back of my mind, and we went anyway because I’m anything but a last-minute canceler.
This was another dive in which we were both required to have our advanced open water—a certification that only I have—or hire a guide, so we did just that (and were glad to have someone to show us the ropes). Enter: Captain Chris. Otherwise known as diving bad ass and navigational rock star. Deep dives are dangerous, so having someone with you or dive insurance like DAN is always wise before attempting sites at such depths like the Vandenberg.
I’ve never felt so prepared for a dive as I did with Chris, Captain Adam and Patrick as our noble leaders; they told us everything we needed to know (and possibly more) on the 45-minute, six-mile trip out to the dive site. On our last dive in Key Largo, the team from the resort was only so-so, and knowing what you’re going to encounter as well as having a great group of people with whom to joke around with on the way there and back and in between—and who don’t make fun of you when you puke your brains out for a solid 10 minutes—are invaluable to the experience.
Right. About the puking. That was unexpected; I hadn’t gotten seasick in quite a few years. In fact, three years ago on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, I spent much of that hour and a half paying homage to the porcelain gods, then managed to sail around the world for four months without a single incident. This time was different; I knew immediately with the large swells and the nature of the boat that I wasn’t going to escape unscathed. I even took Bonine before heading out, but that stuff rarely does anything for me. While I was feeling nauseous much of the ride, I made it there and below the surface without an incident. It wasn’t until the hour-long surface interval when my breakfast decided to surface, too.
Honestly, I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to hack it. I was afraid of vomiting underwater in my regulator and almost didn’t get in. Then I realized the half an hour for each dive would be better spent under the water than braving the swells above. So dive I did.
And after a few minutes and sinking 90 feet or so, I was feeling fine (well, better than I had been before at least). It’s funny how being submersed in an alternate universe will do that to you. When we arrived, our trio of dive leaders checked the conditions and said we were in a rare position at the Vandenberg: There was no current and visibility exceeded 60 feet, an unheard of combination at this site. So though luck above the surface hadn’t been on my side, below it definitely was.
Much of the Vandenberg dive is between 50 and 120 feet, though the keel rests at a bottom depth of 140. The ship was purposely sunk—a common occurrence in an effort to create artificial reefs and also preserve history—in 2009 after decades worth of planning and preparation. During her glory days atop the sea, the Vandenberg used to track missile and also space launches off Cape Canaveral. Here’s a really cool video of the ship sinking in real time. And while the ship is now awash in colorful corals, sinister moray eels, and schooling fish, large and small, it’s really the details and intricacies of the ex-military vessel that makes this such a cool, can’t-miss site.
I couldn’t believe the sheer size of the ship until I was down there; it’s 523 feet long and 11 stories tall. Most divers do a double-dip at the Vandenberg since you only have a mere half an hour of bottom time and you need a lot more than that to cover the length of this gargantuan beast.
Captain Adam had told us the Vandenberg would become the litmus test for which we judged all future dives. I was skeptical. To be honest, I have dove plenty of wrecks before, and while it’s always fun channeling Ariel and flitting in and out of the ship’s many compartments, very rarely have I been completely blown away by a wreck dive. Well, I’m eating a piece of humble pie, because Captain Adam was right: The Vandenberg was an indescribable experience, and one I would repeat in a heartbeat—rough swells and all.