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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#139: A Nervous Wreck

Despite the cool temperatures and rain last week, I know summer is rapidly approaching. As I walk past the patio at Antonio's Cabaret, the melodious sounds of Tony Baloney waft out over the town. As I pass, he asks his audience "What sits on the bottom of the ocean and twitches?" Of course having heard this joke more times than I can count (and laughed at it each time), I blurt out the answer... "a nervous wreck." In keeping with that bit of humor, I'm going to write today about one of my least favorite underwater topics... wreck diving.

Now many divers truly enjoy diving on wrecks. This was evident while Andrea and I were in the Florida Keys. Every dive trip featured a wreck, followed by a shallow reef dive. Neither Andrea or I are big on wrecks. We are much more into natural habitats where we can photograph and film the marine life among the corals rather than against the cold steel hull of a sunken boat. We dove a number of Florida's marquee wrecks including the Spiegel Grove and the Duane. I thought I'd write about these dives in today's column.

Our first wreck dive was on the "Jay Scutti" off Fort Lauderdale. This 97' harbor tug was built in the Netherlands in 1961. It was originally called the "Airkok" (although my Dutch dive buddy Danielle doesn't think that is a Dutch name). The tug was confiscated off the Dutch island of Aruba in the Caribbean while being used to smuggle marijuana, and sold at auction (the tug not the marijuana). It was brought to Fort Lauderdale to serve as an artificial reef in 1986, and was renamed the "Jay Scutti" in honor of a prominent member of the local maritime community there. The wreck sits in a maximum depth of 70-75 feet and presented little challenge. Although much of it was overgrown with encrusting invertebrates, and there were a number of different fish species swimming around it, it offered nothing spectacular for us to film. Yawn.

Our first wreck dive after arriving in Key Largo was the premiere vessel in the region, the "Spiegel Grove." This vessel was sunk in June, 2002, about six miles of the Key at a cost of $1.25 million. At 510' long and 84' wide, it is the largest vessel ever intentionally sunk as an artificial reef. Due to some "miscalculations" during the event, it now lies on its starboard side at a maximum depth of 125-130' with the port side hull sideways (and I'm not referring to the movie) at depths of 45-60 feet. Launched in 1955 and named after the Ohio estate of U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881), it was officially designated by the Navy as LSD-32. This does not refer to the drug Harvard Professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were handing out to grad students in the 60's. It is an abbreviation for a Landing Ship Dock, a vessel that could carry landing craft and troops to far-off conflicts around the world (and there have been plenty of those since WWII to keep it busy). The "Spiegel Grove" had a crew of almost 350 and could carry an additional 325 troops at cruising speeds up to 23 knots.

The "Spiegel Grove" had an interesting military service history before being decommissioned in 1989. Shortly after entering service, it went to Lebanon prior to the deployment of U.S. Marines there. In 1961 it undertook a goodwill mission to deliver medical supplies along the African coast. The following year it was part of the emergency rescue fleet for Astronaut Scott Carpenter on the United State's second orbital space flight. In 1972 it was in Samoa for the splashdown of the Apollo 14 lunar capsule. In 1976 it returned to Lebanon to evacuate civilians during the civil war there, and in 1982 it assisted in a mission to photograph the Caribbean island of Grenada prior to the U.S. invasion the following year (and I thought that invasion was a rapid response to aid endangered medical students).

Despite its distinguished record, this wreck is too recent to have held much of interest for Andrea and me to film. It was all we could do to drop down at the stern and make our way up to the bow against the current, and then return before our tanks reached the safe limit for ascent. I did find a pair of golden coral shrimp and an anemone in a small hole in the hull, but there was little else to film other than the cold steel. Double yawn.

Now the wreck of the U. S. Coast Guard cutter "Duane" was a different story. This vessel was smaller at 327' long and had a 41' beam. It had been intentionally sunk in 1987 along with its sister ship the "Bibb." Although the "Duane" lay in a maximum depth of 125-130 feet, it was upright. The deck was wide open at about 100' and the crow's nest reached to within 50' of the surface. This vessel was commissioned in 1936 and named after William Duane, the Secretary of the Treasury under our seventh U.S. President, Andrew Jackson (1829-1837). During World War II it served in the Atlantic fleet with a crew from "the greatest generation." In 1943 helped sink the German U-boat U-77 and also made several rescues during the conflict. It was still in service in 1980 serving as an escort vessel for thousands of Cuban refuges. Prior to its decommissioning in 1985 it was used in drug enforcement operations (strange that drug references are so prevalent in this column... I do NOT advocate their use of course).

This dive was an advanced one due to the strong currents and deep depths. We descended along a buoy line attached to the stern, and spent a short time on the deck before descending to the sandy bottom at 125 feet. Here I filmed a nurse shark and then joined Andrea filming a large school of Atlantic spadefish. Due to the depth, I went into deco mode within 17 minutes and had to ascend to the shallower deck to avoid a decompression stop longer than my air supply could support. If I go into deco mode, I prefer to do so with my much larger 120 cu. ft. tank but was stuck with a much smaller 80. On this level Andrea and I encountered a beautiful hawksbill turtle sleeping on the deck. I woke it up unintentionally and it sauntered about the deck allowing both Andrea and I to get some good images before it ascended to the surface for a "breath of fresh air." This wreck was without question our favorite. No yawns.

The last wreck I dove in Florida was the "City of Washington." By this time Andrea had returned to California and I was diving with Stephanie who had driven out to Florida from Texas. This was a simple wreck to dive since it was resting in only 25' of water. Shortly after we descended, a fairly large goliath grouper appeared. As I wrote last week, this species is a bass very similar in size to our black sea bass. Apparently other operators feed him when they dive the site, but it is a practice neither of us believe in so neither we or our dive boat did. Besides, we wanted to save any lobster for ourselves... oops, er.. this was a marine reserve so we could only look (and film).

This vessel was built in 1887 as a two-masted sailing ship to transport passengers and cargo from New York to Cuba and Mexico. It could carry 100 passengers in 75 first-class cabins, plus another 250 in steerage (where Leonardo diCaprio's ticket landed him on the Titanic). It might as well have been called a "slow boat to China" since it only had a 650 hp engine. Two years later it was refitted with a 2,750 hp steam engine for speed.

This vessel had an interesting history as well. It was moored in Havana, Cuba, close to the USS Maine when that ship exploded under suspicious circumstances in 1898, leading us shortly into war with Spain ("Remember the Maine!"). The "City of Washington" was lightly damaged in the explosion, but its crew was able to help rescue sailors from the USS Maine. During the Spanish-American war, this vessel was used to carry troops, returning to civilian passenger service afterwards. The "City of Washington" was retired as a passenger vessel in 1908, and in 1911 new owners converted it into a barge to transport coal. The "vessel" ran aground on Elbow Reef in 1917 while being towed by a tug and it quickly sank. The wreckage site is 325' long.

Much of the appeal for wreck divers is to explore a piece of living history, which is why I've outlined a bit for these wrecks. Of course some of our local wrecks like the "Valiant" and the "Pisces" have history too. Currently there is a group working to obtain a large vessel like those in Florida to sink off the Los Angeles area, possibly Catalina, to attract wreck divers. I hope it has a history equally impressive to the Florida wrecks. Maybe we could get Howard Hughes 619 foot "Glomar Explorer." Some islanders may remember this huge ship off Catalina back in the early 1970's. At the time we were told it was an experimental vessel built to mine manganese nodules from the ocean floor. Yeah, right. I didn't know mining ships had CIA guards and operatives on board! As we later discovered, its real mission was known as "Project Jennifer." It was built to recover a Soviet nuclear submarine that sank a few years previously off Hawaii. Now the "Glomar Explorer" would be a wreck with Catalina ties that I would certainly dive! Andrea and Stephanie, are you ready?

© 2005 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

Superstructure of the "Spiegel Grove;" Andrea resting on overturned railing of "Spiegel Grove"
to take a picture, stern of the "Jay Scutti," crow's nest of the USCG "Duane."

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2005 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia