Upholstered with luminous sponges and corals, the bridge of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Duane attracts schools of smallmouth grunts—and divers. The ship was intentionally sunk in 1987 off Key Largo to create an artificial reef 120 feet deep.
Upholstered with luminous sponges and corals, the bridge of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Duane attracts schools of smallmouth grunts—and divers. The ship was intentionally sunk in 1987 off Key Largo to create an artificial reef 120 feet deep.

Relics to Reefs

Why fish can't resist sunken ships, tanks, and subway cars.

It took just over two minutes for the missile-tracking ship General Hoyt S. Vandenberg to sink to the bottom of the ocean. On a clear morning in May 2009, seven miles off Key West, a series of hollow booms erupted from inside the vessel’s hull, where 46 explosive charges had been buried deep below the waterline. The sharp smell of gunpowder drifted on the breeze, and an obscuring veil of black smoke began to rise, but for a long moment the ship didn’t seem to register the shock. She just hung there level in the water, 523 feet long, a rusting, decommissioned hulk with two useless radar dishes that towered above the ocean surface.

Then, as news helicopters circled above and thousands of onlookers watched from boats idling beyond the blast zone, the Vandenberg slowly hitched downward into the Atlantic, remaining perfectly horizontal until finally the bow dropped and the stern rose, leaving nothing but a roiling tract of white water. "There'll be fish living on that wreck this afternoon!" declared Joe Weatherby, the man who had spearheaded the massive project to sink the Vandenberg and turn it, over time, into an artificial reef that would lure divers and fishermen to Key West.

The Vandenberg is certainly not the first ship to be deliberately sunk to create an artificial reef. The waters off the Florida Keys have become the grave site of the Coast Guard cutters Duane and Bibb and the U.S. Navy landing ship Spiegel Grove, and on the sandy bottom 20 or so miles out to sea from Pensacola lies an entire aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Oriskany—the largest ship in the world intentionally sunk as an artificial reef. Dozens of World War II cargo vessels known as Liberty ships have been submerged, or to use the proper jargon, deployed, all along the Gulf, Atlantic, and Pacific coasts.

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