Florida Wreck Dives: U.S.N.S. General Hoyt S. Vandenberg

By: Jen Karetnick

August 22, 2014

Wreck divers look for certain elements when choosing a site: schematics; variety of depths; water temperatures and conditions; and, of course, the wreck wildlife. In short, no one wants a boring dive.
Vandenberg Flag | Florida Wreck Dives
Divers complete deploying a huge American flag Friday for July 4, 2014 © Joe Berg/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO

As the second largest artificial dive site in the world, and the biggest located in the tropical waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the U.S.N.S. General Hoyt S. Vandenberg – or the USS Vandenberg for short – is one of the best Florida wreck dives with a full list of desirable features, starting with exploration.

The USS Vandenberg had a long and interesting history of deployment in the U.S. Armed Forces, beginning life during World War II, before being transferred from Army to Navy to the Air Forces. She ended up refitted as one of ten Missile Range Instrumentation Ships before being retired in the Eighties, used as movie set on Virus in the Nineties, and finally transferred to the Maritime Administration and eventually sunk about seven miles off the coast off Key West in 2009.

Vandy Dive | Florida Wreck Dives
Explore the superstructure of the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg artificial reef © Haig Jacobs/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO

Thus the Vandenberg’s still-intact antenna, radar dishes and telescopes, installed on the wheelhouse and in the weather balloon hangar at the dawn of the Space Age, make for prime landing and photo opportunities. Access is available to compartments of all kinds, though if you wish to view the length of the hull, all 520 feet of it (about two American football fields end-to-end); enter the ship’s inner space; or explore bow to stern, then you’ll need to take more than one dive. There’s simply too much wreck to take in at once.

Vandy Dive | Florida Wreck Dives
Diver Jaclyn Skafas swims above a parabolic tracking antenna on the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg © Stephen Frink/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO

At approximately ten stories high, the Vandenberg is settled upright on her keel, with dive spots beginning at 40 feet down and concluding at 150 feet below the surface. The average water temperature in these southernmost U.S. waters is a lovely 28 degrees Celsius. It’s also brilliantly clear here, with an average visibility range of 30-60 feet (though on exceptional days, it can extend to 100 feet or more).

Schools of fish | Florida Wreck Dives
Divers swim over the former missile-tracking ship Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg amid thousands of fish © Don Kincaid/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO

For fish enthusiasts, this wreck is host to numerous large species of reef and bottom dwellers, including the colourful parrotfish and other wrasses; the romantically named damselfish (tiny anemone fish); and the not-so quixotically designated surgeonfish, known for its scalpel-sharp spine. Charters take off from the docks at Key West to hunt for “trophy wreck fish” here, so don’t be surprised to see a variety of dive, snorkelling and fishing boats lurking on the surface near the wreck site. The deeper you go, the more elusive fish and invertebrates you’ll see, including Nassau grouper, goliath grouper, barracuda, sharks, eel, conch, octopus and rock lobster.

Vandy Dive | Florida Wreck Dives
Tying a Conch Republic flag to a stanchion on the Vandenberg © Stephen Frink/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO

Although your average or even novice diver can explore the Vanderberg quite comfortably, the currents can be unexpectedly strong. Divers should have an experienced team leading the way, and always carry knives in case of entanglement and use a buddy system. Other divers entering compartments can kick up the silt, and it’s easy to become disoriented. As always, at large or small dive sites, natural or artificial ones, safety is the main concern. Fortunately, the Vanderberg offers exactly what most experienced divers relish: a dive site so intriguing, a repeat visit is a must.

Header image: The US flag is tied to the Vandenberg for July 4th celebrations © Scott Belt/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO

Virgin Atlantic operates direct flights to Miami from London Heathrow. Book your flight today.

Have you been on any Florida wreck dives? Have you dived the USS Vandenberg? Let us know in the comments section below.

Written by Jen Karetnick

Jen Karetnick

Miami-based poet, writer, critic and educator Jen Karetnick’s fourth chapbook of poetry, Prayer of Confession, is out now from Finishing Line Press, and her cookbook, Mango, is due October 7, 2014 from University Press of Florida. She also has a full-length book of poems, Brie Season, forthcoming from White Violet Press/Kelsay Books in late 2014. She works a million jobs, including Creative Writing Director at Miami Arts Charter School, dining critic at MIAMI Magazine, contributor to, mom of two teenagers, fur-mom to six rescue pets and caretaker of 14 mango trees. Jen is currently working on her twelfth book, From the Tip of My Tongue (Story Farm Press), a cookbook with Miami and Caribbean chef Cindy Hutson.

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