The adventure started innocently enough. The mastermind behind the Vandenberg artificial reef project called The Key West Weekly.
“Hey, you wanna dive the ship?”
Weatherby’s perpetually hoarse-sounding voice tells the world he never misses out on a single conversation, and his end is carried with volume to rock the concert sound-system at Sunset Pier.
The morning started innocently enough. Booking it out of Sunrise Rotary to hook up on the 8 am dive boat at Subtropic.
We board the Starfish Enterprise II with Captain Shane La Beet at the helm, Dive Masters Robert Trossett and James Mims manning the boat.
We cruise out to the wreck site and snap some photos on deck.
“We’re going to double-dip it,” Captain La Beet’s instructions have our full attention.
As I’m shimmying into my 3/2 Joe unleashes our dive plan.
“When they stop, stride in the water, grab the robe and we’ll go down.”
Inquisitively I ask, “How deep are we going?”
“110 feet,” he replies.
Oh, great! Catastrophic possibilities start swirling around my head and the Café con Leche, Toast, Saltines, and ½ a Dramamine I’d chased with Ginger Ale swirl a little too much in my stomach.
Captain La Beet leads me to the back of the boat, and I stride in, grab the rope, and keep going over the plan with Joe on the surface, sticking my mask in the water trying to see the ship. 80 feet vis today!
Uh huh. I am not going.
My breathing pattern is out-of-whack and I envision the phone call to my parents escaping the tropical heat near the Great Lakes.
“We lost her. She panicked,” the police officer would tell my mom, “… lungs exploded.”
Or, the Barbados scenario.
“The current caught her. We tried to recover the body…” and those would be the only words my mother would hear before shock took over her system.
Weatherby returned my attention to the water. Remember this guy gave presentations before Congress, swaying the Washington lawmakers into gifting him an Old Naval ship.
“Josie, we are not going to sit on the surface!”
I do not enjoy being scolded for being a baby, I make Weatherby promise me we’d only go 60 feet.
I’m not overreacting. I could die! Robert Lockwood, the co-owner of Subtropic, offers this:
“Do not hold your breath. You have two lungs full of air when you’re scuba diving at 35 feet. You cannot return to the surface with two lungs full of air.
There are no pain sensors in the lungs. You do not feel lung rupture. Lung rupture comes from holding your breath. If you panic, hold your breath and swim to the surface, you’re going to rupture a lung.”
Fabulous. But, Lockwood, who’s been running dive trips out of Key West for 26 years, says anyone’s in capable hands with Joe.
“He’s obviously done more for diving than anyone in the Keys I remember discussing the project with him from the very beginning.”
So, I grasp the line and concentrate on my breathing.” Thanking the guys at Divers Direct for hooking me up with some Evo 3mm Kevlar Dive Gloves, and Joe for reminding me to put them on.
We make our way down to the top of the ship and I forget about my hang-ups, stop obsessing over my lungs and… am in awe.
Joe guides me around. We climb down ladders, crawl around rooms, and check out the historical plaques. The ship was stripped of 150 miles of electrical wire before being sunk. Now, it serves as a SCUBA playground. The Conch Republic flag waves in the current, and the satellite dishes are inviting as a set of monkey bars to an 8 year old. I feel reserved and keep myself from doing handstands and flips after the drama on the surface.
I forget about our compromise of 60 feet and when I see 89 on the gauge I want to go deeper, perhaps in search of the Goliath Grouper.
“They’re ecstatic! They literally come back in and sign up to go back all the time,” Subtropic’s Jesse Opie relays.
Sweet! Count me in now that the anxiety’s gone!“Everybody that dives the Vandenberg thinks it’s the best wreck dive because of the extent of the superstructure,” Lockwood solidifies Weatherby’s 13-year quest.
“I remember discussing it with him in the very beginning. I felt the community badly needed it. The Upper Keys were sinking wrecks. We needed them. Now that we have a wreck down here divers are diving both areas again.”
Subtropic Dive Center on N. Roosevelt Blvd. in Key West has been booking boats non-stop since the Vandenberg opened for diving. Open water divers are permitted to go to depths of 60 feet. Otherwise, they must take a guide.