I didn’t even know the ship was lying out there. I thought I was being taken to another easy 48’ reef dive in the Middle Keys. Until, Rick Ramsay, the Weekly Newspapers’ favorite dive guide, says we’re taking on the Thunderbolt and starts rattling off logistics where 130’ enters the conversation.
Ramsay, often referred to as the “king of spear fishing,” also spent a decade as a member of the Monroe County Dive Team, so no matter how deep we go, each minute is planned so there will be no sore joints after the dive.
He always has a plan.
“We’re going to tie up to this buoy; it’s in 15 feet of water. We’re going to go down in a minute and a half. It’s 120’ to the sand. We’re going to hit 100’ and look at your table. That gives us 22 minutes of bottom time. Then, we’re going to come back up…do a safety stop.”
I look at the chart, look at the diagram of the ship, and inquire exactly how many times he’s dove this.
“Oh, about 25. I know it’s not the Vandenberg,” he’s almost apologetic.
We head four miles south of Marathon where the Thunderbolt was intentionally sunk in 1986. Initially, named the Randolph, under contract with the U.S. Army during World War II, she was built with 15 sister ships to plant and tend to coastal defensive minefields. The function was transferred to the Navy and she was never commissioned.
In 1961 Florida Light and Power bought her for lightning strike research, hence the new name, Thunderbolt! A couple decades later, Florida Power and Light donated her to the Florida Keys Artificial Reef Association.
I spent ten minutes searching for another buoy before we tied up to another boat of men spear fishing. Into the water I go with my Tusa M-16 Serene Scuba Mask and Tusa SP 170 Hyperdry Scuba Snorkel and Cressi Pluma Pull Foot Fins.
“Where’s your watch?” Ramsay wants to know.
“I forgot it.”
More interrogation, “Where are your gloves?”
“I lost one. I think I dropped it in the parking lot.”
I’m given a look, which tells me I’d better be better prepared next time.
“We’re going to swim to the front of the boat,” he instructs, and I’m glad he made me bring a snorkel. I’m not wasting air playing around on the surface with my “Ferrari” of regulators, the Aqualung Pink Mikron.
We follow the line down and soon are greeted by a pretty sweet superstructure. The ship’s hull is 189’ long with a forecastle, which served as the cable handling area, and has a cruiser stern. Prior to being sunk the ship was stripped of all but a few major pieces of equipment. The aft-end of the superstructure has been cut away, exposing the interior of the hull at the engineering space. The rudder and propellers, which lie at 120 feet, also remain to complement the stern section of the hull.
I start to follow Ramsay down to the observation deck and immediately I see a Goliath Grouper off the port side! The Colonel motions for me to swim over the observation deck for a better view. This time of year the H20 is warmer than bathwater and the visibility a breathtaking 50’ – 80’.
“The water is 85°,” confirms Sally Billiter, owner of Tilden’s Scuba Center. “We were out at Sombrero Reef and if it was an aquarium, you’d have to thin the wildlife out. We saw Goliath Groupers, two Nassau Groupers, schools of Sergeant Majors, the Bermuda Chubs were swimming around them, and of course, the Parrotfish. The waters are really, really beautiful.”
The Florida Keys, home of the second largest living coral reef in the world, continues to benefit from currents and 400 miles of open ocean that have kept the environmental disaster on the Gulf Coast from affecting our eco-system.
Billiter affirms, “We don’t have any oil. If we do have anything, it will be in the form of tar balls. Unfortunately, people in Oregon don’t know the difference between Pensacola and the Florida Keys. All they hear is Florida, and we are experiencing cancellations.”
Instead, this is an ideal time to dive the Florida Keys; whether you’re hitting the wreck trail, or the reefs. After chasing around a couple of Grey Angel Fish and playing inside the engineering space, we headed to snorkel the reef and I saw my first sea turtle and a Moray Eel!
“Yikes, why is the eel showing his fangs,” I yell with excitement on the surface, before going down for a second look.
“He’s happy to see you!”
I’ve noticed, and the fact is documented, the Grey Angelfish are always found in reefs, and in pairs! How romantic!
The Goliath Grouper! Their inquisitive, fearless natures make these beautiful creatures an easy target for spear fishermen. The goliath grouper is entirely protected from harvest and is recognized as a critically endangered species by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The U.S. began protection in 1990 and the Caribbean in 1993. The species’ population has been recovering since the ban, however with the fish’s slow growth rate it will take some time for populations to return to their previous levels.
“We hit a 110’, not 100’,” Ramsay tells me. “Dropping our bottom time down from 22 minutes to just 15.” Photo: Rick Ramsay The Tusa M-16 Serene Mask is my favorite because of the comfort, one-window design, and the lucid colors photograph gently against the water. I’m also sold on the Aqualung Pink Mikron regulator. Its so tiny and efficient, a girl’s best buddy in the water, and now they make’em for young men in green!
This is why divers need gloves. The ships superstructure has sharp edges and most of it is covered in star, brain, and fire corals, plus, sea whips, sponges, hydroids, and flaming scallops.
All about personal preference for the fins. These Cressi’s I adore because you just stick you’re feet in without the booties! Perfect for light snorkeling before or after your dive, too.
I’m missing the mitt for my right hand, and it hasn’t come up. I do prefer the EVO 3mm Kevlar Dive Gloves. I used them in 2009 to dive the Vandenberg and was glad to have them on to protect my hands form the sharp edges, coral, and rope line.
The most prominent remaining features are a horizontal cable-handling reel, which lies at 80 feet and is centered on the after-end of the forecastle deck, and the remains of the ship’s superstructure including the observation deck located at 75 feet. Photo: Rick Ramsay