There is a tendency, among certain divers, to unknowingly disregard that small space between their regulators and masks—a.k.a. the spot right under their noses. Fingers flipping the pages of those oh-so-important dive magazines, they look to Fiji, the Bahamas, the Red Sea, and bite their fingernails in a quest for adventure. Like visions of sugarplums, armies of whale sharks, acres of eels, and kaleidoscopic coral canyons make their eyeballs spin.
Then, after several moths fly out of their wallets and their 93’ Ford Taurus breaks down, these enlightened souls set their sights on the convenient drive-to-dive locales of the Florida Keys—like the wreck of Thunderbolt in Marathon.
A great dive in its own right, the Thunderbolt, affectionately called the “T-Bolt” by locals, is easily accessed by a number of local dive shops, home to a plethora of marine life, and with its spooky superstructure, is enjoyed by a wide variety of advanced divers.
Spooky superstructure? Well, not exactly. Originally commissioned as an Army minefield tender, the 200 foot long Thunderbolt, then named Randolph, was outfitted with a huge cable wheel on its bow. Completely overgrown with soft corals and wisps of algae, the feature now resembles a gigantic old ship’s wheel with colorful wrasse darting in between the spokes. Not exactly spooky—but plenty ethereal, and to the uninitiated diver, it’s like an underwater magnet. Drawing your attention from the moment it’s sighted, the T-Bolt’s signature wheel beckons a serious exploration and perhaps a few photos too.
However, plenty more features of this heavily encrusted wreck make the Thunderbolt a truly great Florida Keys dive. Dip inside the safely cut-away rear engine room and you’ll see the hulk’s cantankerous old motor. Explore the bridge and find a waiting Goliath Grouper. Pause a moment on the mooring line and spot a hefty bull shark, safely circling in the distance.
Add the fact that the Thunderbolt—drumroll—was purchased by Florida Light and Power in to study the effects of lightning, and the end result is a unique wreck dive with a great story behind it. Made into a sucker for lightning strikes, researchers actually used 2 jet engines to blast ionized gas into the upper atmosphere and rain down man-made bolts on the vessel from above. Eventually purchased an sunk by members of the Middle Keys diving community, the frazzled ship was scuttled in 120 feet of water on March 3, 1986.
Journeying to Marathon, I recently dove the Thunderbolt with Tilden’s Dive Center. Having explored the wreck only once, 3 years ago, I knew that my lengthy absence warranted a glorious return. Because they’re a full-service dive shop with expert staff, I chose Tilden’s to facilitate my underwater adventure. After diving a few shallow reefs and getting the feel for their crew, I signed up to dive the T-Bolt and wasn’t disappointed.
Catering to a mixed bag of locals and tourists, my trip was expertly organized at the shop, set in motion at the dock, and executed on the water according to plan. When my regulator’s high pressure hose unfortunately failed, the captain replaced it on the spot. When giving the pre-dive briefing, the divemaster demanded attention, and didn’t just ask for it. When the dive staff made jokes, people actually laughed. Most importantly, however, when turning loose a boat full of strangers to explore the T-Bolt, an advanced dive located in 120 feet of water, Tilden’s sent a qualified instructor to lead us.
I give them a solid 9 out of 10 bubbles blown from below.
Upper Keys divers quickly tire of the Spiegel Grove, the Duane, the Bibb, and even the elusive Eagle. Like a strange, underwater magnet, Marathon’s Thunderbolt, a vessel once commissioned to study lightning strikes, pulls them to the Middle Keys. If you love to dive, make it a point to visit Marathon, SCUBA the “T-Bolt,” and take a picture in front of her gloomy cable wheel.