Dive a World-Class Wreck
Photos by Josie Koler
I answered the phone call at the Miss Pridefest competition at LaTe Da. Joe Weatherby. Vandenberg Mastermind.
The man responsible for one of the world’s largest artificial reefs.
Lady Gaga blared from the DJ’s sound booth, and in a raspy voice he instructed meet him for dinner at the Rum Barrel to plan.
“We’re doing the Vandenberg. Come find me so I can give you the details.”
The greatest Keys’ adventures always begin in some kind of bar.
Visions of steel radar dishes began to dance in my head and I mentally prepared to take on 523 foot long General Hoyt S. Vandenberg.
“Today there isn’t any current. Visibility is about 80 feet. It is a little stirred up down there because every boat in town has been hitting it,” Weatherby says the next morning from the deck of the Subtropic’s Starfish Enterprise II.
Other divers include two guys from up-state New York and tourists from Orlando, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Fort Myers. They are seasoned divers and recognize legendary treasure hunter Don Kincaid.
Kincaid is the man who found the first gold from the Atocha wreck and a renowned underwater photographer.
On the way out to the Vandy wreck, and divemaster Captain James Mims explains the seriousness of the dive.
“This is not a reef,” he says. “This is a world-class wreck, and if you only have your open water certification you’d better hire a guide for your own safety. When people show up at the shop, acting nonchalant, or on the other hand, arrogant; we get in their face and tell them, ‘better make sure you brought you’re A game.”
I acclimate myself to the salty water and avant-garde gear. AQUALUNG’s MicroMask, Express Fins, and Mikron Pink Vanilla Regulator.
“You have the Ferrari of regulators,” Mims points out to me. The depth will change how everything works. You have to have top-of-the-line gear. You get a lot of crush at 90 feet.”
One gentleman, a beginner who is uncomfortable in his BCD, regulator, mask, and snorkel, climbs back on the boat.
I grab the line and start following the rope to the deck of the Vandy. I feel Mims pulling at me, sticking more weight in my BCD.
I reach the buoy at about 15 feet and give Mims the sign to wait. I need to come to grips with the pressure and danger. I feel wildly confident and appropriately outfitted. I had to have the mask and fins since the moment I saw them, and noticed the MicroMask, in sleek black with vivid pink detailing, weighed about three times less than last year’s top-of-the-line gear.
According to the makers at AQUALUNG, “the lenses fit in the ocular orbit. Never before have the lenses been so close to the eyes.”
“Let the current take you,” Weatherby had instructed. “You don’t need to kick on your way down the line. Save your energy.”
We hit the first platform at about 60 feet. I’m giddy. The view of the 500’ battleship resting on the ocean floor is mesmerizing. Most people only see this in magazines. Plus, there’s some action to take in on this particular Sunday afternoon.
The Wreck Racing League was hosting the Vandenberg Underwater Grand Prix with Diver Propulsion Vehicles.
“This is basically NASCAR meets pro wrestling. A ‘boys with toys’ situation,” Weatherby explains. “Unlike other artificial reefs this one was designed to accommodate that kind of equipment available. The proof is in the pudding people are climbing over each other to get to this thing.”
The racers zoom through the water with Kindcaid capturing the race through his camera lens. Mims and I set out to explore. We hit 100 feet and played with four parrotfish, swung from the radar dishes, and admired the clarity in the Caribbean.
The positioning of the wreck has been described as an environmental sweet spot. The ship colonized quickly since Weatherby and his crew sunk her seven miles off the coast of Key West in May 2009.
All of the usual suspects of reef fish are calling the Vandy home; including, Spanish Makeral, Yellowtail Snapper, Butterfly Fish, Grey Angels, Wahoo, Blackfin Tuna, Sailfish, Barracuda, and Bull Sharks.
“The amount of life is unbelievable,” exclaims Joe, still in awe himself over the ship’s structure. “You’ll first hit her at about 45 feet, and dive 145 feet to reach the bottom. “We have clear water, lots of fish, cool wreck diving, and live coral. The makings of a world-class vacation!”
See the Vandy or your next wrek through the lenses of AQUALUNG’s MicroMask. Shown in the Clear “Pink Lady” The result is an amazingly wide peripheral view. Also a hit with free divers! The extra low-volume makes it very easy to clear.
• Patented “cardanic” double joint buckles that rotate both up-and-down and in-and-out. • This provides maximum adaptability and comfort to any head shape
• The quick counterposed push button activation make the buckle easy to use even while wearing gloves
Captain James Mims, a man who has been diving since he was 12-years old on our descent. If you are anything less than advanced, hire a guide who has the same expertise to take you on this adventure. Isn’t your life worth the price?
Legend Don Kincaid captures the Vandenberg Underwater Grand Prix, and we capture him!
Parrotfish call the Vandy home. We trailed after a family of four at 100-feet.
AQUALUNG Pink Vanilla Mikron Regulator
Described by dive masters as “The Ferrari” of regulators, you definitely want to have an AQUALUNG acting as your gills when you’re going to advanced depths. The adjustment knows optimizes breathing efforts.
AQUALUNG Express Fins
For serious wreck diving, you want serious gear. The Express Fins kept me comfortable on the surface, swimming the hull, and using the radar dish as a jungle gym. If you flip for full-foot fins, then this is the model you need to have in your bag. The low profile eliminates drag and turbulence.
Joe Weatherby at a 25-foot safety stop.
“Common wisdom is you do safety stops when you do anything over 60 feet.”
The Vandenberg Underwater Grand Prix. “It looked like the beginning of Star Wars with everyone zooming around the ship,” observed Weatherby.
The Angel Fish are used to visitors and you can swim close enough to photograph them without having to use the zoom on your camera lens.