Riding rolling, four-foot waves, I deflate my BCD and sink below the surface. Giving me the ‘ok’ sign, my patient dive buddy immediately greets me and subsequently plunges to 100 feet.
I don’t blame him; he’s been waiting far too long.
I, on the other hand, descend slower into the swirling ocean, reveling in the expansive hulk of steel and metal sprawling below my fins. 510 feet is unnerving, especially when underwater—especially when the crystal-clear visibility lets you see most of the enormous wreck as you go down.
As I sink 10, 20, 30, feet, I start to think: how do I describe the U.S.S. Spiegel Grove?
For starters, the word ‘massive’ comes to mind.
The world’s second biggest artificial reef*, the Spiegel is truly an enormous underwater wonder. With five decks, countless entry points, and marine life kicked into hyper-drive, even the locals find new wonderment with every dive.
Worthy of its own explanation, how the Spiegel came to the Keys was a massive undertaking. Intentionally sunk in 2002, the ship was purchased from the Navy and towed 6 miles southeast of Key Largo. Original plans called for the ship to be dynamited right-side-up and come to rest on the bottom. However, due to the unpredictable hand of nature, she originally sank cock-eyed on her starboard side.
But the force of Mother Nature had more plans for the ship. In July of 2005, Hurricane Dennis grazed the Florida Keys in the middle of the night. The next morning, local divers made a startling discovery. The 100 mph winds had up-righted the Spiegel to the intended position.
Afterwards, questions flooded in. How did the enormous ship rotate, and why? Could divers now better access its opulent superstructure and maze of hallways? Was this one-time troop transport ship and floating hovercraft base now perhaps the best dive in the world?
My greatest adventure yet, I decided to see for myself just why the wreck of the massive Spiegel Grove tops the list of Florida Keys dive sites.
Descending 140 feet to the sand next to the ship’s enormous hulk, I might as well have been on the bottom of the universe. As two fuzzy mountains of steel rose up from the seafloor and morphed into its axe-blade bow, I gazed at the Spiegel’s encrusted hull with awe. Nitrogen narcosis swirling in my brain, I realized what many divers call the “red carpet treatment,” or as Jacques Cousteau famously described it, “rapture of the deep.”
Gazing at the sponge and coral covered mass, I signaled my dive partner, and began a slow ascent back to the deck. After leveling off at 100 feet, I stealthily tracked a tank-sized goliath grouper, watching the giant fish steadily patrolled the wreck’s steely rim.
Joining a troop of divers gliding through the superstructure, I began to explore the ship’s immense forward magazine. Like a Mayan pyramid, each of the Spiegel’s five decks extends backwards in step-like steel terraces offering plenty of ground to cover. Swim-throughs are plentiful here, and I popped in and out of several, light-filled openings with ease. Wreck penetration is tempting here too. However, only those who have specialized training and equipment should attempt.
Snakelike, and saving energy, I continued my dive, moving like a silent underwater witness, reliving the days when the ship was alive with motion and home to hundreds of sailors. In the distance, stark, steel battle stations stood almost rusting before my eyes, guns forever silenced. Attached to a small cable above me, a tattered American flag waved in the current.
My multi-level dive near its completion, I signaled my buddy once again and began a careful journey to the surface. Pausing on the ascent line, I realized I’d seen less than half the enormous ship. The Spiegel’s countless iron tunnels, immense twin screws, and famous hovercraft loading ramp still awaited my return. I’d need at least a hundred dives to explore this old ghost.
My trip to the Spiegel Grove with the world famous Florida Keys Dive Center offered a level of adventure that’s rarely matched in the world of diving. Riding out to the dive site I received an expert briefing from the dive center’s staff. With several scuba instructors in the water, safe diving practices weren’t just emphasized here, they were required. Offering maps of the wreck, advice for less experienced divers, and several scuba instructors in the water, the level of service was supreme. Just like the Spiegel Grove, they’re quite a big deal in the Florida Keys.
All in all, I’d rate this adventure 10 out of 10 bubbles blown from below.
*The Oriskany Aircraft Carrier off the coast of Pensacola, Florida is the world’s largest artificial reef.
Weekly Staff writer Matt Standal makes his journey to the sand in 140 feet near the Spiegel Grove. The biggest wreck in the Florida Keys, a trip to the Spiegel is one of the most highly sought after experiences in diving.
The expert staff at Florida Keys dive center live and breathe Spiegel. Pictured here is PADI Staff Instructor Scott Sanders and Divemaster Toni Hyde.
The red carpet treatment. Feel like a celebrity underwater? It’s probably just the narcosis. Pictured here is the Spiegel’s encrusted hull at 135 feet.