Former Navy transport becomes artificial reef, on the second try

Key Largo, Fla.’s Chamber of Commerce now has the artificial reef for skin divers it has long desired, but it did take longer than expected. That’s because the first try at sinking the old ship chosen to serve as the “bones” of the new reef went awry.

The plan called for the 510-foot Spiegel Grove, a decommissioned U.S. Navy transport, to be scuttled in 130 feet of clear, blue water. The payoff was to be a top-shelf recreational diving site built by nature on the sunken hulk. But Spiegel Grove did not go gently or anything like according to plan.

After years of searching and negotiating, Key Largo secured ownership of Spiegel Grove. The 6,880-ton vessel was towed to its grave site six miles off Key Largo on May 17.

A large crew of volunteers, with the help of some retired Navy engineers, pumped water into the ship and they were planning to blast holes in the hull. But when the ship began sinking faster than planned, the 40 to 50 workers had to scramble off the hulk into three waiting boats.

Spiegel Grove went down stern-first to the groans of the workers, then rolled over, leaving about 50 feet of bow sticking out of the water. No one was hurt, but a small fortune in equipment and tools was lost.

The stern was resting firmly on the bottom, observers said, with the forward section bobbing on its four anchors. The crew of the tugboat Portsmouth, which had towed Spiegel Grove from Norfolk, Va., tried to right the sunken vessel by attaching lines to the anchor chains at the bow and pulling. It didn’t work.

The mishap caused considerable controversy in southern Florida. Suggestions for putting the situation right flooded area newspapers, and the wreck was temporarily illuminated to minimize the nighttime threat to navigation. The eight-year effort to place and sink Spiegel Grove had already cost more than $1 million, and it was feared any salvage operation would only increase the cost.

   Resolve Marine Group of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., helped to save the day. After a couple of efforts, including the strategic placement of inflatable air bags, failed to correct the situation, Joseph Farrell Jr., president of Resolve Marine, and two of his employees climbed onto the hull and drilled holes in the upturned bottom to let trapped air escape. At that point the lift bags did the hard part, rolling the awkwardly positioned hulk onto its side by the time it hit bottom.

   It had been hoped that Spiegel Grove would land fully upright to be of maximum interest and accessibility to divers. But they’ll gladly take it the way it came to rest, on its side.

   Marine life will colonize the structure over the years, providing divers with a rich variety of underwater territory to explore. The artificial reef is expected to draw some 50,000 recreational divers to the area, generating $14 million annually for the local economy.

According to columnist Steve Waters of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Farrell is hoping to work out a deal with the Chamber of Commerce for the costs of the operation: “I think we’d be happy to get $2 a diver for the next few years, and they won’t have to pay me.”

Key Largo finally has the beginnings of the largest artificial reef in the world. All they need now are the fish.

By Professional Mariner Staff