Vandenberg is a name that all wreck divers in the US know. Since I started diving just a couple of years ago, I have dreamed of diving on this ship and when we bought the RV, we knew Key West would be one of our first major stops. I spent countless hours researching the dive plan, depths, current conditions, and ship layout. She was formerly a troop transport and missile tracking ship. The Vandenberg is over 500ft long and in almost 150ft of water. The ship rises 100ft off the bottom and can experience strong currents dues to its location in the open ocean. I realized that I needed to increase my skill and comfort if I wanted to enjoy a dive like this. So I quickly got to work.
While in Indiana, I had a good group of mentors and some nice, deep quarries to play in. Every dive was a training dive for me. I tried to get feedback from fellow divers and I dove every month … even through 6 inches of snow and 43 degree water. The only way to get better at diving is to keep diving. In the video below, you can see one of these dives in my favorite Midwest quarry on New Years Day.
In addition to diving, I sought out additional training to help me better understand the challenges I could face. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to make the Vandenberg out to be some kind of a death-defying, extreme dive site. It really isn’t most of the time and many divers have dove there with much less training, but I am a bit of a safety nut underwater and I wanted to make sure I felt prepared and comfortable so that I could enjoy the dive.
It just so happened that my first dive on the Vandenberg would also be my 100th dive. This is a big milestone for most divers, and traditionally you are supposed to do it naked. I’m sure I could have gotten away with it in Key West where anything goes, but … maybe for my 1000th dive I will.
Because of the size of this wreck and the fact that I would only get 2 dives on it, I chose to hire a guide in order to get the best view of the wreck without wasting my air swimming in circles. I asked around on the scuba forums and found an excellent guide in Bill Grayson, an underwater photographer and dive guide in Key West. He was able to show me all the key spots and cool areas he knew at a pace that allowed me to take the photos I wanted. We were actually able to cover the whole ship in 2 dives, but it would take many more dives to really get to know her well.
After a short boat ride about 7 miles out from Key West, we arrived at the site of the Vandenberg. When we tied up to the mooring, we were greeted with the best possible conditions I could have imagined. The seas were flat and there was no current at all. Looking over from the side of the boat, you could make out the top features of the Vandenberg almost 60ft below us. All that preparation and worrying was unnecessary, but as they say, “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” This time I got the best! On top of the pristine dive conditions, we were the only boat of divers (just 4 of us) on the Vandenberg that day and we had the whole ship to ourselves.
The main features of this wreck are the huge radar dishes that once listened for nuclear missiles launched from the former Soviet Union. You can also see these dishes and the ship in action in the horrible 1999 movie “Virus.”
There is so much to explore on the ship and it has been expertly prepared for diving. Once properly trained, there are a lot of internal spaces to explore and get to know. You can also see life taking hold on the ship. We swam into rooms with barracuda hanging out. There were also large schools of jacks cruising around the ship and using her for shelter.
Here we approach the dish that is now sitting on deck after being “destroyed” in the movie Virus.
The Vandenberg is a great dive and I wish I did more than 2 dives on it. I will be sure to dive it again when I get back to Key West. Do yourself a favor and get down there!