• Annette Robertson explores a portion of the artificial reef Spiegel Grove in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary off Key Largo. (Photo by Stephen Frink, Florida Keys News Bureau)

     

  • By: Julie Botteri
  • March 15, 2017

Avid divers have a rare opportunity in the Florida Keys this year — the chance to celebrate two major Key Largo shipwreck anniversaries with unforgettable dives.

In June 2017, the 510-foot U.S. Navy ship Spiegel Grove marks 15 years since its journey to the bottom — and two U.S. Coast Guard cutters mark 30 years in November. All three are undersea playgrounds for advanced- and wreck-certified divers.

Spiegel Grove sinking Key Largo

On May 17, 2002, the Spiegel Grove sank prematurely and rolled over in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Sergio Garcia, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Spiegel Grove, the third-largest ship ever intentionally sunk to become an artificial reef, lies about 6 miles off Key Largo. Designed to carry cargo and craft for amphibious landings, the venerable vessel was retired by the Navy in 1989 and spent 12 years tethered in the naval “Mothball Fleet” on Virginia’s James River.

After an intensive cleaning process and a tow to its scuttle site, the Spiegel prematurely sank and rolled over on May 17, 2002 — leaving its upside-down bow protruding above the surface.

Three weeks later, a salvage team fully sank it and it came to rest on its starboard side in 130 feet of water.

The ship’s premature sinking and skewed position attracted worldwide attention to the project — so much, in fact, that Key Largo’s Fish House Restaurant created a Spiegel Grove cocktail that’s still served today. The drink comes in an oversized martini glass and its recipe calls for three types of rum, plus a blue liqueur to provide its signature color.

Diver explores Spiegel Grove Key Largo

Annette Robertson checks out the Spiegel Grove on the 10th anniversary of its scuttling. (Photo by Stephen Frink, Florida Keys News Bureau)

In July 2005, Hurricane Dennis brushed the Florida Keys. Much to the surprise of the dive community (and virtually everybody else), storm surge pushed the Spiegel into the upright position that was originally planned for it. A story like that just can’t be made up, and it makes the shipwreck even more intriguing to divers.

Mooring buoys provide convenient boat tie-offs, and the top deck is about 60 feet below the surface. The massive ship is so wide that, on clear days, the view of the superstructure fades into a green-blue abyss and the sandy bottom is visible at 100-plus feet.

Two other Keys shipwrecks were scuttled fairly close to each other on Nov. 27 and Nov. 28,1987. The twin Treasury Class 327-foot U.S. Coast Guard cutters are called the Duane and Bibb but nicknamed “the 327s” — and they rest in nearly 130 feet of water about a mile south of Molasses Reef off Key Largo.

Built in 1936, the Duane was named for Secretary of the Treasury William Duane, who served under Andrew Jackson in 1833. The ship’s lengthy career included escort and patrol duty in the Pacific and North Atlantic, support missions off the coast of Vietnam, operations during Cuba’s Mariel Boat Lift in 1980, and numerous drug busts in warm Caribbean and coastal waters during the 1980s.

Divers on Duane shipwreck Key Largo

Divers can discover the Duane and its “twin” Bibb off Key Largo, resting in about 130 feet of water. (Photo by Stephen Frink, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Bibb was named after former U.S. Senator George Motier Bibb, who was Secretary of the Treasury from 1844-45 under John Tyler. The vessel performed numerous patrol duties during WW II in such ports as Pearl Harbor, Guam and Singapore, as well as peacetime jobs of search and rescue and logistical support for the U.S. Navy.

Considered the service’s flagships, these cutters gained some notoriety for their battles with German U-boats on the North Atlantic and in the Mediterranean.

Since becoming two of the Keys’ most inviting artificial reefs, the Duane and Bibb wrecks have attracted large pelagic species and sizeable sea turtles. There’s no shortage of big barracuda or the occasional manta ray or whale shark — especially during springtime migrations. Corals, gorgonians and basket sponges cloak the twins’ decks.

Unique as these “anniversary” shipwrecks are, they’re only three in a long line of notable wrecksites that stretches from Key Largo to Key West. For more information about diving the shipwrecks of the Florida Keys, click here.