FLORIDA KEYS — A new exhibit commemorating 15 years since the Spiegel Grove shipwreck was intentionally sunk off Key Largo, becoming an undersea playground for advanced- and wreck-certified divers, is on display at Islamorada's History of Diving Museum through Sept. 4, 2017.
Through Labor Day weekend, artifacts can be viewed that highlight the military personnel who served on the 510-foot U.S. Navy ship, missions it participated in, preparations that were made for its sinking and the positive environmental impact this artificial reef has had on the Florida Keys ecosystem.
Individual and keepsake commemorative medallion sets of the Spiegel Grove anniversary are available in the museum's store.
Spiegel Grove's ocean-bound story began with the Key Largo community rallying together to create the backbone of a new offshore reef ecosystem.
From 1956 to its decommissioning in 1989, the Spiegel Grove helped enforce America's Cold War strategy of containment, which called for rushing troops and equipment to support friendly governments. Designed to carry cargo and craft for amphibious landings, the ship later spent 12 years tethered in the Navy's "Mothball Fleet" in Virginia's James River. In June 2001, it was towed to undergo an elaborate cleaning process and 11 months later was relocated about 6 miles off Key Largo. On May 17, 2002, Spiegel Grove unexpectedly sank prematurely and rolled over about six hours before its intended scuttling, leaving its upside-down bow protruding above the surface of the water. Because of an exceptional safety plan, there were no injuries.
Three weeks later, June 10, 2002, a Resolve Marine Group salvage team finished scuttling the ship.
The premature sinking and incorrect orientation of the vessel attracted worldwide attention to the project — so much, in fact, that Key Largo's Fish House Restaurant created a Spiegel Grove cocktail that is still served today. The concoction's recipe calls for three types of rum and a blue liqueur to provide the drink, served in an oversized martini glass, its signature color.
The ship remained on its side at the bottom until waves from Hurricane Dennis helped to finish the job correctly. Diver Bob Snyder was the first person to view the wreck of the Spiegel Grove after Hurricane Dennis skirted the Keys in July 2005.
When he got close enough to see the ship, he couldn't believe his eyes. The storm had turned the massive vessel upright from its starboard-side position in 130 feet of water.
"I had to ask myself, 'Am I narcked?'" Snyder would later tell a local newspaper reporter, referring to a nitrogen imbalance in the bloodstream that can sometimes make divers giddy.
Divers have learned to love the enormous Spiegel Grove with its clifflike hull sprawled across the sandy bottom. The top deck is about 60 feet below the surface of the ocean.
Now enveloped in natural corals, attracting large groupers, schools of shimmering smaller fish and colorful tropical fish, Spiegel Grove has become an entire reef ecosystem. The vessel is so wide that, on many days, the view of the superstructure will fade into a green-blue abyss. On the clearest days, the sandy bottom is visible from the surface. Mooring buoys provide convenient, coral-friendly boating tie-offs.
A descent on the Spiegel Grove, however, is not for the beginner sport diver. Specific guidelines are communicated to dive shop customers who dive Spiegel Grove or any artificial reef in the Keys. For a normal dive on a wreck without penetration, divers need to have attained an advanced open-water certification or higher. If divers just have open-water certification, they should have their logbooks available to be reviewed for dive history and air management skills.
At the time of its sinking, the Spiegel Grove was the largest ship ever intentionally sunk to create a new reef for divers. It remains the third-largest ship ever scuttled for that purpose.
Florida Keys diving information: fla-keys.com/diving
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS
On May 17, 2002, Spiegel Grove unexpectedly sank prematurely and rolled over about six hours before its intended scuttling, leaving its upside-down bow protruding above the surface of the water.
June 10, 2002, a Resolve Marine Group salvage team finished scuttling the ship, the premature sinking and incorrect orientation of the vessel attracting worldwide attention to the project.
Divers affixed plaques to the ship's hull in 2002 to commemorate individuals and organizations who contributed to the artificial reef project.
A diver explores the plaques years later on a dive along the Florida Keys Wreck Trek, a series of nine iconic wreck dives from Key Largo to Key West, of which the Spiegel Grove is a highlight.
Now enveloped in natural corals, attracting large groupers, schools of shimmering smaller fish and colorful tropical fish, Spiegel Grove has become an entire reef ecosystem.