Skip navigation

The Spiegel Grove Wreck


The 510-foot Spiegel Grove, a retired U.S. Navy Landing Ship Dock (LSD), slipped beneath the waves June 10, 2002, and settled on its side, becoming the largest ship ever sunk intentionally to cultivate an artificial reef.

Divers and snorkelers flocked to the ship when it was opened to the public for the first time on June 24, 2002. "The Spiegel Grove is probably the best known artificial reef in the world," said Joy Martin, chairperson of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce. "Ironically, that distinction came before the first sport diver ever descended."

The Spiegel Grove sank prematurely May 17, hours before it was scheduled to come to rest on the sandy ocean bottom about six miles off Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The ship was capsized and partially floating with its bow out of the water.

While the world watched, experts from Resolve Marine of Ft. Lauderdale successfully rolled the Spiegel Grove onto its starboard (right) side and finished sinking it June 10.

The Spiegel Grove once boasted the motto "Top Dog" with a logo featuring Charles Schultz's Snoopy. The ship was commissioned in June 1956 and was named for the Fremont, Ohio, estate of 19th U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes.

"We feel the Spiegel Grove will provide an alternative dive site to lessen the pressure on the natural coral reefs," said Billy Causey, the superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. "We're (sanctuary officials) here to help valet park it on the ocean floor as well as monitor its contributions to the marine environment including its ability to attract divers away from living coral reefs."

Over time, the Spiegel Grove will become enveloped by an encrusting coralline algae conducive to the development of sponges, stony and soft corals and other attached invertebrates. Fish and other marine life are already making the Spiegel Grove their new home.

"It's an attraction that is a benefit for the aquatic environment and for commerce that will only get better with time," said Rob Bleser, project manager for the Spiegel Grove sinking, representing the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce Artificial Reef Committee, which coordinated the endeavor.

On the U.S. Naval Vessel Register, the Spiegel Grove is LSD-32 - a steam turbine-powered Landing Ship Dock commissioned to transport landing craft and combat troops to shore during the Cold War. The vessel conducted amphibious exercises in the Mediterranean Sea and, in the early 1960s, embarked on a goodwill cruise to deliver medical supplies to Dr. Albert Schweitzer's leprosy clinic in Lambarene, Africa. The Spiegel Grove assisted in cargo shipments, Caribbean military testing and manned space flights, including the 1971 Apollo 14 moon mission. When, in the 1980s, the vessel carried horses to a riding academy at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay, crew members actually rode on deck to exercise the animals.

The Chamber's Artificial Reef Committee set its sights on the Spiegel Grove in 1994. Decommissioned by the Navy five years earlier, the 84-foot-tall, 6,880-ton vessel sat amid other vessels at the James River Reserve Fleet in Fort Eustis, Va. The assembly of about 100 mostly rusting and aging ships is commonly referred to as a "ghost" or "mothball" fleet.

Although Key Largo dive representatives persuaded the U.S. Maritime Administration to transfer title to the vessel at no cost, cleaning, dockage and tow fees for the sinking are expected to surpass $1 million. "I think it's (using retired military ships for artificial reefs) a hell of a deal for all parties concerned," said Michael Bagley, superintendent for the Reserve Fleet. "It takes the liability off of our hands and saves the taxpayers money."

Bagley says each decommissioned vessel costs about $20,000 a year to maintain and taxpayers pay $1.6 million to send a derelict ship to the scrap yard.

"Why should we pay to cut them up and put them in a steel mill," he said. "When they are cleaned, in an environmentally sensitive manner, and sunk as an artificial reef they provide new homes for fish, a great monetary benefit for the community and a way to preserve the vessel's military heritage."

Backing for the Spiegel Grove endeavor has been derived from the Monroe County Tourist Development Council and such private fund-raising efforts as sales of commemorative Spiegel Grove medallions led by Florida dive equipment retailer Divers Direct." Project supporters anticipate that dive tourism dollars flowing into the region after the sinking will more than compensate for the cost.

"We expect all area businesses to benefit in some way," said Key Largo Chamber Chair Joy Martin. "The ship will be a new attraction for us and it is so large that divers can explore it a hundred times without seeing everything."

The ship lies near Dixie Shoals within the Marine Sanctuary. Some 10 mooring buoys will be fastened to the vessel to provide dive boats with tie-off points, and the ship will serve as the base for a gradually enveloping coral ecosystem.

Global Positioning System coordinates for the Spiegel Grove are 25° 04.00 N; 80° 18.65' W. Novice divers can explore the ship's intricate upper decks, while experienced divers can delve into much of the ship's cavernous hull. On clear days, snorkelers can enjoy the view from the water's surface.

Microsoft Word Download this story as a Microsoft Word file.

More information on the Spiegel Grove and links to Key Largo visitor information are available on this website. Visitors are encouraged to contact the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, toll-free in the U.S. and Canada, at 1-800-FLA-KEYS, Ext. 1. Elsewhere, dial 305-451-1414.

Contact: Andy Newman

Spiegel Grove Home
View Nautical Chart
Spiegel Grove Photo Gallery
News and History