Diving the Worlds Largest Artificial Reef

The Oriskany is a WW II era Essex class aircraft carrier that is now the largest artificial reef in the world! It was one of the few Essex class carriers completed after the war. It’s construction was actually suspended in 1946 but was eventually resumed and she was commissioned in 1950. She won 2 battle stars during the Korean War and 5 in Vietnam. She was featured in the films Men of the Fighting Lady and Bridges of Toko-Ri in 1954, that are both classic films. In 1966 one of the worst fires since WW II broke out on Oriskany when a magnesium flare was accidentally ignited. 44 men were killed. Review of this fire was part of my training in firefighting school when I was in the United States Navy.

Oriskany was decommissioned in 1976 (coincidentally the year I joined the Navy). The Oriskany was sold for scrap in 1995. After 2 years she was re-possessed in 1997 due to a lack of progress on the part of the contractor in scrapping her. In 1999 she was towed to the Maritime Administrations Beaumont Reserve Fleet (also where the Texas Clipper that I dived a few weeks ago was before being sunk as an artificial reef). In 2004 it was decided to sink her as an artificial reef off the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. The environmental preparation work was completed in Corpus Christi, Texas. She was sank 22 miles off the coast at Pensacola, Florida on 17 May 2006. An appropriate place as US Navy pilots are trained in Pensacola.

She came to rest upright in 210 feet of water. Initially the flight deck was at a 135 feet and the top of the island was at 70 feet. Following Hurricane Gustav in 2008 she shifted and ended up 10 feet deeper. The ship is 911 feet in overall length, 129 feet at the beam, and over 30,000 tons! The Oriskany has made top 10 lists for the best wreck dives in the world and remains the worlds largest artificial reef!

Around the same time that I was planning to dive the Texas Clipper, I was also looking at a trip to Florida. Since I had to drive through Pensacola it only made sense to make a stop and dive the Big O! I contacted H2O Below and received a response on July 26th that they had room on August 11th.

I’d initially planned to make a weekend diving Pensacola then continue south. Unfortunately the transmission on my brothers vehicle (that I’d planned on driving to Florida) malfunctioned (wouldn’t go above 2nd gear) and I found myself having to rent a car. I decided to cancel the other dives in Pensacola because of the unexpected expense.

I left around 12:30 PM on Thursday, August 10th and arrived in Pensacola a little after 9 PM. There were a few accidents along the way and it also rained off and on the whole trip. I went to South Wind Marina first so I would know where it was. It was after 11 by the time I found a hotel. I needed to be there by 7 AM and was asleep by midnight.

After the long drive I ended up sleeping through my alarm the next morning! I’d set my alarm for 6 AM so I’d have time to shower and have breakfast, but woke up to find it was already 6:40! I threw on my clothes, grabbed my bag and checked out! Fortunately it was only a little over 15 minutes to drive to the marina so I was there about 7:05. People were unloading gear and checking in still so it was all good! I filled out the usual paperwork and signed the normal release, then unloaded my gear. While I was parking my car my gear was loaded on the boat.

The Oriskany is considered an advanced dive. One of the questions on the form along with certification level, was “How many dives have you made in the last 12 months?” Even with the 6 month break because of my heart attack, my answer was still “122”. I found out later that possibly this affected the choice of dive buddy.

Before getting underway, Captain Doug Hammock gave a very thorough brief on the boat and what the procedures would be. Captain Doug is one of the few full-time dive charters operating out of Pensacola. The H2O Below is a 36 foot Newman custom dive boat. It runs an average of 20 knots which puts it at the Oriskany between 60 and 90 minutes depending on conditions. There are freshwater showers on board. An enclosed marine head with dry storage. A large equipment/camera table. Plenty of O2 in case of emergency with a first aid kit and AED (defibrillator) as the O is a long way out! There was fresh water for drinking provided and snacks provided.

The Divemaster was Nine Henriksson. She is from Sweden originally but has live in the US for 9 years. She originally came on a soccer scholarship. She has been diving since 2003 and has a Masters degree in Marine Biology. She’s working now as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of West Florida and conducting research on biogeographical trends in the Gulf of Mexico (everything except the soccer scholarship I found out from google ๐Ÿ˜‰ ).

After Nine called roll the boat got underway around 7:30. We had about a dozen people on board including a number of tech divers. I went and changed and then started getting my camera equipment set up. I then set up my tank for the first dive. Captain Doug had called me on Wednesday night to check on tank rentals. I had opted for 28% nitrox for the first dive and 32% for the second. Like the Texas Clipper, the Oriskany is a fairly square profile. The tanks were waiting for me on the boat.

We were onsite about 9 AM. Today we had the wreck all to ourselves! Nine went into the water and secured the mooring. Line’s were rigged. There was a trail line from the stern and a current line running to the mooring line that was also the descent line (standard practice in the Gulf). There was a very slight current. A tank was lowered in case of need and also a bucket with weights in it, in case someone mis-judged how much weight they needed and required a little extra at the end of their dive. Obviously a lot of forethought has been given to mitigate potential problems.

On the way out Nine asked if I had a buddy and when I responded no, she called one of the other divers over and asked if he would mind diving with me. He agreed and we introduced ourselves to each other. My buddy for the day would be Alton Hall. One of the first things he said was that he donated his primary. I smiled and said, “So do I”. I’ve talked a bit about my setup before in my blog. This was the first time in quite a while that I’d dived with someone who also dived with a long hose.

We made a bit of small talk as we gauged each others experience (a natural thing to do when diving with someone you are just meeting for the first time). He was obviously experienced. I started to guess later on the way back when we were swapping stories and talking about diving in general that not only was he experienced, but way beyond my level! He casually mentioned that he normally dived by himself so when he was asked if he would buddy with me, he figured I must be experienced else they would not have asked! Turned out he has a ton of tech diving and cave diving experience with over 3000 dives. Way beyond my level! We’ve all dived with beginners, but when you’re paying a fair chunk (boat dives that are more than 20 miles off-shore are always going to cost because of the fuel expense), one does not want to cut their dive short because their buddy has burned through all their air! Initially he was going to follow me around the wreck, but it ended up being the opposite as I had a camera and photographs tend to be more interesting with people in them ๐Ÿ™‚

Alton entered the water just before me. I stepped off the stern just after him and Captain Doug handed me my camera. I met Alton at the descent line as we had arranged previously and we descended to the wreck. Dive time started at 9:19 AM. I was immediately struck by the number of fish on the wreck including species like queen angelfish, butterflyfish, tobies, neon damselfish, pufferfish, trumpetfish, and even lionfish which are an invasive species not native to this side of the world. There were lot’s of barracuda in the water as well!

On the first dive we dropped down to a 130 feet, then worked our way around the island as we moved back up. The “island” for those who don’t know is an aircraft carrier’s command center. The structure sit’s on top of the flight deck. On the Oriskany the flight deck is at 145 feet, which is beyond recreational depths. The top of the forward bridge is at 118 feet, top of the aft gun platform at 109 feet, the forward gun platform at 107 feet, and the top deck level of the island is at 84 feet. This makes most of the island, which is bigger than some wrecks I’ve dived on, within recreational limits.

A line had been rigged and the American flag and POW/MIA flag were affixed. I took several photo’s while Alton obligingly was my model. I forgot to mention that I was shooting silhouettes, but I guess he’ll see that now! (Note: after originally publishing this I discovered that my Facebook friend Tim Duncan, is the one who put the flag there and maintains it. Thanks Tim!)

Dive time was 29 minutes on the first dive. Because of no-deco limits, not because of air. I was back on board with 80 bar (Because I dive so much in Asia I have a metric gauge… 1 bar=1 atmosphere so about 1200 psi). No decompression limits can only be stretched so far diving nitrox when also diving deep. You also have to walk the line between depth and oxygen toxicity. For the first dive I was diving 28% Nitrox. Water temperatures were a bit warmer in this part of the Gulf of Mexico at 81 degrees Fahrenheit. Visibility was probably around 50 feet.

Back at the surface, I handed my camera to Captain Doug, removed my fins and climbed the ladder to the dive platform. He’d already put my camera on the table where it would be safe. He walked with me to where I could sit and remove my gear.

During the surface interval we had watermelon and there were snacks available. It was very relaxed and a beautiful day off shore. The water was very flat. The sun was shining, but there were some clouds and a breeze so it really didn’t feel hot. Off in the distance, a few miles away, we saw a rain shower, but it didn’t look like it was going to be a threat. I’d been a bit concerned about the weather with all the rain I’d run into on the trip from Texas to Florida, but it was turning out to be a beautiful morning. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions!

During the surface interval, I mentioned to Alton that I wouldn’t mind doing a limited penetration so we planned that. The island has many openings where doors and windows used to be. All the doors, windows, and ladders (Navy-speak for stairs) had been removed which made penetrations of the island relatively safe. After an hour we starting gearing up for the second dive.

Our second dive started at 11:05 AM. Likely we saw many of the exact same fish on the second dive as we did on the first! This dive our maximum depth was 112 feet. I was diving 32% nitrox. We did one penetration through the back of the island. We crossed a room and into a passageway where Alton dropped down through an opening in the deck where a ladder used to be. I had a flashback to my time on the USS Nimitz and being in the island on that ship. My many years of sea duty means it’s not hard for me to imagine what this ship would have been like so many decades ago. Alton exited from the deck below while I exited from the deck above. Unfortunately, about half-way through the dive, I noticed condensation on the inside of my port. That ended up ruining a few shots. We then made our way around the outside of the bridge. Nine showed up with two slipper lobster and motioned for Alton to take them as he had a thigh pocket big enough to hold them until we were back on the boat. I swam away from the island to get some shots and before I knew it my computer was again blinking at me that I was getting close to deco and it was time to go up.

During the safety stop I killed time by photographing several barracuda including one that got my attention because of a large hook in it’s mouth. This dive ended up being 33 minutes. I had 75 bar (1100 psi) left in my tank. That’s usually the problem with deep dives. It’s not air consumption, but no-decompression limits which are the deciding factor for run time.

After everyone was back on the boat and accounted for, we headed back in. During the trip back more food came out. Really good “submarine” sandwiches which seemed somehow “appropriate” ๐Ÿ˜‰ There was plenty of food and good conversation on the way back.

As we approached shore it was starting to cloud up. I ducked into the forward compartment and changed. Packed up my gear in preparation to leave. Once we were tied up and I’d gotten my gear and camera equipment cases on the dock I settled up with Captain Doug. Cost of a two tank trip to Oriskany is $150 plus $15 a piece for the nitrox. Worth every penny! If you would like to dive the world’s largest artificial reef, then you can contact H2O Below via their website at http://ussoriskanydiver.com/

I loaded my gear in the car and started driving. I stopped and got a hotel on the way last night. Tonight I’m in Venice Beach, Florida which is famous for “fossil” diving. I’ll be writing more about that in my next blog post so stay tuned!

If you enjoy reading about my underwater adventures why not take a minute to subscribe so you never miss a post? Just click on the “Subscribe” button at the top of the page!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *