Tag Archives: artificial reef

Key Largo, Florida-Home of America’s First Underwater Park

After leaving Venice on Monday, August 14th I was still debating where I would go next. I stopped and got something to eat at Burger King (no breakfast or lunch) and thought about it. After checking Google Maps, I decided that Key Largo was doable and got back on the road. A little after 9 PM I was there!

Why do divers travel from all over the world to visit Key Largo? Key Largo caters to divers in a big way and this has been going on for decades! John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was established back in 1963, making it the worlds first underwater park! It covers approximately 70 nautical square miles. With the addition of the adjacent Florida Key’s National Marine Sanctuary, established in 1990, this protected area now covers approximately 178 nautical square miles! It is approximately 25 miles in length and extends 3 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. Within it’s boundaries are mangrove swamps, seagrass beds, and of course coral reefs. I did my first trip to Key Largo back in 1983 and am always happy to visit!

On the way there I did a search on Agoda and found that about the cheapest room I was going to find was $99 bucks a night. I stopped at one place that didn’t come up on Agoda, but they wanted $105 a night plus tax for an RV! I asked about Wi-Fi and was told that there were hotspots around the property but not inside the accommodations. That actually made a bit of sense, since they’re accommodations seemed to be cabins and RV’s, but still I felt a bit steep for what I was getting. I opted to keep looking.

The next place I tried was one of the ones that had come up on Agoda. Key Largo Inn was $99 bucks a night and breakfast was included. There was a pool (that I ended up not using) and nice rooms with wi-fi. While talking with the owner I mentioned I was there for diving and he told me they had a dive shop across the street. I made the decision to stay and checked in. With tax the room came too $111.38 a night (a little steeper than I normally pay in the Philippines to be sure!). I unloaded my gear and then after a quick shower, I worked on finishing up my previous blog post on diving in Venice.

The next morning (Tuesday, August 15th) I was up about 8 AM. I wandered over to the bar/restaurant where they had plenty of fresh pastries, fruit, yogurt, and coffee. I got myself a muffin and a cup of coffee. After I finished eating I walked across the street with my coffee to Scuba-Fun Dive Center. There I met Dan who initially told me that it was to late to dive that morning. After about 5 minutes of conversation and discovering that I had my own equipment and was experienced he asked me to give him a minute and let him make a phone call. He ended up being able to get me on the boat with Horizon Divers for a 2 tank trip out to dive the Spiegel Grove! Since that was the dive I most wanted to make I was very happy!

I ran back across the street, poked my head into the office to let them know I’d be staying an extra day, and then went to my room and grabbed my gear. Everyone was already on the boat when I rolled into the parking lot at the marina about 20 minutes later. I’d made it with about 5 minutes to spare!

The boat was the Pisces with Bruce as the Captain. There was a quick brief and the boat got underway for the Spiegel Grove. I started setting up my gear as the boat pulled away from the dock.

The USS Spiegel Grove (LSD-32) was a Thomaston-class dock landing ship constructed by the Ingalls Shipbuilding Corporation in Pascagoula, Mississippi. She was laid down on 7 September 1954, launched on 10 November 1955, and commissioned on 8 June 1956. She spent the greatest part of her active service participating in amphibious exercises as part of the US 2nd and 6th Fleets. She made two goodwill tours to Africa carrying tons of supplies. In May 1962 she was one of the ships supporting Scott Carpenter’s Mercury-Atlas 7 space flight. The Spiegel Grove’s nickname was “Top Dog” and as I’ve seen in many Navy ships this was incorporated into a ships logo that can still be seen emblazoned into the ships deck in one of the passageways. In 1974 she participated in the evacuation of American citizens from Cyprus and performed this service again in 1976 in the evacuation of Lebanon.

USS Spiegel Grove was decommissioned on 2 October 1989 and her name struck from the Navy list on 13 December 1989.
She was then transferred to the United States Maritime Administration and the James River Reserve Fleet near Ft. Eustis, Virginia. On 13 June 2001, the Spiegel Grove was transferred to the State of Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, Largo, Florida. The ship was to be sunk near Key Largo as part of the artificial reefs program. After delays due to red tape and financial problems in preparing her to be sunk, she was finally moved from Virginia to Florida in May 2002. $1 million dollars was spent on preparation.

On 17 May 2002 she sank prematurely and ended up with her stern resting on the bottom and her bow sticking out of the water! To make matters worse, she was upside down! Over a 2 day period, 10-11 June 2002, and at an additional cost of $250 thousand dollars, the Resolve Marine Group got her rolled over on her starboard side and laying on the bottom. She was opened to divers on 26 June 2002. At 510 feet long and 84 feet at the beam, the Spiegel Grove was the largest ship ever to be reefed at the time of her sinking (bigger ships have been reefed since). The Spiegel Grove proved to be enormously popular with scuba divers performing an average of 50,000 dives a year on her the first two years! Just 3 years later after Hurricane Dennis passed by in July 2005, divers were surprised to find that the storm at righted the ship and she was now sitting on her keel!

The Spiegel Grove is located 6 miles off Key Largo on Dixie Shoal in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. She sits in a 134 feet of water with her top deck at 60 feet. This is considered an advanced dive due to the currents. Every time I’ve dived it there has been strong current there and this is considered pretty normal due to the location. Not a dive that you want to be fumbling around on. A diver really should be comfortable in the water to make this dive.

I’d been asked before I left the dive shop if I wanted to hire a guide and I’d said no, they could just buddy me with someone on the boat. As I was getting my gear setup I met DJ Hall who was my buddy for the morning and it turned out was also an instructor for Horizon Scuba. We turned out to have quite a bit in common as we’d both served in the United States Navy at the same time. We had both been Petty Officer First Classes, and both served our share of sea duty which gave us plenty to talk about! DJ also, it turned out, teaches tech diving and we chatted about that a bit as well since I’m thinking about taking a course at some point. He’d gotten a call and asked if he wanted to go dive the Spiegel Grove and he said of course he said yes! That worked out pretty well that there were openings and we both got to dive 🙂

Once we arrived at the site, the boat was tied off to a mooring buoy and lines were rigged. As with other boats I’ve dived with where we were off-shore with current, a trail line consisting of about 50 feet of line with a float on the end was attached to the stern of the boat. From the stern to the mooring line a tag line was run. The idea is to pull yourself hand over hand along the line saving your energy for dive. We did a giant stride off the dive platform and then followed the lines down to the wreck.

Tech divers descend to the Spiegel Grove, one of the premier artificial reefs you can dive while visiting Key Largo, Florida.

Our first dive started at 9:48 AM. I was diving 28% nitrox. Once we had pulled our way down to the wreck, we were able to use the wreck itself to block the current. I have to say that I never get tired of diving this wreck. There are tons of fish and it’s a very picturesque wreck as well. We planned to explore the outside of the wreck on this first dive and we made our way around the upper deck. I had told DJ before the dive that I would just follow him as photos are more interesting with a diver in the picture. He ended up being a pretty good underwater model! We stopped to take photos of the flag of course and DJ obligingly threw a salute to the flag for me. Rather than using my strobes, I’d opted to use a single video light for photography on this dive.

US Navy veteran D.J. Hall salutes the flag that is still waving above the USS Spiegel Grove LSD-32, which now serves as an artificial reef 6 miles off-shore of Key Largo, Florida.

One of the things that really strikes me about this dive is the huge numbers of fish around the wreck. That we were in a marine sanctuary was quite obvious! There were big schools of grey snapper. I also spotted grouper, angelfish, and of course, barracuda. There were many of “the usual suspects” as I call them as well, including butterflyfish, squirrelfish, grunts, and damselfish. Jacks out in open water, and the occasional school of jacks.

Much of the outer ship is becoming encrusted with coral. It’s a really beautiful dive! We explored the outer hull and towards the end of the dive did one limited penetration into the area where he mess deck used to be. The metal pedestals for the tables are still there along with the salad bar! Before I knew it my computer started yelling at me to come up. The maximum depth on this first dive was 100 feet. Water temperature was 83 degrees Fahrenheit. Visibility was easily 50-60 feet. Dive time was 37 minutes. I was back on the boat with about 900 psi. Even with nitrox the computer will normally determine the length of the dive!

During the surface interval I tried to stay out of the sun as much as possible… a sun worshipper I’m not! As we approached one hour we started gearing up. The second dive started at 10:26 AM, exactly 61 minutes after the previous dive had ended. I was diving 28% nitrox again. During this dive we made our way along the superstructure towards the bow. There we made a penetration into one of the forward machine spaces. Down and through and then back out. We then made a penetration down some of the main passageways in the superstructure where I spotted the ship logo I mentioned earlier, on the deck. There were plenty of fish in the dark of the compartments wherever I shined my light. Maximum depth on this dive ended up being 99 feet with water temperature and visibility the same as the first dive. Total dive time was 41 minutes.

After returning to the dock I was able to rinse my equipment there and hang it up in a portable building that Horizon has set up near the dock. The made diving with them very convenient! After stowing my gear away I made the rounds. I stopped at the dive shop and picked up a t-shirt and a couple of books. Later I stopped by the drugstore and picked up a few odds and ends, including some snacks and some drinking water. I also bought myself a Panama Jack hat as I’d decided I was getting a bit to much sun! After that I saw a homemade ice cream shop and decided I needed ice cream 🙂 I am on vacation after all 😉

I went by Scuba-Fun and settled my bill since I planned to leave the next day after my dives. The rate for 2 wreck dives including tanks and weights is $85.00. There was a $12.00 per tank charge added on for nitrox. The reef dives were $80.00 for two dives including tanks and weights. The State of Florida has to get their money too so the total came to $203.18.

I also went by Divers Direct, a dive store chain in Florida with a huge selection of gear. I couldn’t resist a t-shirt featuring Florida Keys wrecks 🙂 Dinner that night was at The Fish House, which is a local favorite. They feature fresh-caught local seafood which is quite good!

On Wednesday, August 16th after a good nights sleep I was up in time to pack the car and grab some breakfast at the hotel. My plan was to check out of the hotel before going to dive and then leave after that for the drive north. I was due to be at the dock at 8:30 AM. I was a few minutes early and got my gear sorted out first. I was on Pisces again with Bruce as the Captain. I wanted to do a couple of reef dives. The first dive we went out to dive Key Largo Dry Rocks where the Christ of the Abyss statue is placed.

Christ of the Abyss is a bronze statue. Guido Galletti, an Italian sculpted the original which was placed in the Mediterranean Sea on 22 August 1954. It was placed near the spot where Dario Gonzatti died in 1947. He was the first Italian to use scuba. A second statue cast from the same mold was placed in the waters near Grenada on 22 October 1961. The statue at Key Largo was also cast from the original mold and was a gift to the Underwater Society of America in 1962. On 25 August 1965 it was placed in 25 feet of water at Dry Rocks in the John Pennekamp State Park. The statue itself is over 8 feet tall and weighs approximately 572 lbs. It is attached to a concrete base that weighs 9 tons!

There are several permanent buoys here for boats to tie up too. The reef in this area is shaped like fingers and a diver can follow the bottom along the “indentations” between “fingers”. In one of these indentations is found the statue which is quite popular with snorkelers and divers. One thing you don’t want to do is touch the statue as it’s now completely covered with fire coral! The corals are in great shape!

For this morning I was buddied with a father and son who were on vacation. The dive started at 9:28 AM and would last 59 minutes. We were all told that we should be back on the boat with 500 psi or 1 hour whichever came first. Visibility was not quite as good as on the Spiegel Grove the day before and it was a bit warmer, but the water is quite shallow here. My maximum depth was just 28 feet and water temperature was 86F. Visibility was probably about 40 feet. As you would expect in an underwater park that has been around for over 50 years, there were plenty of fish! Lots of reef fish including parrotfish of various varieties, angelfish, butterflyfish, hogfish, and groupers. Sweepers and damselfish, plenty of grunts, and of course barracuda everywhere.

After seeing the statue, which was swarmed by people (divers and snorkelers), we checked out other areas of the reef. As time started to count down I ran a compass course back to where the boat was and made sure my buddies stayed within sight. When we got back to the area of the boat they went up and I stayed down a bit longer while they were getting onboard, then I surfaced. I still had 1300 psi.

We traveled a fairly short distance and tied up to another mooring buoy. This site was North Dry Rocks. We started getting ready to dive pretty much as soon as we got there. With such shallow depths, no-deco limits really weren’t an issue. Our second dive started at 10:43 AM. This dive was very much like the first dive and lots of fish. Similar reef system, but a bit of current this time. Maximum depth for this dive was 29 feet, it was again 86F and lasted 55 minutes. I came back from this dive with almost 1500 psi.

That was it for Key Largo. Once back at the dock I washed my gear and packed it in the car. I took advantage of the outdoor shower there to give myself a good rinse and changed into dry clothes for the trip north. I stopped at Buzzard’s Roost and grabbed some lunch (a chicken caesar salad… I have to eat healthy sometimes!) , then headed out. It had been a great couple of days in Key Largo, but the sharks were waiting for me on the Atlantic side of Florida off Palm Beach County and I was ready for them!

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In my next blog post I’ll be writing about my visit to Palm Beach County, Florida where I dived with Deep Obsession. You’ll get to hear about my experience diving with sharks in open water (without a cage), and goliath grouper (at 8 feet and over 700 lbs they could swallow a diver whole I think!). Stay tuned!

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 😉 ).

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 🙂

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” 😉 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!

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Texas Clipper-South Padre Island, Texas, USA

I left the Philippines on July 12th for home in Texas. I travel almost constantly now so it’s nice get home from time to time to visit friends and family!

I also planned to dive while I’m in the US of course. It might surprise some people to know that up until a week and a half ago, I’d never dived in my home state of Texas! I decided during this trip home that I needed to rectify that!

I’d often thought about diving the Texas Clipper since I became aware of it as a dive destination a few years ago. Of course as those of you who follow my blog know, I’ve dived almost exclusively in the Philippines the last few years. Now I decided, was a good time to do some diving here in the US.

The Texas Clipper was originally christened the USS Queens (APA-103). A Windsor class attack transport ship named after the the borough of Queens in New York City. She is 473 feet long and over 7000 tons. She served with the US Navy during WW II. She was built and commissioned in 1944. After the war she was sold to American Export Lines in 1948 and renamed Excambion. For the next 11 years she sailed a regular route from New York to ports in the Mediterranean carrying passengers and cargo. In 1959 she was returned to the Maritime Administration under a trade-in program. Consequently she was laid up as a part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet from 1959 to 1965 when she was loaned to the Texas Maritime Academy as a merchant marine officer training ship. She filled this role for the next 30 years. After that she was returned to the National Defense Reserve Fleet and moored in Beaumont, Texas until 2006 when she was transferred to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Artificial Reef Program.

The Texas Clipper was docked at the Port of Brownsville, Texas where $4 million dollars was spent in preparing her for sinking. The ship underwent a cleanup of hazardous materials and openings and modifications were made in order to make it safer for divers and wildlife. Masts and kingposts were cut to meet Coast Guard Clearance requirements and secured to the deck. She was sunk in a 136 feet of water on November 17, 2007, approximately 17 miles northeast of South Padre Island. Unfortunately she tipped over on her side when she contacted the bottom. The shallowest part of the wreck is at 70 feet.

The week after I got home I contacted American Diving in South Padre Island about diving her. They run regular trips on the weekends during the summer. A two tank dive trip is $175. I opted for 32% Nitrox as it’s a very square profile. That was $10 dollars per tank.

From where I stay near Houston to South Padre Island is almost 300 miles and a 6-7 hour drive depending on traffic. I could have flown to many top dive destinations in the Caribbean in much less time than it took to drive there! Yes Texas is big! I booked for July 29th. Because it’s 17 miles out, showtime was 6 AM. This meant going down the day before and getting a hotel room. I opted to stay in Port Isabel, which is just across the bridge from South Padre Island. My brother Benny came along for the ride.

We were up early and arrived just a few minutes before the 6 AM showtime. After the usual paperwork and paying, I was directed to where my tanks were waiting near the dock. Once there I was directed to pick a tank and get it setup. They had a meter ready so I could check the oxygen content which was 31.9%. After my tank was set up I went to work on my camera setup. I have a new Nikon D500 with an Ikelite housing and this would be my first dives with the new camera setup. I decided to just shoot with a single light on top of the housing and leave the strobes. I put all the gear that was going with me on the boat in my boat bag and the rest went in the vehicle. My brother went back to the hotel and would meet me later.

Captain Tim O’Leary who is the President of American Diving gave a very thorough dive briefing. He talked a bit about the history of the wreck, procedures on the boat, and do’s and don’t on the wreck. Those of us who were without buddy’s were buddy’d with someone. I was buddy’d with Mark Park, who like me it turned out lived near Houston. We were both diving Nitrox. There was a big drawing of the wreck on the cyclone fence that ran alongside the staging area to the dock with picnic tables set up in front that Captain Tim referred to during his brief. There were numbers along the fence underneath the sign. Everyone was assigned a number and our tanks which we had setup were placed in order near the number on fence. Once everyone had a number and the gear was in order, the crew moved them onto the boat. We grabbed our bags and went aboard.

This is the area near the dock where we met and set up gear. This is looking toward the parking lot. It’s just getting light outside.

We were underway about 7:15 AM. Mark and I initially rode inside. While we were sitting and chatting a crew member passed out breakfast burritos to everyone and they were quite tasty. There was a cooler full of drinks that you could help yourself, but members of the crew circulated around passing out bottles of water. After eating we decided to go up on deck and sat at the bow and chatted while taking in the scenery. There were fishing boats out, both private and commercial and of course there were off-shore oil rigs as well. We arrived on site around 8:45 so about an hour and a half or so.

A divemaster went into the water to check conditions and reported mild current and good visibility! Our tanks and equipment made the ride out strapped on the roof of the crew compartment on the boat. Everything was very organized and we went in numerical order. Theoretically that meant we would get out in numerical order also. When it was our turn we stepped through the rear door of the passenger compartment and descended steps to platform. There we would don our gear with assistance from the crew and then when we were ready just roll forward into the water. There was a trail line running from the stern and a current line from the stern to the mooring line, which we used to descend.

Because there was a bit of current the best way is which ever of the buddy team is ready first, to wait on the trail line, then when both are ready pull yourself hand over hand to the current line and then do the same till reaching the mooring line. Then use the mooring line to pull ourselves down to the wreck. This is the easiest physically and saves energy (and air) for the dive.

My first dive started at 9:11 AM. The water was quite clear. Easily 50-60 feet. Water temperature was a bit cooler than what I’ve been used to in the tropics at 75 degrees Fahrenheit but still no problem since I was wearing a farmer john with a top. The farmer john is a 4th Element Thermocline which is neutrally buoyant. I had just purchased a Sharkskin top which is also neutrally buoyant. They’re each equivalent to about 2.5 mm so I had the equivalent of 5 mm neoprene in the torso area, without the buoyancy. What this means for me is no weight belt! 🙂

We hit the side of the hull at around 70 feet. There were plenty of fish around, spadefish, chub, sergeant-major, grouper, hogfish, schools of jacks, and barracuda as well. Even some tiny damselfish. There is coral growing on the ship. After seeing what the wrecks in Chuuk look like after several decades I can imagine what the Texas Clipper will look like in the future!

There is one area for a limited penetration that used to be the Promenade deck that has many openings out so it’s very safe. Mark and I made our way through and out and made our towards the centerline of the ship, which as mentioned before is laying on it’s side. Maximum depth was 91 feet for this dive. Dive time was 23 minutes. The short dive time wasn’t because of air but because even with Nitrox with such a square profile we run into no-decompression limits. I hit the surface with a 100 bar (roughly 1500 psi). All in all a very nice dive.

At the surface they throw you a line. You remove your fins and they pull you in. Hand your fin’s up, then climb out and they assist you in taking off your gear. They even took my camera and put it in the camera rinse tank for me (yes there is a separate tank and they were very clear during the brief that NOTHING except cameras went in).

After a surface interval it was time for the second dive and the previous procedures just repeated themselves. The second dive started at 10:44 AM. More of the same, except this time we went forward towards the bow of the ship. We had one spearfisherman on the boat with us and he speared a lionfish near the beginning of the dive. For my friends on the SE Asia side of the world, lionfish or a real problem in the Caribbean. They are not native to the this side of the world and they can wipe out native species on a reef very quickly. Many programs have been formulated to try and keep them in check including actively spearing them. Lionfish, it turns out, is actually quite tasty! This was another nice dive. Maximum depth this time was 87 feet and the dive was 24 minutes. I again had half a tank when I hit the surface.

Back at the dock there were rinse tanks set up for us to rinse our gear. We said our goodbyes to new friends and exchanged email addresses. My brother was waiting. We loaded my gear into his vehicle and stopped by the shop to buy a souvenir shirt before heading home. All in all an enjoyable experience. I’m sure I’ll do this dive again!

So surprisingly I’m all caught up now! Tomorrow morning I have a doctors appointment and then I’ll be headed to Florida. On Friday I’ll be diving the USS Oriskany sunk off Pensacola so stay tuned. I’m going to work harder on staying caught up now… I hope!

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