Seaduction Exclusive: The Insider's Guide to Diving the Vandenberg
Our own Mike Ange was the first person to visit the sunken ship, reaching her just 15 minutes after she struck bottom. Here is his exclusive report on the highlights of the massive new artificial reef that opened to divers May 30.
by Mike Ange
EDITOR'S NOTE: Never attempt these or any other dives if they are outside your level of training, your level of experience, the ability of your gear or your comfort level. Open-water divers should never penetrate the interior of a wreck or any other overhead environment. Period. This article does not substitute for proper training, gear, certification and experience.
The country's newest artificial reef, the USNS Gen. Hoyt S. Gen. Vandenberg has finally come to rest off the Key West, Fla., in 142 feet of sea water. With over 100 feet of relief, the ship is a phenomenal site for divers of all skill levels and offers countless underwater photography opportunities (For a gallery of images captured just minutes after the ship touched bottom click here). Her superstructure rises to a depth of 50 feet, making for an ideal novice dive when the current is mild and the seas are calm, but the Vandenberg is also one of the most complex wrecks ever sunk. Experienced divers will find plenty to explore for years to come. Here are the highlights and must-see locations, divided by certification levels.
There are three levels of superstructure that are 70 feet or shallower, including the ship's impressive king post structure on the bow, which had already attracted a curious barracuda when I arrived on the wreck for an inspection dive within minutes of the sinking. The king post flies the flag of the Conch Republic and makes a spectacular photographic opportunity. The top most superstructure area directly above the bridge contains a number of plaques for supporting businesses and a great circular platform that is perfect for instructors completing the last two dives of an open-water certification class. This deck also supports mast structures and a small seated turret device which probably once held an anti-aircraft gun. One deck level down, you will find plaques commemorating the ship itself, some as memorials to veterans who served on the ship and others donated by members of the ARK Project -- including some in memory of project supporters who passed away during the long project to sink this ship. There is even a plaque from the Vandenberg thanking the members of ARK for making her an "island girl."
One of the most significant features accessible to open-water divers is the aft Balloon Deck, which is now the official Parrot Head Underwater Party Room in recognition of the support the various Parrot Head clubs provided to the wreck project. During the Cold War, this hanger was one of the most critical areas of the ship. On many of her missions, Vandenberg was trailed by eastern block ships which tried to eavesdrop on electronic communications. When the ship needed to ensure absolutely secure communications, crew members sealed top-secret data in special canisters and floated them above the ship in weather balloons that were picked up mid-flight by U.S. military aircraft and transported back to shore. Of course, the ship's stacks and the mounts used to hold satellite dishes and other antennae are also found in open-water diving depths.
How to Dive it: If conditions are right and the boat captian is willing, consider making it a drift dive. Enter the water on the next to last mooring ball to the aft of the ship and descend to the balloon deck. Then use the prevailing current and the balance of your bottom time to drift about 450 feet, taking in the entire span of the major superstructure. Your goal is to end up on the king post mooring line near the bow, and have the boat meet you there. On a current-free day, you can turn this dive into a circuit traveling up the more picturesque port side and returning to your boat along the starboard side.
Advanced Open-Water Divers
Properly certified deep divers can explore the Vandenberg's superstructure deck (what most divers would refer to as the main deck), which starts at depths of 90 feet. Beginning at the bow, divers will want to see the impressive bullnose structure and huge cap stand which provide wonderful photographic opportunities. As you move aft along the deck, there are numerous rooms and superstructure spaces to explore. But, beware, this ship is complex and passageways that may look like simple swim-throughs are frequently not as simple as you may think. Unless properly trained and equipped for wreck penetration, limit your interior exploration to poking your head inside. From this level, you can also access, or peer down into, five large shafts that penetrate to the depths of the wreck -- some dropping as much as six stories.
Swimming along the main deck, you will also be able to visit the external bridge area of the ship, which was added in the late 1990s when the wreck served as the set of the movie Virus. The square-profile bridge area is actually wrapped around the original bridge/wheelhouse and captain's quarters. Do not penetrate the wheelhouse unless you are properly trained and equipped for overhead environments, but you can peer inside to see a number of commemorative plaques dedicated to the veterans who served aboard the ship. Aft of the wheelhouse, you can peer inside the large pyramid-shaped structures that once held the massive dish antennae. On the day after the sinking, these holes had already begun to attract smaller marine life and they are destined to be a safe haven for massive schools of fish in the near future. With direct vertical access to sunlight, they will offer some interesting photographic opportunities.
On the starboard side of the main deck, you will find the smaller of the two satellite dishes that broke off during the sinking. The smaller dish is impaled by one of the impressive mast structures. Between the two dish mounts is the deepest vertical shaft penetrating the ship. Referred to as the AMR space, this shaft goes down seven full deck levels taking divers to a depth well beyond recreational limits. Peering in from the outside and looking down, you can clearly see the massive deck grates that could be raised and lowered to facilitate loading heavy equipment into any level of the ship. Moving further aft, divers will see on the port side, the larger satellite dish dislodged during the sinking. Continuing on to the stern of the ship, divers can swim around and peer inside the cavernous balloon deck and the room forward of that which served as the ship's basketball court.
More adventurous deep divers may chose to drop down one deck level and swim along the outboard companionway running down either side of the ship. This route will take you past several hundred feet of crew quarters, galley spaces and other rooms. Be extremely cautious when looking inside these openings and never enter them. Just a few kick strokes inside any of these areas will place a diver inside a complicated maze of interior passageways that can make finding an exit dramatic at best; deadly at worst.
How to Dive It: If you plan to cover all 520 linear feet of the ship in a single dive at these depths, you'll need a cooperative boat skipper who is willing to drop you off at the stern of the ship and pick you up at the bow. Entering at the stern, take a moment to peer inside the Parrot Head Party Room (formerly the balloon locker), then ride the current along the ship's port side for the photographic opportunities afforded by the massive dish antenna. After leaving the dish, cross between breaks in the superstructure to the starboard side and - gas supplies and bottom time permitting -- drop over the side swimming 100 feet or so forward on the next deck level down, peering into the crew quarters and the various other spaces. Continue forward until you are just below the starboard-side satellite dish then move up two decks swimming below the dish to the bridge area. (Photographers may want to swim back 50 feet or so to the center line of the ship for the photographic opportunities afforded by the dish mounting structures.) Continue forward around the bridge over the number two hold and beneath the massive king post structure to the bow. Photographers should save a few hundred psi of gas in reserve to photograph both the king post and the cap stand area on the bow before ascending on the buoy attached directly to the bow peak. Utilizing a 36 percent nitrox mixture will allow you to push your no-decompression limits to approximately 35 minutes, but plan your dive carefully, considering both NDLs and air consumption, and watch your gauges closely. It's easy to lose track of time on this dive and even easier to go deeper than you intended if you swim over the rail. Breathing gas also goes quickly at this depth. (Note: This 35 minute estimate is based on a max actual depth of 110 fsw giving you a NOAA EAD table depth of 80 fsw at a 1.6 PPO2. The NDL is from the U.S. Navy tables at a planned depth of 80 fsw conservatively set back 1 stop. Stay at 95 fsw or shallower to limit PPO2 to 1.4 for a more conservative profile. As always, do your own dive planning and dive within the limits of your training and experience.)
Technical Open-Water Divers
For divers qualified to make full decompression dives without penetration, this ship offers a number of interesting things to see in the 120- to 140-foot range. Holes cut in the ship's hull offer a glimpse into photo laboratories, the engine room and into the room containing the massive prop shaft. Other high points are galley facilities, ward rooms, and crew quarters including, on the starboard side aft, a senior NCO's quarters which still has a manning roster complete with duty assignments.
How to Dive It: Enter the water from the bow and choose the lee side for the first leg of a circuit around the ship. Drop over the side to where the hull begins to curve under to the keel. Follow this curve taking time to look into the various spaces that were open by a welder's torch or high explosives. Be wary of the extremely sharp edges in each of these openings - especially those cut by shaped charges on the lower levels. A complete circumnavigation of the wreck covers more than one-quarter of a mile linear distance, so plan the dive carefully with your decompression obligation and your gas consumption rate in mind. It may be wise to ascend to around 110 fsw and cross the ship for the return leg, allowing the current to push you back to the mooring. At this depth, you can follow the open companionway and finish up in the bow area. Use the king post for your deep deeper decompression stops (Bring your camera as there are great photo ops here while you are hanging). Drift forward to the dive's boat's bow line to complete your shallow stops and ascend.
Technical Penetration Divers
Penetration divers can explore this ship hundreds of times and never see all that there is to see. Even after spending more than five solid weeks on the ship to prepare her for sinking, I was amazed to discover new rooms even as Vandenberg was towed out. At the second deck level, there is a companionway down each side of the ship that allows 400 feet of linear penetration through berthing areas and technical spaces. These two companionways allow the diver to penetrate from just behind the bridge, all the way to the area just in front of shaft alley. The forward areas of the ship contain lower deck areas that were filled with concrete and pig iron ballast when she was reconfigured as a missile tracker. These deck spaces are fairly restricted, but there a number of wide open spaces that are great for practicing penetration techniques making this ship a dream for the technical wreck instructor. The forward area of the ship contains photographic darkrooms with massive photo printing machines while the machinery spaces amidship still contain lathes and other equipment used by the crew to keep the ship functioning smoothly.
The area between the bridge and the midship region was used extensively for the movie Virus. Vandenberg doubled as a Russian ship in the movie, so don't be surprised by the Cyrillic lettering and markers. Fans of the movie will recognize several areas of the ship, including a berthing space that has been decorated with 1970s-style gold pile carpeting on the walls, the floor and even the bunk. Why? No one seems to know but it matches the flowered wallpaper found in some of the aft cabins and it is certainly one of the most bizarre settings ever seen on a warship above or below the surface! Dive soon if you want to see it, because the carpeting is bound to deteriorate quickly in the warm tropical water.
Continuing further aft, the engine room is one of the most challenging and treacherous penetrations I've ever seen in a ship. Inside this tight, confined space hang iron gangways, duct work, piping and even a few dozen meters of dangling chain. Even the most experienced penetration divers will find their skills, knowledge and equipment put to the test. Use extreme caution when exploring this part of the wreck.
A number of the rooms below the main weather deck still contain manning rosters, duty boards and briefing boards complete with operational mission notes and daily duty rosters. This ship has a long and storied history and I could truly feel the spirit of her crew as I swam through the ship on more than 20 post-sinking inspection dives. Vandenberg certainly qualifies as the most impressive artificial reef I have ever penetrated in my decades of wreck diving experience.
How to Dive It: Diver Beware: this is a major advanced dive and any mistakes can be fatal. Do not attempt this dive unless you are properly certified and equipped for both technical wreck penetration and full decompression diving, and have had extensive penetration experience. Underneath the balloon locker on the starboard side, there is a small porch area. Swimming underneath the porch area, you will find a 36-inch square shaft dropping straight to the ladder well which enters shaft alley. The ladder well is a major restriction and it can be a challenge for even the most advanced penetration diver. Once you drop into the shaft room, it can still be difficult to turn around with twin cylinders, especially if you are carrying a stage, which is recommended for this dive. Dropping into the shaft, swimming to the right side of the shaft alley and forward will provide the easiest access to the engine room. The once water-tight door is now welded open and swimming straight through the door will take you between the two massive boilers and into the most open part of the engine room space. Do not attempt to exit the engine room up the ladder just ahead and to the left as it goes nowhere. It is best to either go back the way that you came, or to continue swimming forward to the starboard side weaving through the engine room spaces to a hole burned through the water-tight bulkhead and from there into the tank room. Once inside the tank room, you can either continue swimming forward to the AMR shaft or exit out one of the four dangerously sharp blast holes located on either side of the ship in this area. Divers completing this dive will need to either go in and out through the shaft room or if properly trained set it up over the course of a couple of dives as a circuit.
Mike Ange, the Senior Editor for SEAduction.com, is a noted author and lecturer on diving safety and diver training. He is the author of the "Advanced Wreck Diver Manual" and the "Advanced Wreck Instructor Manual" for Technical Divers International. You can reach Mike at email@example.com or through this site. Mike planned and supervised the 22 technical penetration dives required to certify this wreck explosives free and structurally OK after the sinking