Diving the Vandenberg Wreck In Key West Florida

  • Updated: December 31, 2018
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

December 31st, 2018

Today was to be the crown jewel of dives we had planned for our Florida New Years dive vacation and the one I was the most nervous for.

The Vandenberg is an old military troop transport that was intentionally sunk ship off the coast of Key West as an artificial reef and recreational dive attraction. It's the second largest artificial reef in the world and while it starts at only 45 ft below the surface the bottom is on the sand at 140 ft and most of the interesting attractions require you go down to at least 100 ft.

I was currently straddling Open Water (which allows you to dive to a recommended 60 ft) and Advanced Open Water (which ups that to 130 ft) certifications due to weather holding up the last of the certification dives but after a good amount of research and a warm up dive the day before on the 70 ft deep Cayman Salvager wreck we were all set to at least give it a cautious try.

We had hired a local dive guide through Lost Reef Adventures and after meeting him the day before we ended up requesting Randy Pekarik who I can't recommend strongly enough. Even if you're experienced and comfortable at that depth Randy has over 2000 dives on the Vandenberg and can show you swim throughs and features you probably wouldn't have time to find on your own. Also he brings viking hats for post dive victory shots. Just sayin...

The day just didn't start out great.

I'd taken some of the Bonnie sea sickness medication the night before hoping to get a bit of relief from the rough sea queasiness I'd been struggling with for the last few days. I'm not sure if it was the medication or just general exhaustion from all the diving but I woke up feeling woozy and only got out of camp and on the road thanks to Jen. She ended up driving most of the way to Key West with me asleep in the passenger seat until she pulled over at a Starbucks and I realized she was crying.

Apparently the slight ear pain that developed during the last dive the day before had grown so bad throughout the night that she'd barely slept. Of course Jen being Jen she didn't do anything silly like wake me up so we could deal with it and had spent most of the night miserable.

She had been really looking forward to doing the dive with me but with her symptoms there was just no way. My inclination was to reluctantly cancel the dive and get her taken care of at an urgent care but Jen was insistent I still go since we had what felt like a rare opportunity to do this dive with Randy.

So she dropped me off at Lost Reef and after some advice from the folks inside she headed over to a local urgent care while I prepped my gear.

This was my second day out with Lost Reef Adventures but today we were going to be on a smaller boat that they usually used as a fishing charter. As a result things would be a bit rougher than yesterday. Also of the small contingent on the boat I was the least experienced by far and so I was determined not to make too big a fool of myself.

Randy being the local expert on the Vandenberg did the dive site briefing on the way out. There were three other divers on the boat who had originally planned to do their own thing but decided to tag along behind us on at least the first dive.

Unfortunately the buoy situation over the wreck wasn't ideal as the one Randy really wanted to use was occupied and another had been cut but we worked around that and were soon in the water and on our way down.

I did make one mistake at this point which was in my excitement I hadn't cleared the defogger out of my mask sufficiently and my eyes started burning as I dropped down the line. I just had to flood and clear my mask a few times to rectify the issue while making sure I didn't descend too fast.

My two previous wreck dives had both suffered from abysmal visibility so I was trying not to get my hopes up for this one.

Fortunately my luck had finally changed and we dropped down the bowline into a solid 40 ft of visibility!

Unfortunately I didn't really capture anything that conveys the scale of the wreck with my paltry little GoPro Silver 4 but I can share the video I took from the two dives which does a decent job of conveying the presence of the site.

We dropped down on the deck and Randy made an attempt to spear an invasive lionfish that had apparently grown crafty and escaped multiple times before. And today it did so once again.

Over the two dives we covered the length of the ship with Randy leading us through a series of swim throughs.

Between maintaining my buoyancy and trying to capture what I could with my GoPro I would be extremely hard pressed to point out where all we went but I think the highpoint (which you can see in the video above) was when we dropped down into a square opening on the deck, went neutral, and then went down a hall and around a corner to come out another door.

Randy has his tradition which is once you've dove the Vandenberg with him you get to join the Vandenberg Vikings and take a photo complete with plastic viking helmets. He's truly a man after my own heart.

I had been texting with Jen off and on whenever I was out of the water and her Urgent Care visit had revealed a wax plug on one of her ears and an ear infection. The plug was removed and she was given antibiotics for the infection and (sadly) told not to dive for a little while.

When I got back we grabbed lunch at the Waterfront Brewery and tracked her down some ice cream as additional medication while we considered our options.

We had originally planned to do a few more boat dives out of Key Largo the next day but I already didn't feel great about having done today without her and as an added complication now my ears were starting to hurt just a tiny bit. I wasn't sure if this was sympathetic pain or something more serious until a consult with doctor Google, DAN, and the information Jen had been given at the urgent care led us to the idea it's good to wash your ears out post dive with a mixture of vinegar and rubbing alcohol to help prevent some of these issues.

Regardless we decided our diving activities for the trip were over and we'd find something else to do the following day for our last full day in Florida. While we were having to draw back plans a little bit I'd managed a respectable 15 dives thus far including freshwater, drift, caverns, reefs, night dives, and wrecks finishing up on the Vandenberg so while I wish we could have done more I was satisfied. ish.

We had a fairly long drive out to Key Largo where we had a tent site reserved at Key Largo Kampground. Once again this was one of the only cheap-ish options we were able to find and wasn't going to be ideal. Also it was New Years Eve so I was going in expecting we'd be camping amid the equivalent of the Tet Offensive.

And sure enough it was pretty wild. I went to shower while Jen finished getting camp set up and came back to find her livid and about ready to leave due to the sheer amount of fireworks going off all around us. Fortunately once our heads hit what was passing for pillows we were both out and didn't even wake up for the traditional countdown to midnight.

After a few false starts we had a plan for the next day which involved driving out to Everglade City first thing in the morning where we were told someone would rent us boats and drop us off at the top of a river. So next up, paddling the Everglades and finally getting to see some crocodiles up close!

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