Down we go, deep, deeper, deepest! Technical diving in Key West


Time to get the nitrogen levels back up in the bloodstream, and what better way to do that than to head down, way down, on some deep wrecks off the sunny shores of Key West?

Steve Lewis, VP of TDI, along with Joe Weatherby joined Dave V on a technical diving excursion to explore some of the deeper wrecks located off the southernmost key.   Sadly, the weather gods are not giving us any good signs for this weekend, so we are heading south with fingers crossed for the best!

Thursday evening we arrive at IVS-Key West’s base on Stock Island and set up camp in our condo there.  This is one nice home away from home for sure, and we are thrilled to have met the owner, Mike Bullock, through our favorite dive operator here, Chris Norwood, owner of Florida Straits Diving.  Three bedrooms, accommodations for eight, newly refurbished throughout, this is living large indeed!

Friday morning comes and with it the 7:00 a.m. NOAA marine weather update.  Ruh roh – six to eight footers on the outside today with twenty-five knot winds whistling through.  Not the perfect recipe for a small boat and heavily laded divers on the ocean!  So, do we cancel?  Are you kidding?  We get a slightly larger boat! 

Our friends at Sub-Tropic step up and offer their boat for the day, which coincidently was available since no customers wanted to head out in these conditions!  Works for us, and we loaded up our gear, and motored out to the Vandenberg.  Seas were, shall we say, a bit testy, but we managed, and in spite of the topside conditions, the ocean below was perfect, with minimal current and 200 plus feet of visibility in the clear blue water.  Nice!

We dropped right into the #2 cargo hatch, descending down to 130 feet, and slip inside for Joe’s exclusive “hole in the wall” tour, covering over 400 feet of this wreck’s interior and never popping out until we drop into the engine room in the stern.  What a cool tour it is, lots of tight passageways, many turns, some areas with no alternate exits…all good for a great dive and a nice adrenalin rush too!

We spend 46 minutes at depth, finish off a ten minute deco obligation, and climb back aboard with big smiles.  The ladder is a bit challenging, balancing doubles on our back, and two slung stage bottles each, but we manage, and get ready to enjoy a few minutes of de-briefing and relaxing on board. 

OK, few minutes are up, it is time to dive again!  Gear back up, splash, and drop down, this time towards the stern of this majestic wreck.  Take a quick look-around at the stern, then we head up to the hanger area, where they used to store the weather balloon.  Once inside, we drop down the chute to the laundry room, at 140 ft.  This is a very cool drop, as the chute is about an 80 ft vertical drop, and it is only one diver wide.  Best part?  Once you enter, there are NO outlets till you get to the bottom, so commitment is key here! 

We exit out the bottom, and take a tour of the former laundry room, still full of steam presses and washers and dryers that completed their duty at sea.  This is a real tight area, and you have to by uber-careful to not silt things up once inside.  Buoyancy control and situational awareness is key, cause things could go to hell in a New York minute here.  After some good photo op’s, we head out the rear stairwell, up one level, then begin a tour forward through lots of crew berthing areas.  Bed frames, toilets and sinks, and personal storage lockers tell the story of what these spaces once were.  All sorts of new life forms are here now, “scouts” in a sense for a whole generation of new critters to come to these areas of eternal darkness (OK, except for the occasional zillion megawatt divers lights!),  Very cool to be witness to a sort of evolution as the sea reclaims this vessel.

Another forty minutes of bottom time passes too quickly, and we head back up, finishing off with a little 50% and 100% O2 mixes on the way to the surface.  A good day of diving, great wreck, great boat and crew from Sub-Tropic, and it’s time to head back in.  The sunset ride in just tops the day off, and we grab a quick bite and prepare our dive plans for tomorrow’s activities. 

Saturday morning comes and the wind continues to blow hard, from the south, which is a bad thing, cause there is a lot of ocean to blow across between here and Cuba, giving the wind, and the waves, time to build themselves up nicely.  None the less, we are here on a mission, so in spite of being the only boat heading out, we’re going diving!  We head our after lunch, and our first stop is the USS Curb, a former naval tug that sits upright now in 185 feet of water.  There it is on the sonar, so we check current direction, and make a few passes over the wreck to confirm we are on it.  The grapple is dropped, and we hook into it (there are no mooring balls).  One, two, three, we drop down into the abyss, and are greeted with views of the wreck from well over a hundred feet away. 

An absolutely amazing quantity and variety of life live on this wreck, sitting like an oasis in the middle of miles of flat, sandy plains.  From the smallest baitfish (what do you have to do wrong in this life to come back as a baitfish?  You don’t even get a name for your species, just “baitfish”) to huge 400# Goliath groupers (at least they get a name!), this wreck is a haven for life.  Marauding amberjacks and horse-eye jacks make passes at the smaller fish, and the fray is exciting to watch as someone goes home with dinner, while some else becomes a dinner.  Enough eloquent waxing on my part, back to the wreck!  Covered with snagged fishing nets and miles of monofilament, this wreck is a snagged diver waiting to happen, so make sure you have your line cutter or z-knife handy, and a bigger blade for the larger stuff. 

We’re diving a mix of 20% oxygen, 25% helium, and 55% nitrogen on this dive, so we enjoy 20 minutes of bottom time at 170 feet, followed by a nice 30 minutes of deco as we ascend.  The conditions remain perfect so the hang time is a pleasure with all sorts of things to watch as we pass the time.    

Stop number 2 is the Vandenberg again, but this time it is a night dive, as the sun has dipped below the waves for the day.  We hit 146 feet as we spent a lot of time exploring the engine rooms and machinery areas, racking up another 35 minutes of bottom time on our remaining trimix.  My friends spent most of the time shallower, but I wanted to pictures of the machinery, and these conditions would be tough to match another day, so my entire dive was spent below 140 ft.  Of course this comes with a price, that being a fifty minute deco obligation, with the last thirty minutes alone, hanging in the dark, catching the occasional silvery flash of a barracuda or other night time predator as they flew by, checking out the life form that was hanging there in the water.  Finally, an hour and twenty-five minutes after descending, I am back on board, and we enjoy a few beers as we toast the day’s events.  The sea had even laid down a bit for us as we headed back to the dock, making our nocturnal journey a little more mellow!

So it was time to grab a late dinner, so my friend Steve, who is Canadian and has traveled extensively through Cuba, and Joe, who is not, but somehow has also traveled frequently to Cuba, decided that is what we need to eat tonight – Cuban fare!  Well anyone who knows me would realize that Dave and any food containing spices don’t match up well, but I go, figuring there should be enough Presidente Light to wash down whatever I am convinced will be safe for this gringo to eat.  Dinner is fine, service is great, and we call it a night again.

Sunday, the winds are down a bit, but not gone, and our target today is the former naval cruiser USS Wilkes Barre, which likes almost 20 miles north up the coast from Key West.  So we batten down the hatches and head out, staying inside the reef as long as we can to minimize the seas, but eventually heading out to find our wreck.  This 650 ft long vessel was being used for the testing of underwater demolitions, and the test worked great, being detonated directly underneath the ship, and the concussion essentially ‘breaking the ships back’, as it lifted, ripped apart, then settle to the sea floor.  The stern is sitting perfectly upright in 240 feet of water, and the bow is settled a short distance away, laying on it’s port side.  Are target is the stern so we can enjoy this multi-level treasure and really get a chance to some some exploring.  We pick it up on sonar, sure enough it has a huge signature, and the grapple is dropped.  We complete our final gear checks, and splash.  Our blend today is 18/35, the lower oxygen content to avoid CNS toxicity and the resulting convulsions and death that typically accompany it, and the higher helium blend helps reduce the nitrogen in our mix, better to avoid being narc’d out of our minds and forgetting to do things, like maybe ascend!  We complete our ensemble with a couple of stage bottles, with our flavors today being the tried and true 50% and 100% oxygen mixes.

Well we start down the line, and we descend, expecting to reach the top of the wreck at 165 ft or so. This is where it gets a little weird, cause there is no wreck there.  OK, 175, 185, hmmmmm….finally, as we pass 200, there it is, a huge wreck, laying, well, on it’s side!  What the heck!  We are hooked to the bow section, not the stern!!  Time to rethink the dive plan a bit, but we’re OK, as we had planned a pretty aggressive dive depth-wise, and now the conditions matched our plans!   So we dropped down to 230 feet and spent about ten minutes there, checking out the gun turrets, deck fittings, and piles of things that have been snagged on this wreck over the years and lost by other boaters.   Up to 200 feet for another 12 minutes, then let’s grab the grapple hook and tie it off to itself so it doesn’t snag on anything else.  Well, the current had evidently picked up on the surface while we were down, cause when we unhooked the grapple, it took off like a kite, with Steve and Joe trying to tie it off, and me trying to hold the line down below our first stop depth. 

On another dive this might have been fun, but with our bodies chock full of helium, the rate of descent is very critical.  Those little molecules really like to jump out of our cells easily, so they need sufficient time for us to breath them out of our systems.  So, after a little struggling, we get the hook tied up to itself, and stabilize our depth, and begin our 50 minute, 13 level ascent to the surface.  Once there, we are careful to avoid the Portuguese Man ‘o Wars that are sailing by in the stiff breeze, with tentacles a’trailing, looking to sting something into submission, like us!

Well that was enough excitement for the day, and we call it, heading in for our last night in Key West.  A light dinner and beers at the Hogfish Cafe, conveniently located right next to our Key West condo!

Monday morning we started our journey back north, but we still had some diving to do! So we headed up to visit our friends at Conch Republic Divers in Tavierner, and get one final tec dive in on the Speigel Grove.  Forty eight minutes of bottom time below 120 ft, followed by forty minutes of staged deco, wrapped up one great weekend of Florida Keys technical diving.