Explore the wrecks of the Florida Keys
The Florida Keys’ unique and storied maritime history has left the nautical charts from Key Largo to Key West littered with “wrecks.” From steamships to freighters to pirate ships and military battle cruisers, you’ll find a verifiable naval museum rusting along the reefs up and down the archipelago. There’s even a steel-hulled buoy tender lurking down there!
Some are ships that have been scuttled to provide artificial reefs along the archipelago, but most have found their way there quite by misfortune. For SCUBA enthusiasts it’s paradise on Earth, or at least paradise “underwater, " as no diving experience truly matches the exploration of an old time sunken ship.
Residents of South Florida have the luxury of zooming down the Overseas Highway at 5pm on a Friday after work and getting in a couple weekend wrecks before the neighbors even notice they’ve gone missing. But those living further up the peninsula or in any of the other 49 states have got to do a little better planning if they hope to pencil in every wreck from the Florida Keys Wrecks Decathlon.
Taking a month off work probably won’t fly with your boss, but our guess is that you can swing a couple weeks. So here’s how you do it. 10 days and 10 wrecks. Naturally, we think Key Colony Beach is the best place to set up your dive headquarters; from the middle Florida Keys you can easily reach all the great wreck destinations along the island chain.
We’re going to lay this guide out from the bottom up to the top, meaning Key West to Key Largo. If you’re more of a top to bottom kind of guy or gal, just flip your computer around and read this article upside down.
Also, bear in mind that it’s possible at times to knock out a couple wrecks in the same day and of course you could head north some days and south on others, whatever tickles your fancy.
Setting up your base camp.
There are a multitude of reasons why basing your wreck adventure at Key Colony Beach makes perfect sense, but we’ll just touch on the basics.
For starters, the Upper Keys (Key Largo and Islamorada) can feel a little too overdeveloped and touristy if you’re looking to totally immerse yourself in the laid-back island vibe of the Keys. Being so close to the mainland the Upper Keys tend to serve as party junction for the young and the restless of Miami and South Florida. There’s nothing wrong with getting your boogie on, but if you’re here to relax and SCUBA dive, the relative quiet of Key Colony Beach is perfect for you – and of course, we think one of our rentals will be perfect for your basecamp. [Browse our rentals here: https://www.keysproperties.com/rentals.]
Mangrove snapper on the Spiegel Grove – Photo by Ron Scharf
The same goes for Key West. Key West makes for a great day trip as it’s jam packed with historic homes, shopping and restaurants, but it’s pricier than the Middle Keys and more crowded.
Key Colony Beach provides the perfect blend up upscale infrastructure and low key island lifestyle, and you’ll be centrally located for easy access to every wreck along the Keys.
In fact, travel guide juggernaut Frommer’s recommends the area for a more tranquil Keys experience. But we knew that.
Without further ado…on to the wrecks:
Day 1: Cayman Salvage Master – Skill Level: Intermediate – Depth: 70-95 ft.
Our first dive takes off from Key West. In a nutshell, the Cayman Salvage Master (originally called the F.V. Hunt) is the most popular wreck off the southernmost key because it draws a myriad of marine life including grouper, bar jack, silverside, permit, reef octopus and hawksbill turtles.
Seriously, the sometimes molasses-thick accumulation of fish is startling.
This steel-hulled buoy tender was built in 1936 and sank in 1985. During the late 70’s and early 80’s she shuttled Cuban refugees during the Mariel boatlift and at 187 feet in length there’s plenty to explore.
The ship was originally meant to be sunk in 300 foot waters to create an artificial deep water fishing reef, instead she’s Key West’s #1 diving attraction.
Day 2: Joe’s Tug – Skill Level: Intermediate – Depth: 50-60 ft.
This story surrounding this 75 foot steel harbor tugboat is shrouded in mystery as she went down under suspicious conditions on January 21, 1989.
Joe’s Tug was originally destined to be sunk off the shores of Miami, but instead her final resting place is just six miles south of Stock Island and to reach her you’ll embark from the marina in Key West. Legend has it that a rum laden pirate is to blame for the vessels untimely demise…and in the Keys anything is possible!
Being a tug, this wreck is smaller than many of her counterparts, but divers are rewarded with swarms of fish. Be on the lookout for Goliath Grouper, moray eel, barracuda, schoolmasters and angelfish.
It’s possible to fully penetrate the ship and for the most part she remains fully intact.
A school of grunts under Joe's Tug – Photo by Avery Chipka
Day 3: Adolphus Busch Sr. – Skill Level: Advanced – Depth: 50-105 ft.
Adolphus Busch Sr. is a ship with a whole slew of aliases. You’ll hear her called London, Windsor Trader, Ocean Alley and Topsail Star. Named after the beer magnate who helped to fund the reef project that towed her from Haiti to Miami and sunk her upright in the sand off Looe Key, the Adolphus Busch Sr. is a more advanced dive due to lower visibility and stronger currents.
Built in Scotland in 1951, this 210 foot freighter is one of the largest wrecks frequented in the Lower Keys and to reach her you’ll leave from nearby Big Pine Key.
Day 4: Thunderbolt – Skill Level: Intermediate to Advanced – Depth: 75-120 ft.
The 188 foot USS Randolph earned the nickname Thunderbolt because her primary duty while she was still afloat was to serve as a base for Army lightning research. Nearing 30 years underwater, she’s a heavily encrusted cable layer and by far the most visited wreck in the Middle Keys.
You’ll be able to get a little more shut-eye on Day 4 as your boat ride begins just down the road in Marathon.
A C card is required to dive Thunderbolt due to its combination of depth, current and low visibility, but intermediate to advanced divers are wowed by visits to the ship’s twin bronze propellers, wheelhouse and crew’s quarters.
If you get lost, look for schools of jacks and barracuda to “light” your way!
The Cable Reel on the Thunderbolt – Photo Courtesy of NOAA
Day 5: Eagle – Skill Level: Intermediate to Advanced – Depth: 70-110 ft.
Nicknamed the Dutch Treat because of her birthplace in Holland (1962), the Eagle is a long freighter at 269 feet.
The wreck of the Eagle homes copious coral growth, fish and other marine life and her cavernous hull is easy to navigate as the charges used to sink her left gaping holes in the exterior steel.
An interesting tidbit about the Eagle is that Hurricane Georges split her in half in 1998, making the Eagle a two-part wreck. Highlights of any Eagle tour include the crow’s nest and four-blade propeller.
You can reach the Eagle from either Tavernier or Islamorada.
Diagram of the Wreck of the Eagle – Photo courtesy of NOAA
Day 6: USCGC Duane – Skill Level: Advanced – Depth: 60-120 ft.
Along with the USCGC Bibb, the Duane was purchased for a cold hard buck by the Keys Association of Dive Operators (KADO) after decommissioning in 1985. At the time, both 327 foot “Treasury Class” cutters were the oldest active US military vessels in history, having been built in Philly in the 1930’s.
Something unique about the Duane is the fact that she’s fully intact and covered head to toe in a multicolored coat of sponge, coral and intense fish life. That’s what three decades in the ocean will do to you!
Dive the Duane from either Tavernier or Islamorada.
Day 7: USCGC Bibb – Skill Level: Advanced – Depth: 80-130 ft.
During the Vietnam War, the USCGC Bibb transported John Kerry after he was shot on his Swift boat. The Bibb also saw plenty of action in WWII fighting in the Battle of the Atlantic as a convoy escort.
Today the Bibb is still in pristine condition and is a dive not to be missed by any advanced diver. However, penetration is not recommended due to strong currents and the possibility of entanglements and obstructions within her hull.
Being close to the Gulfstream the Bibb enjoys incredible visibility and sightings of very large marine life. Sharks and Goliath Grouper are regularly spotted here, as are throngs of slighter fish and barracudas.
Reach the Bibb from either Tavernier or Islamorada.
Day 8: Benwood – Skill Level: Beginner – Depth: 25-40 ft.
One of the two Florida Keys Wrecks Decathlon dives rated for beginners, the Benwood can be reached from either Key Largo or Tavernier.
Originally the Benwood was a 360 foot English freighter, but over the years her wreckage has spread and scattered to the point that this dive is barely distinguishable from a natural reef. But that doesn’t mean the Benwood’s not worth your time as you’ll find cargo holds filled with marine life and curtains of shiny tropical reef fish.
Often times the Benwood dive is combined with the Spiegel Grove.
Cool fact: The Benwood sunk during WWII after she slammed into another Allied ship. Why couldn’t the captain see where he was going? He was driving without lights to avoid detection by German subs!
A diver explores the Bentwood – Photo by Elkman via Wikimedia Commons
Day 9: Spiegel Grove – Skill Level: Intermediate to Advanced – Depth: 60-130 ft.
At 510 feet the Spiegel Grove was the largest ship ever sunk to become an artificial reef (2002). It took eight years of planning to successfully get such a long Landing Ship Dock underwater safely, but she famously starred on CNN floating upside down when a starboard resting position was not the original idea.
From Key Largo, Tavernier or Islamorada you can head out to this huge wreck and see how her battleship gray hull is slowly “spongifying” like those of the Duane and Bibb. Barracuda, jacks and silversides make their homes here but you’ll be paying the fish no mind as you gawk at the Grove’s colossal anti-aircraft guns.
Penetration is intensely discouraged by dive masters but the journey around such a massive ship is all the treasure you’ll need. From the enormous well-deck ramp to the gigantic twin screws you’ll find numerous memorable photo ops.
On the Spiegel Grove – Photo by Ron Scharf
Day 10: City of Washington – Skill Level: Beginner – Depth: 15-25 ft.
The City of Washington is a 320 foot steamship that’s been resting on the sea floor for nearly a century. Built in 1877 in Pennsylvania, the Washington sank just forty years later in July of 1917.
Similar to the other beginner dive, the Benwood, visitors to the City of Washington will be more enthralled by the fish life than the wreckage itself. The hull forms a reef ledge which shelters grunts, snappers, nurse sharks and barracuda.
Being a beginner dive and only accessible from Key Largo, the Washington tends to get crowded. Get there early to avoid low visibility.
The remains of the City of Washington on Elbow reef is a great place for even snorkelers to get in
a "wreck dive." – Photoby NOAA.
These are by no means the only wrecks in the Florida Keys – but will provide dive enthusiasts with a terrific overview of the wrecks along the islands.