Key West's Modern Historical Shipwreck

by Geri Murphy

Of the 50 or so dive sites around Key West, the wreck of the Cayman Salvage Master is perhaps the most representative of this area's alluring undersea adventures. The name of the wreck is a bit confusing since it contains the name of a famous Caribbean island. And, to make matters even more complex, various books and internet sites refer to this shipwreck as the Cayman Salvager or Cayman Salvor.

Yet, despite the confusion, the wreck stands out as one of the signature dives of Key West. It is the kind of site all divers enjoy, whether they are novices or experienced wreck buffs. Even more intriguing, this particular wreck has a modern history that equals the stories about the old Spanish treasure ships rumored to be hidden in these waters.

The Cayman Salvage Master was originally a lighthouse buoy tender for the U.S. Coast Guard. Built in 1936, this steel hulled vessel measures 186 feet in length, with a 37 foot beam. Her most distinctive feature is the cable pulley built into her bow.

After being decommissioned by the Coast Guard, the ship was sailing as a commercial freighter under the Panamanian flag when she became involved in the Mariel Harbour boatlift of 1980. Immediately upon arrival in Key West; with 1,400 Cuban refugees; she was impounded by the U.S. Navy.

Neglected for years, she eventually sank in the Navy Harbor at Key West. In 1985, she was refloated and her superstructure was removed in preparation for sinking as an artificial reef. While she was being towed to sea, the cable snapped and the unlucky derelict sank. She settled to the bottom on her side and remained that way until a powerful undersea surge from Hurricane Kate flipped her upright.

Today, the Cayman Salvage Master is one of Key West's most popular wreck dives. Her proximity to Key West and her depth make her ideal for recreational open water dives. She sits almost upright on a sand bottom, with the stern in 92 feet of water. Her decks are at 70 feet and most of the vessel's interior compartments and engine room are at 80 feet. The water temperature rises to 86 degrees F during the summer months. Average underwater visibility is exceptionally good on this wreck; about 50 feet; as it is near the Gulf Stream. The wreck is five miles due south of Key West and takes approximately 30 minutes to reach by boat.

One of the lures of the Cayman Salvage Master is that she has become home and haven for several Jewfish. A small, 120 pound Jewfish is often seen in the engine room, while a much larger 800 pound behemoth sometimes appears loitering under the vessel's stern. The great fish are wary of divers; they are often seen but less often photographed.

Other fish that hang out in the engine room area include Snook and, occasionally, a grouper. A large Green Moray can be found living in or under the cable pulley mounted on the vessel's bow. It makes a great photo because the wheel is encrusted with colorful sponges and corals. Hanging above the wreck is a single Barracuda, motionless but alert.

At the opposite end of the vessel, exploring divers will find a giant rudder beneath the stern. Schools of jacks often cruise just off the stern, hunting for baitfish. During our dive, two giant African Pompano cruised past the wreck just 20 feet off the port side.

Arriving divers will find several extremely friendly angelfish on the Cayman Salvage Master's deck at 70 feet. There are two different species; Blue and Queen. The Blue Angelfish is not common in the Caribbean but quite plentiful in Florida waters. It is similar in coloring to the Queen Angelfish but lacks the blue crown on the forehead. We made two 80 foot dives on the Cayman Salvage Master with a 45 minute surface interval between dives.