Wrecked in Key West

Bill Harrigan

If you take the scenic drive down the Overseas Highway for a dive vacation in Key West, you'll find the town has given itself a face lift. And that's good news because few places in the United States can claim a past as colorful and eclectic as Key West. Home of cigar makers, shrimpers, submariners, novelists, treasure hunters, spongers and lobstermen, it may be best known for the infamous wreckers. For several decades in the early 1800s this group of adventurous sailors made Key West their headquarters as they salvaged ships that had run aground on the reefs of the Florida Keys, including some that had been lured off course by false lights. When a unique series of lighthouses was constructed on the reefs in the mid-1800s, the era of the wreckers finally came to an end, but shipwrecks have remained part of Key West history. For visiting divers, a number of modern wrecks can be reached in less than 45 minutes from Key West, in moderate depths and generally protected conditions.
For instance, Joe's Tug is a 75-foot harbor tug that sits upright in only 65 feet of water. Sunk in 1986, it is covered bow to stern
with a coating of encrusting corals and sponges. Tropical storms have gradually dismantled the wheelhouse, which has now fallen off to the side, leaving the hull of the vessel easily accessible. If you swim through it, you'll share the space with schools of French Grunts and Schoolmasters that swirl around you without giving up the protection of the wreck.
The Cayman Salvage Master is another popular Key West wreck dive. This ex-Coast Guard buoy tender was built in 1936 and converted first to a cable layer, then to a freighter. She was confiscated after participating in the 1980 Mariel boat lift of refugees from Cuba and eventually sank at the dock. Raised and stripped of the pilothouse, the vessel was being towed out to deep water to become an artificial reef for fishermen when it sank again. The big, spoked wheel on the bow is the trademark of this 187-foot-long wreck, along with the clouds of fish attracted to it.
Of course, wrecks aren't the only underwater attraction in Key West. Some of the easiest coral reef diving in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary can be found here. A Sanctuary Preservation Area was established around the reef at Western Sambo several years ago, and the results have been amazing. The 12- to 15-foot-tall coral spurs of the reef now shelter a remarkable diversity of fish, including a 300-pound Jewfish. The maximum depth at Nine Foot Stake is about 25 feet, making this an excellent spot for the last dive of the day. A massive Brain Coral is the centerpiece of the reef, but the entire area is a warren of coral nooks and crannies.
Have you ever been disappointed by dive sites that were supposed to be good for both divers and snorkelers, but weren't very good for either? Western Dry Rocks is one of those places that actually is good for both. The dry rocks in the name are the shallowest sections of the reef, some of which break the surface at low tide. Snorkeling on this part of the reef is simply a matter of floating around and enjoying the underwater sights. As you go seaward, though, the reef slopes gradually into deeper water and scuba divers find lots to explore. First there is a maze of coral spur and sand channels, then around 30 feet the reef changes to a lower profile. The hard corals become more isolated and soft corals and sponges begin to dominate. This section of the reef is an excellent area for fish watching, since the abundance of sponges attracts many species, especially members of the angelfish family such as the Queen, Blue, French and Gray Angelfish.
Key West has something for everyone after the day's diving. The historic sights and ambiance of the town have been carefully preserved, while visitor amenities have steadily improved. In a couple of pleasant afternoons you can visit the Wreckers' Museum on Duval Street, the Key West Shipwreck Historeum and the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, and see artifacts from wrecks such as the Atocha, which sank in 1622, the Henrietta Marie, which met her demise in 1700 and the Isaac Allerton, which went down in 1856.
Don't forget to celebrate the sunset from Mallory Square! This daily party of magicians, musicians and acrobats is as much a Key West tradition as wrecking.