Diving Top Dog… – Miami, May 2015

By Nick Barter

A few months ago when I mentioned I would be in Miami for a conference and planned to do some diving, Joli – based in Toronto – said she fancied some sunshine and could make it down for the weekend.

We decided on one big dive on the USS Spiegel Grove with Silent World Dive Center in Key Largo, who could rent us ‘doubles’, i.e. twinsets. At 6am I picked Joli up at her hotel in Miami in the red convertible Mustang I had hired, and we headed down to Key Largo an hour and a half away. It’s not the most practical of dive wagons but I was in Florida in sunshine, so practicality wasn’t particularly high on my list of requirements when choosing the wheels.

The Spiegel Grove was a 160m-long US Navy dock landing ship, commissioned in 1956 and decommissioned in 1989. In its dock the ship transported large landing craft that could be deployed and recovered by lowering the stern ramp. In service the Spiegel Grove was known as ‘Top Dog’.

In 2002 she was sunk as an artificial reef near Dixie Shoal, 6 miles off Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The sinking did not go as planned. Initially she capsized with her bow floating out of the water. A month and $250,000 later the ship was rolled onto her starboard side and settled on the seabed in 40m. Three years later Hurricane Dennis shifted this huge ship and she rolled into the scour and now sits upright in 40m.

We descended one of eight buoys to the large port-side crane that once serviced the dock, and then headed aft under what remains of a helicopter platform. Before long we recognised the lowered stern ramp of the ship below us. Rather than head deeper to see the props we headed back along the port side of the ship.

As we passed the port crane we descended into the dock and headed into the darkness under

the superstructure. Joli found an open door into a corridor which we followed towards the bow with rooms off each side. Towards the end we explored an open swim-through which took us into a parallel corridor and exit onto the foredeck.

Visibility was probably about 10m, so the shape of the bow with its bollards, chains and winches emerged more clearly as we swam forward across the deck. We squeezed through small open hatches on the deck and found ourselves in a machinery room – possibly gear for the anchors and other winches.

After exiting through another small hatch we headed back to the superstructure and ascended to the next deck up and the large ship’s canteen, recognisable by the supports on which table tops once stood. There were openings at the sides of the ship, providing some ambient light and atmospheric patches of ocean blue. Working aft through large rooms with populations of snapper we picked up another corridor that took us back through the superstructure to midships.

Overlooking the dock is a small observation room on which the Stars & Stripes – albeit a bit green with algae – flies in the current of the Gulf Stream. Beyond this we could see the starboard crane looming up. We shallowed up, heading back over the superstructure but found it unprotected from the current. When we saw the buoy line attached to the starboard side of the superstructure we decided it was time for our 25 minutes or so of deco. We didn’t go deeper than 33m but spent about 45 minutes exploring the wreck.

The current was easily manageable but we did have to keep contact with the line. From about 20m a school of very large barracuda effortlessly kept station in the current. Many were shadows in the blue but at our stops one or two would come within a few meters of us, keeping just out of range of my camera. They were a great sight and the stops flew by.

Topside it turns out to have been exciting in an altogether different way. A diver from another boat had had a rapid ascent holding her breath. She had popped up near our boat, which had recovered her, put her on oxygen and called the coastguard. The casualty had just been evacuated when we surfaced. We later heard she was OK though hospitalised.

Silent World are one of the smaller dive outfits, but a good crew with a well-equipped dive boat. And they proved they could handle a diver emergency. They support Trimix and CCR divers. There are deeper wrecks nearby at 40- 100m that are more rarely visited and provide a full range of technical targets.

The following day, I had another spare day so booked with South Beach Divers in Miami for a day of recreational diving. As it turned out they were heading back down to Key Largo to dive in the John Pennenkamp Coral Reef State Park, and I ‘dove’ the Christ of the Abyss and then French Reef, with a maximum depth of 10m. Christ of the Abyss is a bronze statue of Christ and is one of the most popular sites in the US, but the reef isn’t great and neither was visibility on the day. French reef was a better reef with lots of photo-friendly subjects and some cave swim-throughs. Visibility was OK at around 15m.

The reefs and wrecks of this area are at the mercy of the shifting Gulf Stream and its eddies for both currents and visibility. The captain pointed to clean blue water out to sea just beyond French reef. We were in the ‘green’ water. When the Gulf Stream does decide to sweep the reefs and wrecks clean and bring the blue water in it can also bring currents that make the sites undiveable for days on end.

The dive shops in Miami sub-contract from the main Key Largo dive operations for their trips to the Keys. If I was doing the trip again I would book direct with the dive centres in the Keys like Rainbow Reef or Silent World. But if you are in Miami and want the transport offered by the Miami centres then they are a good option.

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