One of the greatest experiences in recreational diving is a visit to an underwater shipwreck.
When a ship sinks in an ocean, the resulting wreck often becomes a hotspot for marine life and is often referred to as an "artificial reef." In fact, natural coral structures can form around these wrecks and provide a haven for ocean wanderers like sea turtles, lionfish, tang, and many others.
The eerie nature of a shipwreck and the allure of the new inhabitants it recieves shortly after sinking contribute to the appeal of diving deep to see it. Many old ships are purposely sought out for this reason. Military vessels are particularly popular for their large size and sturdy hulls. Here are a few popular shipwrecks among scuba divers:
Joe's Tug, Key West, FL
Joe's Tug has a great story behind its sinking, although much of the circumstances around the actual events remain a mystery to most, even to this day. Joe's Tug is an old shrimp boat sunk in not very deep water, just south of Key West. Because it was made of steel, you can still see the shape of the hull, and it makes a good beginner's dive since it's not that deep. For snorkelers and freedivers, if the vis is good and you can dive down a bit, say around 50 feet, you will see Joe's Tug.
Back in the 80′s, when apparently nobody kept an eye on the harbor too much, Joe's Tug was docked and ready to be towed to Miami to become an artificial reef. She had been stripped of dangerous pollutants and readied for sinking. Sometime in the night, some locals decided they'd like the new reef a little closer to home. So they stole it and planned to sink it in their own secret spot.
They didn't make it to their secret spot and the thing sank in 65 feet of water where it is now. Her position has been slightly modified by past hurricanes and it sits upright in the water. A lot of the local dive shops that run boats for scuba divers love to take their customers to Joe's Tug.
Joe's Tug is also the first shipwreck I visited. The flag at the foremast still waves slowly with the ocean currents, and an old loggerhead turtle fondly named "Steve" has made her his home. The shallow depth and storied existence of the Tug make it a great wreck for beginners.
RMS Rhone, Salt Island, British Virgin Islands
Of all the ships that are reported to be haunted, the R.M.S. (Royal Mail Ship) Rhone has a very unique distinction - The ship lies 35 to 80 feet underwater. The Royal Mail Packet Company commissioned the ship in 1864 as a mail and passenger cruiser between England and the Caribbean. The Rhone's iron hull was 310 feet long and 40 feet wide and was believed to be the fastest and most modern ship in the fleet. Only two short years into its service however, the ship ran into trouble just outside the British Virgin Islands.
It was in late October (October 29th to be exact) and the hurricane season was believed to be over as the R.M.S. Rhone neared the island of Tortola. So when the barometers suddenly plunged and dark clouds covered the sky, Captain Robert Wooley just assumed that they were heading into an early winter storm. When the storm hit, the order was given to drop anchor, yet keep the ship at full steam ahead. The maneuver was to offset the storm's power and keep the ship in position. Then something unusual happened. The skies cleared and the sea came to a rest. It was then that Captain Wooley realized that the ship was now directly in the eye of a hurricane.
It has since been estimated that the hurricane the R.M.S. Rhone encountered that fateful day was around a Category 5 storm. At the time, the ship held anywhere between 150 to 300 passengers and crew, who reportedly were becoming hysterical as the powerful storm battered the ship. For this reason, and so that passengers would not be injured by the violent motions of the ship in the storm, Captain Wooley reportedly ordered his crew to tie the passengers to their bunks. It would prove to be a tragic decision.
The cable reportedly snapped and Captain Wooley attempted to use the calm of the ocean to his advantage and headed for open sea, between the islands of Dead Chest Cay and Salt Island. As the eye passed and the storm recommenced, the ship was helpless against the roaring waves and the zero visibility the storm provided. It is even said that a giant wave came out of nowhere and washed Captain Wooley overboard before he knew what hit him. The R.M.S. Rhone was pushed towards a series of rocky outcrops known as Black Rock, off the shores of Salt Island. When the ship crashed into the rocks, seawater rushed in and filled the hot boiler room, which was still set at full steam. The result was a massive explosion that ripped the ship in two.
The stern sank quickly - much too quickly for the ill-fated passengers still tied to their beds. It did remain upright for some time with its masts above water, allowing only four people to climb to safety and await rescue. The aft of the ship drifted a short distance away, but ultimately sank at a 90-degree angle from the bow. In total, of the estimated 150-300 people onboard, there were only 23 survivors; including 22 crew members and one passenger. The stern of the ship now lies in about 30-feet of water, while the bow is deeper at 80-feet.
In 1967, the area surrounding the wreck was turned into the Wreck of the Rhone Marine Park, making it the only such Marine National Park in the British Virgin Islands. The shipwreck itself has turned into a popular tourist destination where guided scuba diving tours take visitors inside the wreck. It was even predominantly featured in the 1977 horror/thriller film, The Deep. The R.M.S. Rhone is now considered to be one of the best wreck dives in the Caribbean, as well as the world.
However, some visitors have reported strange activity inside the decaying hulls of the Rhone several feet underwater. One of the more predominant encounters experienced is the sensation of someone tugging on the shoulders of the divers. When they turn to see who was touching them, they find no one there. Others have reported hearing strange noises that they describe as groans or screams; including several professional divers who have said that they never heard such noises before in any other dive. The haunting is so widely known that it attracted the attention of National Geographic Channel's series Is It Real?, who explored the legends and story of the R.M.S. Rhone.
Spiegel Grove Shipwreck, Key Largo, FL
The Spiegel Grove (LSD-32) was 510 feet in length and 85 feet in width. She was originally constructed in September 1954, launched on November 10, 1955 and commissioned on June 8, 1956. During her long and illustrious career, the Spiegel grove participated in action throughout the Caribbean Sea, Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, Panama and the Middle East, including a vital role in the original Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf.
The USS Spiegel Grove was due to be intentionally sunk to create an artificial reef on May 17, 2002. Sometime during the night before her planned sinking, the Spiegel Grove sank on her own. Unfortunately, she landed in deeper water than originally planned and was upside down! On June 11, 2002, the Spiegel Grove was finally righted by turning her to her starboard side. She is now sitting in 130 feet and rises to within 50 feet of the surface.
Salvage crews had used giant liftbags and steel cables to nudge it over onto its starboard side, where it was safe from passing vessels but slightly disorienting for divers to swim through. Mother nature did not allow the Spiegel Grove to stay in that awkward position for long. A Strong surge from Hurricane Dennis flipped the sunken U.S. Navy ship into the perfect upright position where she now rests a few miles off Key Largo.
Spiegel Grove is considered to be the master wreck dive of the United States. It is the largest ship ever sunk intentionally to create an artificial reef. Because of its massive size and deep water location, only small segments of the ship can be explored at a time. There have been six reported deaths of scuba divers penetrating the wreck. However, that will not kill the appeal of the Grove for any curious diver, and I entered the ship in 2006. Spiegel Grove remains my favorite wreck of all time.