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THE “POOL” IS OPEN AS DIVERS DESCEND ON VANDENBERG

A retired Air Force missile-tracking ship intentionally sunk to create an artificial reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary opened Saturday, May 30, to the public.

The 523-foot-long Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg is situated about seven miles south of Key West. The bottom of the ship’s hull rests on sand in depths that average 145 feet. But the ship is so massive that the superstructure begins about 45 feet below the surface.

“I’ve dove a lot of ships,” said Tom Kanczuzewski of South Bend, Ind., after surfacing Saturday. “This is the ship of all ships. I’d love to come back in a year and see all the fishes.”

Saturday morning, a lone barracuda patrolled the superstructure of the ship that once tracked the U.S. space program’s launches off Cape Canaveral, monitored U.S. defense missile test launches and eavesdropped on Russian missile launches during the Cold War.

But project organizers think it’s just a matter of days before additional marine life takes up residence.

The wreck is already fulfilling its promise of attracting visitors to the Florida Keys.

“We have calls coming in from as far as Germany and Norway from people planning to come just to dive this wreck,” said Bob Holston, owner of Dive Key West and president of the Keys Association of Dive Operators. “We have more pre-bookings for the summer now than we’ve had in 38 years of being in business.

“This is probably going to be one of the world’s classiest wrecks to dive,” Holston said. “And it’s just a corner piece of the wreck trek of the Florida Keys.”

Monroe County Commissioner Mario Di Gennaro, who helped find public money to fund the project, says the project will help take recreational dive pressure off natural coral reefs.

“It’s going to protect our reef and put heads in beds and increase our tourism, which is our main industry down here,” he said. “That’s the goal of this whole project, to protect our environment and also to benefit our economy.”

Dive instructor Megan Collins thinks the Vandenberg’s mammoth size should be appealing to scuba divers of different skill sets.

“It’s the possibilities for people of all levels without having to jeopardize their safety,” she said. “There’s so much to look at on the superstructure of the Vandenberg that no matter your temptation, you don’t have to go inside.”

Project initiator Joe Weatherby, who 13 years ago chose the Vandenberg from 400 ships rusting away in “mothball fleets across” the country, was ecstatic after his dive.

“I think it’s exactly what we planned it to be,” said Weatherby, after assisting Di Gennaro who smacked a champagne bottle against a ship stanchion 70 feet below to celebrate the project’s completion. “It’s the world’s best wreck dive.”

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