The Shipwrecks of the Florida Keys

Shifting sand created by the storm surge from Hurricane Irma revealed this anchor off the starboard bow of the Benwood shipwreck. Photo by Stephen Frink

By accident and intent

On Friday the 13th in July 1733, Lt. Gen. Don Rodrigo de Torres looked at the sky and deemed the weather propitious to sail from Havana Harbor, as Martin Meylach recounts in his treasure salvage book Diving to a Flash of Gold. The flotilla de Torres commanded from aboard the 60-gun El Rubi included 21 or 22 vessels carrying treasure and other goods back to Spain. Sailors relied on word of mouth for storm warnings from other ships that had weathered one and arrived in port to tell the tale. Absent such warnings that day, the fleet set sail. The next day they sighted the Florida Keys while sailing in a strong northerly wind, but the next morning the wind shifted abruptly to the south and significantly increased in velocity.

De Torres recognized a hurricane was upon them and directed the ships to return to Cuba, but he was too late. Passenger Joseph Ignacio de Toca Velasco later wrote in his poem about the event, “The ship saw the silver reef … there was only time to sigh, to ask for grace. Clouds and waves came in approaching mountains.…” By the evening of July 15, most of the ships were scattered and sunk along 80 miles of the coral reef fringing the Florida Keys. Four ships returned to Havana, and only the galleon El Africa sailed on to Spain undamaged.

Spanish officers sent a small sloop from Havana to investigate and discovered the survivors clustered in small groups taking shelter beneath debris that had washed ashore from their broken and grounded ships. Nine vessels sailed to rescue the crews and salvage the treasure. They got what they could from the ships and shallow reefs and then burned the ships to the waterline to hide them from further salvage efforts.

That strategy worked. The ships remained undisturbed until 1938, when a fisherman from Islamorada, Florida, discovered a cannon wreck and notified Art McKee, one of the few scuba divers around the Upper Keys at that time. After McKee found coins on the wreck, he wrote a letter to the Spanish archives, which sent him a salvor’s map with the locations of the entire 1733 fleet. Thus began the modern era of shipwreck diving in the Florida Keys, and McKee extensively dived the fleet over the years. The Spanish had reclaimed most of the treasure, but he found enough to fill the exhibits and coffers of McKee’s Museum of Sunken Treasure on Plantation Key.

Historical Shipwrecks

I first visited the Florida Keys in 1978 while on holiday to visit a buddy who was living in Key Largo and working as a treasure diver on 1733 fleet wreck sites. It’s hard to imagine that divers were still finding artifacts just 40 years ago until you realize that one of the greatest underwater treasure finds of all time was in 1985, when Mel Fisher’s team of divers discovered the Atocha, which was carrying more than 40 tons of gold and silver and about 70 pounds of emeralds when it sank some 30 miles off Key West in 1622.

The historical shipwrecks from this era are no longer likely to yield treasure, and not much remains other than a ballast pile or a cannon on certain rare and now-protected wreck sites. The structures of these wooden ships are long gone, destroyed by waves and Teredo shipworms. 

Some newer wooden ships still have enough structure to be interesting from an archaeological point of view and to shelter marine life. My favorite of this genre is popularly known as the Civil War Wreck, located on the Elbow Reef in northern Key Largo. Marine archaeologists working under permit with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary have ascertained this ship is the Tonawandaa wooden three-masted schooner-rigged steamer measuring 175 feet long with a nearly 30-foot beam. When it ran aground on March 27, 1866, crews recovered the cargo of fish and potatoes and salvaged the steam engine machinery. The iron pins that held the timbers in place and some of the wooden keel remain. Always in residence are various species of grunts, which tend to be Caesar grunts and white grunts comingled in enormous schools rather than the more common bluestriped grunts. There are other reef tropicals, especially queen angelfish, green morays and hogfish, but the clouds of grunts along the starboard bow are the most impressive.

A snorkeler above the Civil War Wreck

Just a bit farther offshore than the Tonawanda is the City of Washington, which for many years operated as a steamship running between New York and Cuba. Its singular claim to fame was rescuing the survivors of the USS Maine explosion from its neighboring anchorage in Havana Harbor. The City of Washington ran aground on the Elbow Reef in July 1917 while being towed as a barge. 

Local lore suggests that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dynamited it to remove a navigation hazard, but its pancaked appearance more likely is from the ruthless salvaging of ships of this era with no thought of future recreational diving here. There is plenty of structure for schools of grunts and tropical reef dwellers as well as sponge-encrusted superstructure, making it a beautiful setting for wide-angle photography with models. Both wrecks are in only 20 to 30 feet of water. 

The Benwood is another Key Largo classic that is astonishing for the marine life it harbors. To avoid being a target of German U-boats prowling the East Coast shipping lanes, the ship ran its routine voyage on April 9, 1942, with its lights out. The 360-foot Benwood unfortunately collided with the 544-foot Robert C. Tuttle, which was also running without lights. The Benwood, which punched into the Tuttle’s portside bow above the waterline, began taking on water from its damaged bow. Capt. Torbjørn Skjelbred steamed toward shore for 30 minutes before abandoning the ship, which now lies in 25 to 45 feet of water. 

A porthole on the deck of the Benwood

Parts of the Benwood remained above the surface for some years, but wind, waves and salvage efforts have totally submerged it, with the bow section bearing the greatest fidelity to how the ship looked. The midsection and stern are flat and scattered, but the holds and deck structure shelter large schools of fish, mostly goatfish, grunts and Bermuda chubs. Massive schools of porkfish reside in the shade of the forward hull, their symmetry occasionally pierced by foraging queen angelfish and parrotfish. The crevices where the ship rests on the seafloor hide spotted drums, and along the starboard side are sand patches with yellowhead jawfish. In 2017 Hurricane Irma displaced enough sand to fully reveal a previously unknown anchor.

Historical shipwrecks are scattered throughout the Florida Keys, but most of them are not particularly engaging dive sites. If the reef is shallow enough for a ship to run aground, it is likely shallow enough for storm-driven waves to have battered the ship to smithereens over the decades. An exception is Flagler’s Barge off Marathon. 

Schooling grunts on Flagler’s Barge

During construction of the Key West Extension of Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway — the “Railroad That Went To Sea” — workers lived in docked barges as they built the track from the Florida mainland to Key West. The Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 killed more than 400 people and washed away more than 40 miles of track. A casualty of that storm, Flagler’s Barge was swept from its mooring and sank about 1.5 miles northeast of Sombrero Reef in only 20 to 24 feet of water. With the wooden decking and cabins long gone, the skeleton of metal beams and bulkheads provides the only structure amid miles of flat and featureless sand. It has become an active ecosystem colonized by large schools of grunts, nurse sharks, goatfish, sergeant majors and schoolmaster snappers. 

Artificial Reefs 

Local dive communities with the assistance of the Florida Keys Tourist Development Council have intentionally sunk some amazing artificial reefs throughout the Keys. I have been involved in the projects to acquire, clean and sink the three ships off Key Largo (the Bibb, Duane and Spiegel Grove) and have watched all the others slip beneath the waves as those projects succeeded. It is hard to imagine all the work involved in sinking artificial reefs of this nature. 

The government has many mothballed ships, so getting the ship donated is perhaps the easiest part. The receiving party, however, has many obstacles to navigate. The entire process is massively time-consuming and expensive, beginning with contractors who clean the ships of oil and other pollutants and remove contaminants such as fire-retardant paint containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) so the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Coast Guard will sign off on the cleanup. Then the ships are made safe for diver access before sinking them in a manner prescribed by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary as safe for marine life and coral reefs. The costs have escalated dramatically over the years. We acquired, cleaned and sank the Bibb and the Duane off Key Largo in 1987 for less than $300,000 for both. The Vandenberg, the last of the big shipwreck projects in the Florida Keys, cost $8.6 million to prepare and scuttle in May 2009. 

The following marquee Florida Keys artificial reef sites are listed in order from north to south.

USS Spiegel GroveThe many mishaps that occurred while placing the Spiegel Grove on the seafloor are an article on their own. Initially settling upside down after sinking prematurely on May 17, 2002, the ship was rolled onto its starboard side several weeks later and remained there until waves from Hurricane Dennis set it upright in July 2005. At 510 feet long with a beam of more than 80 feet, the huge ship operated as a landing ship dock during its military career. It may take several dives to feel like you have adequately explored the Spiegel Grove.

A queen angelfish on the Spiegel Grove

There is a cavernous rear well deck, but the best recreational diving is along the superstructure forward of the cranes, which includes the turrets for the anti-aircraft guns, the wheelhouse structure and the bow. The ship sits in 140 feet of water, but most of the best diving is at 110 feet and shallower. Huge seasonal schools of glass minnows in the holds and wheelhouse increase the populations of groupers and barracudas. Schools of horse-eye jacks are in the midwater above the wheelhouse, while Atlantic spadefish schools are less frequent. The most unusual fish here are the angelfish, especially queen angels. 

USCG DuaneThe U.S. Coast Guard cutter Duane is smaller at 327 feet long with a 41-foot beam, so you can easily circumnavigate the most interesting parts of the ship on a single dive. It rests in 120 feet of water, with most of the best diving at 80 to 100 feet. The top of the radar tower is at about 60 feet. Orange cup corals and sponges that explode with color when lit by strobes colonize its radar tower and latticed support structure. The wheelhouse is full of French grunts and completely adorned with encrusting sponges and cup corals. Large schools of gray snappers are typically near the portside base of the radar tower. Fish that are unusual to see on other wrecks and reefs, such as golden-phase coneys, occasionally show up here. When under seasonal protection from fishing, the Duane hosts a lot of groupers, but they disappear quickly during open season. 

In 1987 the Duane was towed from Boston Harbor with its sister ship, the Bibband sunk the day after Thanksgiving. The Bibb was sunk the next day about a half mile away. While the Duane settled perfectly upright, the Bibb landed on its starboard side at 130 feet. Its depth and narrow beam make the Bibb a more advanced dive.

A deck hatch on the Eagle

EagleThe Eagle is a 287-foot freighter sunk on Dec. 19, 1985, offshore of Lower Matecumbe Key, 3 miles northeast of Alligator Reef. It settled to the bottom on its starboard side in 115 feet of water and was later split apart by waves from Hurricane Georges in 1998. After 35 years on the seafloor the Eagle is encrusted with colorful sponges in many areas. Large openings in the split hull often house big schools of tomtate grunts, and gray angelfish often nibble on the sponges. Goliath groupers, black groupers and schools of Atlantic spadefish are common on the Eagle. Reef butterflyfish, which are rarely seen on shallow reefs, are resident in these deeper regions. While you wouldn’t normally dive this deep to see yellowhead jawfish, divers can easily spot them at a sand crater near the bow. 

RV ThunderboltSunk intentionally 4 miles south of Marathon in March 1986, the 189-foot Thunderbolt sits upright at 120 feet. Its main features are the wheelhouse and the large horizontal cable spool mounted on the forward deck near the bow. Originally named the USAMP Major General Wallace F. Randolph, it was a mine planter for the U.S. Army and then the Navy. Florida Power and Light later purchased the ship to use as a research vessel for studying lightning strikes, hence the new name. 

The iconic cable spool on the forward deck of the Thunderbolt

Most of the best diving is at 110 feet and above. The ship’s intact twin propellers are about all that would bring divers deeper to the seafloor. Like most wrecks with many decades below the sea, the sponge encrustation is lavish. A large barracuda often inhabits the wheelhouse, and French angelfish flit amid the sponges and hydroids.

MV Adolphus BuschThe Adolphus Busch is the queen of the Lower Keys shipwreck portfolio. The Lower Keys dive community purchased this 210-foot island freighter with the generous assistance of Adolphus Busch IV and on Dec. 5, 1998, sank it intact and upright 7 miles southwest of Big Pine Key at 110 feet. Currents can sometimes create visibility issues here, but when clear there are beautiful wide-angle photo opportunities with ladders, railings and the colorful interior walls of the wheelhouse.

Divers on the Adolphus Busch

USS VandenbergThe General Hoyt S. Vandenberg is big in so many ways. At almost 523 feet long, it is the largest of the Florida Keys shipwrecks and at 140 feet is a bit deeper than the rest. The main deck is between 95 and 100 feet, although it has settled into the sand somewhat since sinking on May 27, 2009.  

The General Hoyt S. Vandenberg was towed from Norfolk, Virginia, to Key West and scuttled as an artificial reef on May 27, 2009. 

Located 7 miles offshore of Key West, the Vandenberg is the preeminent daily destination for most of the Key West dive fleet. Some dive operations opt to double-dip so divers can see more of this massive ship than a single dive allows. Every time I dive the wheelhouse region I am awed by the sheer size. Orange cup corals cloak the inside, and the last time I dived there I was so intent on my subjects and surroundings that it wasn’t until processing my images that I noticed a bull shark revealed through one of the windows. That’s how it goes on the Vandenberg — it will be a different experience every time. 

How to Dive It

Conditions: Currents can sometimes be quite intense. The ships are large, especially the military vessels, so they are in water deep enough (115 to 140 feet) to avoid being hazards to navigation. At this depth they are subject to the Gulf Stream, which can meander near or stay far offshore, so on any given day it is difficult to predict whether there will be current on the wrecks. The sites are 6 to 7 miles offshore, so sometimes the only way to know is for the dive boat to go check.

The Gulf Stream can provide wonderful water clarity but make diving challenging. A knowledgeable captain can tell if the current is excessive by looking at the eddies around the mooring buoys, but they sometimes may deploy a divemaster to test the situation because the current may be different at the surface than at depth. Most dive operations prefer divers have an advanced certification to dive the artificial reefs.

The historical shipwrecks mentioned are shallow and very benign dives suitable for any certified diver. 

The water temperature in Florida can vary seasonally from 69°F to 86°F. Conditions can be breezy from November through April, and none of these wrecks have protection from the prevailing winds. The Florida Keys dive fleet features substantial boats that are designed for diver convenience and are Coast Guard certified for additional safety. In the summer it is generally calmer, warmer and clearer. 

Getting there: The Florida Keys are known as “the islands you can drive to” and are only 63 miles from the Miami airport. There are regional airports in Marathon and Key West, but most divers arrive by car after flying into Ft. Lauderdale (FLL) or Miami (MIA) or driving through mainland Florida to the Keys. For more information on the Florida Keys Wreck Trek, see

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Experience diving the wreck of the Duane in this video.

© Alert Diver — Q3/Q4 2020