KEY LARGO, Fla. - Divers marked the 10th anniversary of the conversion of a retired Navy ship into an artificial reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary on Wednesday, heading down to the Spiegel Grove to place the ashes of one of its most ardent admirers.
Local business leaders joined shipwreck enthusiasts for a ceremonial dive on the 510-foot former Navy landing ship dock that had been transformed into a massive artificial reef, six miles off Key Largo.
They also placed the ashes of Tom Maher, 54, a researcher who gathered economic data on the Spiegel Grove's role as a dive attraction. Maher died last year of a heart attack and had requested the wreck as his final resting place.
"Before the Spiegel Grove was put down on the bottom, basically we had a sandy, flat bottom; with no structure, no complexity no coral on it at all," said Lad Akins of the Reef Environmental Foundation, who lead a five-year study of the wreck's marine life.. "And this 500-plus-foot steel structure has provided incredible relief and complexity for use of marine life.
The Spiegel Grove has also had a significant economic impact on Key Largo, generating an estimated $25 million in tourism revenue during the past 10 years, according to Key Largo Chamber of Commerce officials.
"Key Largo is known as the dive capital of the world and the addition of the Spiegel Grove only furthered that name," said Russ Yagel, the chamber's board chair.
The story of its Spiegel Grove's voyage to the bottom at a depth of 130 feet is as intriguing as its present-day coral growths.
Designed to carry cargo and craft for amphibious landings, Spiegel Grove was in operation from 1956 until its decommissioning in 1989.
In June 2001, after more than a decade in the U.S. Navy's "Mothball Fleet" in Virginia's James River, Spiegel Grove was towed to undergo an elaborate cleaning process. Eleven months later it was moved to Key Largo.
Six hours before its intended scuttling, the vessel prematurely sank and unexpectedly rolled over, leaving its upside-down bow protruding above the surface of the water.
"At the time it was sunk it was not looked as a blessing, (however) ironically it resulted in a great deal of international attention that now makes people from around the world dive the Spiegel Grove," Yagel said.
Some three weeks later, on June 10, 2002, a salvage team sank the vessel fully and it came to rest on its starboard side. The enormous ship immediately attracted reef fish and marine growth. It officially opened to divers June 26, 2002, luring underwater enthusiasts to the new artificial reef's cliff-like hull sprawled across the sandy bottom.
Three years later, the story took another unexpected twist. July 9, 2005, brought what many call Hurricane Dennis' gift to sport diving. The storm skirted the Keys, but when it was east of Cuba it generated powerful currents that migrated up the Florida Straits — and turned the Spiegel Grove upright.
Enveloped by delicate corals and invertebrates, Spiegel Grove's top deck is about 60 feet below the surface of the ocean. It currently is residence for more than 200 species of fish, marine experts said.
Spiegel Grove Information: http://www.fla-keys.com/spiegelgrove