Florida Keys Most Popular Dive & Snorkeling Sites

Lower Keys

The Vandenberg

The USNS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, as it was known at the time of its sinking as an artificial reef on 27 May, 2009, was originally named the USS Gen. Harry Taylor. The transport vessel was laid down under a Maritime Commission contract on 22 February, 1943. It was officially acquired by the Navy on 29 March, 1944, and was commissioned as the USS Gen. Harry Taylor in just over a month later. It was designed to be a troop transport during the second World War. The General Harry Taylor set off from San Francisco on its first mission to New Guinea on 23 June, 1944, carrying basic troop reinforcements. Throughout the following year, the transport vessel would continue to make routine trips to the area, carrying troops and supplies, until the war in Japan came to an end on 5 August, 1945. Following the conclusion of the war, the General Harry Taylor continued to be used as a transport vessel to carry returning soldiers from the Pacific Asian campaign and the European campaign back to the U.S. It did so up until it was decommissioned In Baltimore, Maryland on 13 June, 1946.

The General Harry Taylor went out of service on 19 September, 1958, before being reacquired by the U.S. Air Force on 15 July, 1961, and being renamed the USAFS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg. The namesake for the vessel was famed WWII Air Force general Hoyt Sanford Vandenberg. The ship was only in service for three years before the Navy reacquired it on 1 July, 1964, thus changing its name once again to USNS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg. Between 1964 and 1983, the Vandenberg was set to a variety of tasks, such as testing missile ranges, as well as missile and spacecraft tracking. In 1998, a horror film called Virus actually used the Vandenberg in a few of its scenes. The Vandenberg was finally put out of order in 2008. A sinking of the ship was originally intended to take place on 15 May, 2008, but was unable to do so due to the failure of its owners to pay shipyard fees. The ship was later put up for auction and was bought and then transferred to the city of Key West, where it was finally sunk on 27 May, 2009.


The Vandenberg was sunk to create an artificial reef, and is known to be the second largest of its kind in the world, while it is the largest in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Today, main visitors flock to the key west area every year to dive down to the beautiful and serene artificial reef that was once the Vandenberg. This specific site is believed by many to be among the best areas in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary for Key West Diving.

One of the great places for diving around the U.S. is the Key West area, and the Vandenberg is one of the highlights. Quite often, decommissioned ships are used to create artificial reefs and amazing dive sites. In May, 2009, the USNS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg became the second largest vessel in the world sunk to create an artificial reef. Her 522 feet rest on the bottom in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. At ten stories high, she has sites to offer from 40 to 140 feet deep, and a range of marine life to go with them.

When created correctly, an artificial reef provides a habitat for marine life and control erosion. In Key West diving areas, they also serve as fascinating structures for divers to explore. In addition to physical modifications, the Vandenberg’s role as a reef means that plants and animals grow on, and around her surface. Pelagic fish use her as a hunting ground, seeking the small reef fish and marine plant life that inhabit her structures.

The Vandenberg was planned as a diving excursion, and she was slightly restructured while afloat to create areas of interest all along her structure. The kingpost and foremast are favorite spot for photos, and make a great rest stop. Farther aft, the bridge is easy to identify, as are the attention-grabbing radar dishes. Look for the numerous fish that seek protection in the radar dishes’ intricate form. Even the lowly smokestacks are a wonder when viewed through a veil of fish.

Although the external parts of the ship are highly popular Key West diving sites, for divers certified in light-wreck penetration, the interior of the vessel is another amazing dive. Holes through the hull to sink the ship now provide access to the many holds, stair towers, hallways and elevator shafts.

At nearly two football fields in length, the Vandenberg is too big to be seen in one dive. Key West diving fans will plan multiple visits to fully appreciate her beauty and mystery. Those with a particular interest in marine life will enjoy the varieties of fish ranging from deep-water types to those that prefer shallow waters. Underwater photographers will have no shortage of excellent shots whether they prefer structural or swimming subjects.
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