Published: February 2011

Artificial Reefs

Artificial Reef Diver

Relics to Reefs

Why fish can't resist sunken ships, tanks, and subway cars.

By Stephen Harrigan
Photograph by David Doubilet

It took just over two minutes for the missile-tracking ship General Hoyt S. Vandenberg to sink to the bottom of the ocean. On a clear morning in May 2009, seven miles off Key West, a series of hollow booms erupted from inside the vessel’s hull, where 46 explosive charges had been buried deep below the waterline. The sharp smell of gunpowder drifted on the breeze, and an obscuring veil of black smoke began to rise, but for a long moment the ship didn’t seem to register the shock. She just hung there level in the water, 523 feet long, a rusting, decommissioned hulk with two useless radar dishes that towered above the ocean surface.

Then, as news helicopters circled above and thousands of onlookers watched from boats idling beyond the blast zone, the Vandenberg slowly hitched downward into the Atlantic, remaining perfectly horizontal until finally the bow dropped and the stern rose, leaving nothing but a roiling tract of white water. "There'll be fish living on that wreck this afternoon!" declared Joe Weatherby, the man who had spearheaded the massive project to sink the Vandenberg and turn it, over time, into an artificial reef that would lure divers and fishermen to Key West.

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