The Vandenberg is certainly not the first ship to be deliberately sunk to create an artificial reef. The waters off the Florida Keys have become the grave site of the Coast Guard cutters Duane and Bibb and the U.S. Navy landing ship Spiegel Grove, and on the sandy bottom 20 or so miles out to sea from Pensacola lies an entire aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Oriskany—the largest ship in the world intentionally sunk as an artificial reef. Dozens of World War II cargo vessels known as Liberty ships have been submerged, or to use the proper jargon, deployed, all along the Gulf, Atlantic, and Pacific coasts.
People around the world have long known that shipwrecks are prime fishing sites, and since at least the 1830s, American fishermen purposely built artificial reefs out of interlaced logs. In our own time the materials of do-it-yourself reefs have tended to be castaway junk: old refrigerators, shopping carts, ditched cars, out-of-service vending machines. Pretty much anything you can sink has the potential to become an artificial reef. Even officially sanctioned ones are often created from distinctly odd materials, including decommissioned subway cars, vintage battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, oil drilling rigs, and specially designed beehivelike modules called Reef Balls.
The process of how—or whether—a man-made hulk like the Vandenberg becomes an undersea garden is governed by variables such as depth, water temperature, currents, and the composition of the sea bottom. But most artificial reefs attract marine life in more or less predictable stages. First, where the current encounters a vertical structure like the Vandenberg, it can create a plankton-rich upwelling that provides a reliable feeding spot for sardines and minnows, which draw in predators like bluefin tuna and sharks. Next come the creatures seeking protection from the ocean's lethal openness—hole and crevice dwellers like groupers, snapper, squirrelfish, eels, and triggerfish. Opportunistic predators such as jack and barracuda are also quick to take up stations in the water column, waiting for their prey to show themselves. In time—maybe months, maybe years, maybe a decade, depending on the ocean's moods—an alien expanse of raw steel will be encrusted with algae, tunicates, hard and soft corals, and sponges, sprouting life everywhere like a giant Chia Pet.