I went to the Florida Keys to dive the shipwrecks. It's almost the entire reason I went, so it's a good thing I was able to visit 3 different wrecks during my stay.

Since Jono and I were only there for a week, we decided to concentrate our attention on one part of the over 100-mile archipelago. An important part of our planning was picking the optimal location to dive the most shipwrecks. This put us diving off of Key Largo, an excellent decision! But it also meant we missed 5 other shipwrecks found off the coast of the Keys.

This guide will help you decide which ones to see and which ones to skip.

What are the shipwrecks to dive in the Florida Keys?

The Florida Keys have 8 shipwrecks that are good for diving. Here are all of them with details on each and their locations:

Ship Name

Description

Years in Operation

Depth

Location

USS Spiegel Grove

510 ft (155 m) navy supply ship

1956-1989

60-130 ft (18-40 m)

Key Largo

Duane

327 ft (100 m) coast guard cutter

1936-1943

50-125 ft (15-38 m)

Key Largo

Benwood

285 ft (87 m) English built merchant marine freighter

1910-1942

25-45 ft (8-14 m)

Key Largo

Eagle

287 ft (87 m) paper cargo ship

1962-1985

70-115 ft (21-35 m)

Islamorada Key

Thunderbolt

188 ft (57 m) military workboat then a lighting research vessel

1943-1986

20-125 ft (6-38 m)

Marathon Key

Adolphus Busch Sr.

210 ft (64 m) cargo ship

1950-1998

80-100 ft (24-30 m)

Big Pine Key

Cayman Salvage Master

187 ft (57 m) US minelayer

1936-1985

60-90 ft (18-27 m)

Key West

USS Vandenberg

524 ft (160 m) missile tracking ship

1943-2008

40-140 ft (12-43 m)

Key West

 

How much does diving the Florida Keys shipwrecks cost?

The lowest rate I found in summer 2016 was a 6-dives package (3 trips on the boat) with Rainbow Reef for $210. This is the same price for all day-dives—reef or wreck. They only do one night dive on their evening trips, so the value is a bit less if you use one of your 3 trips as a night dive.

The package included 2 tanks, weights, and a dive guide. They have at least 2 large 30+ passenger dive boats, on which they provided cookies and bottled water. Overall, Rainbow Reef's all-inclusive dive package was an excellent, excellent deal.

For every dive trip you take, you can go to the Rainbow Reef retail store up the road from the launch site and spin their wheel of freebies. Jono spun and he won a free dive! He decided to take his first-ever night SCUBA dive with Rainbow Reef. The only time he had been night diving before was informally snorkeling and free diving at the wharf in Niue.

When do the dive boats visit the shipwrecks?

Rainbow Reef visited the shipwrecks usually as the first dive of a trip. It's standard procedure for divers to do their deepest dives earlier and then go shallower as the day progresses. This allows for proper recovery time.

The wrecks tend to be deeper, so Rainbow Reef saved the shallower reefs for the afternoon so people could recover properly.

But that doesn't mean conditions were always right for the wrecks, nor does it mean they would go to them every time. Rainbow Reef tries to mix up the destinations over the course of the week. The weather and the currents also dictate the site plans. Like most dive companies, Rainbow Reef does not set the schedule until the morning of the trip, when they are better aware of the conditions.

Jono and I were eager to see the USS Spiegel Grove, but our boat didn't go on our first or our second dive trips. So we opted to call ahead the next morning to ensure we would see it on our last trip.

We called before their 8:00am departure to see if the USS Spiegel Grove was on the agenda. When it was, we drove down to the launch site and hopped on board.

I recommend calling ahead like we did if you're hell-bent on visiting specific wrecks during your stay. Just make sure you'll have enough time to drive to the launch site before they leave the docks!

What camera equipment is needed for shipwreck diving?

Most shipwrecks in the Florida Keys are very deep, except for the Benwood. This means bringing a high-quality underwater camera that can reach depths of at least 140 ft (43 m). Since the light is diminished at deeper depths, it would be prudent to have a light on your camera.

I brought along extra underwater housing purchased for my Olympus TG-3. This housing allows me to take my camera down to 150 ft (45m) instead of its limited 50 ft (50 m) without the housing. I had never taken photos in such deep ocean before. I had to learn how to adjust my settings to more accurately capture the colors and light.

I did my best, but many of my photos came out blurry because the lighting was so low when navigating through the ships.

Which shipwrecks are best to dive in the Florida keys?

We were told the two not-to-miss shipwrecks are the USS Spiegel Grove and the USS Vandenberg.

I decided to skip the USS Vandenberg in favor of the USS Spiegel Grove because of the extra distance to Key West. We also got to see the Benwood and the Duane by sticking to the Key Largo area.

What were the shipwrecks like around Key Largo?

All three shipwrecks I visited were very cool in their own unique ways. Below I share my thoughts and experiences with each and plenty of photos to accompany the narrative.

The Duane

The first shipwreck I visited was the Duane. This was a pretty simple ship in which we only passed through one part of it.

I particularly loved the look of the ship's crow's nest. It sat high above the ship, silhouetted by light at the surface. Really cool!

The Benwood

The Benwood is more of a reef than it is a shipwreck since it is extremely dismantled. But I actually loved this shipwreck because parts of it are so overgrown with reef, you can hardly even tell it was a ship in places. Furthermore, you can explore the Benwood for an extended period since it sits in such shallow waters.

There is a ton of rich coral and fish diversity at the Benwood wreck. It grows on walls of wooden planks and metal scraps, including these weird metal boxes. I think they were the ship's pedestals.

The USS Spiegel Grove

Supporting others' claims, the USS Spiegel Grove was by far my favorite shipwreck dive. This may be because our awesome guide, Brent, took us where he "only takes some guests."

According to him, only the most experienced guides fully penetrate (enter the ship without a clear exit) the Spiegel Grove when they have a well-behaved group of divers. He complimented us and told us, "You don't have to listen to the captain on this one. I'm going to take you inside to see the real Spiegel Grove."

The only reason I felt I could trust Brent was he had been diving the Spiegel Grove for 4 years and had done exactly this route over 200 times. So it was an easy decision for me – I was going inside and I'm so glad I did!

While the outside of the ship was awesome and even had some significant reef build-up, the real exciting part was getting to navigate through the darkness inside. The USS Spiegel Grove has a truly haunting "ghost ship" feel to it. I'll put up some video of the experience at some point, but here are photos in the meantime:

I particularly loved the area of the ship with the rafters. Our guide described it as the scene in Star Wars where Luke and Darth Vader battle. It looked exactly like that scene!

The USS Spiegel Grove is nicknamed "Top Dog" and has snoopy as a mascot. I could not get a good photo of it, but an image of snoopy riding an alligator was located on the floor passing through a long hallway of the ship.

Our dive guide said, "If you haven't passed over the snoopy, you haven't really dove the Spiegel Grove."

 
 

On the way back to the descent line, there was an American flag that looked really cool waving in the current.

The current was really strong on the way back up the line. The area is known for its intense current at higher depths.

I'm glad we had the line to follow back to the dive boat!

Which shipwreck will you choose?

Perhaps you'll go with our plan to focus on Key Largo or maybe you'll make it all the way to Key West to tick off the USS Vandenberg! Either way, I'm sure you'll have an amazing time diving the wrecks in the keys.

I would love to go back to the Florida Keys one day and head to Key West. I want to check out the USS Vandenberg next time. But I had an awesome time seeing 3 incredible wrecks during my diving adventure this past summer.