SCUBA diving is one of the best things to do in the Florida Keys, mainly because the waters are so clear, and the fact that so much marine life is close to the surface. In fact, the only living coral reef anywhere in the continental United States is located off Key West. And this reef  is the third largest barrier reef in the world, believe it or not! The reef is home to around 100 different types of coral, and a rainbow array of hundreds of species of tropical fish.

On still, sunny days, you can enjoy up to 100-foot visibility underwater. Many people prefer to snorkel Key West. The waters off Key West are always full of snorkelers, because you can get a quick snorkeling lesson and be good to go the same day. But more advanced divers may want a bigger challenge. And they won’t be disappointed.

No SCUBA diving trip to the Florida Keys is complete without a dive on the USNS Vandenberg.

The ship is one of the many wrecks off the Florida Keys. But unlike most shipwrecks, the Vandenberg was sunk intentionally to end up in its final resting place on the ocean floor. The ship was designated as an artificial reef, as part of a project that took several years of volunteer effort.

First, the Vandenberg was stripped of anything that could harm the beautiful clear tropical waters of the Florida Keys. Then, holes were cut into the hull to allow access by marine life, fish and SCUBA divers.  After the USNS Vandenberg was sunk in 2009, it became the largest artificial reef at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It’s also the second largest of the artificial reefs anywhere in the world.

Novice divers can dive to a depth of 40 feet, but, depending on conditions, advanced divers can reach a hundred feet deeper.

All Vandenberg dives are escorted for the safety of the diver, and all divers have to certified.

Divers can observe all the marine creatures that now live on the Vandenberg, as well as make their way around the ship, which rises to within 40 feet of the surface of the water. Key West SCUBA diving fanatics have created an artificial reef that many reef and wreck divers consider to be the best in the world.

The USNS Vandenberg is now the site of ongoing scientific study by a team of researchers, who are evaluating the wreck’s impact on marine life, the ocean, and the coral reef itself. There’s no doubt that the Vandenberg is now providing food and shelter to countless undersea residents like corals and tropical fish, just a few short years after it was made into an artificial reef. All the effort that went into preparing and sinking are appreciated by the wild marine life and divers alike.

The development of artificial Key West reefs didn’t stop with the Vandenberg. The Artificial Reef of the Keys, otherwise known as ARK, took 10 years to develop. It began with the mission that sunk the USNS Vandenberg. Many sponsors and volunteers worked ceaselessly to make ARK a reality. This was the first in what scientists hope will be a long-term project involving a vast array of similar artificial reefs, and what a lot of divers expect to be one of the most beautiful and interesting diving getaways anywhere under the sea.

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