Deep Diving to the Shipwrecks of Florida

It requires much preparation and carries significant risk, but the reward can be rare and valuable fish.

Off the southern tip of the Florida peninsula lies a fleet of ghost ships, purposefully sunk by their owner, the U.S. Navy.

Fifty years ago, the Navy believed that large warships could be destroyed by placing a relatively small explosive charge at exactly the right spot under their keels. The Underwater Explosives Research Division from the Taylor Research Center in Washington, D.C. developed the hypothesis. However, it needed real-time data to make modern warships more resistant to attack.

In April and May of 1972, the Navy sank four warships off American Shoal, 20 miles southeast of Key West, Florida: the U.S.S. Wilkes-Barre, a 650-foot Cleveland-class light cruiser that now sits in 256 feet of water; the U.S.S. Fred T. Berry, a Fletcher-class destroyer that rests in 350 feet; the 1920s-era U.S.S. Kendrick, a four-stack destroyer that sits in 320 feet; and the U.S.S. Saufley, also a Fletcher-class destroyer from World War II, that rests in 430 feet. 

“My good friend and dive buddy extraordinaire, Captain Billy Deans, was the first to dive on and explore all four of these wrecks,” says Forrest A. Young, who lives in the Florida Keys. He says that Deans’s deep diving in self-contained open-circuit scuba gear was revolutionary. 

For many years, Forrest Young has been the team leader and lead diver of a company called Dynasty Marine Associates. They explore offshore reefs and shipwrecks around the world, searching for rare and valuable fish, which are in particular demand by private collectors in Japan and public aquaria worldwide. These deepwater habitats are oases. Baitfish and game fish congregate around sources of food and shelter that the wrecks and reefs provide. 

During the early days of technical diving, in the late 1980s, making dives to depths of more than 300 feet with helium-based mixes—using pure oxygen for decompression—was a hugely important step in deep-diving technology. This, explains Young, was well before the scientific diving community accepted it as a valid scientific method.       

The Deepest Dwelling Angelfish

Young was with Deans, supervising as dive surface officer, on a 2005 research expedition to Indonesia, when they discovered the deepest-dwelling angelfish in the world at a depth of 430 feet. Later, during that same expedition, Young and his dive partner, Ben Daughtry, reached a depth of 500 feet.

“Thanks to Billy,” Young says, “my team trained and made our recent dives with closed-circuit rebreathers.”

One of the biggest risks in deep diving is decompression sickness or “the bends.”

A full day of preparation precedes each day of deep diving. That includes gas mixing, gas analyzation, rigging the boat with all the gas mixtures stored in separate diving cylinders, and planning the operations. Young initially did the mixing in his Marathon garage. Today, it is managed by trained and certified team members.

The gasses are required for both descent to the bottom and the long decompression that follows. Dives that typically include 20- to 25-minute bottom times—working times—spent at depths of 200 to 330 feet take two to three hours. Most of this time is spent in shallow water decompressing. A slow ascent to the surface and periodic stops at specific depths allow dissolved gasses to exit the body safely and predictably.

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The use of modern closed-circuit rebreathers has greatly expanded Young’s capability to explore and catch fish in depths to 500 feet. The advantage of the rebreather is that it consumes only the gas needed to fill the buoyancy compensator and the oxygen that the diver’s body metabolizes. The rebreather automatically mixes the oxygen with the helium diluent (inert gas that dilutes the oxygen) to optimum levels. It is critical that the diver closely monitors the rebreather by scanning the secondary analog displays because failures in the computer systems have killed many. While they are wonderful tools and have enabled tremendous expansion in underwater exploration, rebreathers are inherently dangerous—for the professional as well as the novice.

The divers use a minimum of three gas blends as backup supplies in a dive and often add a fourth gas for additional safety. For every gas blend, they need a separate tank and regulator—plus a secondary tank and backup regulators should one of the primary regulators or tank valves fail. Young and his team often dive with as many as five regulators and five tanks carried simultaneously on a special rig and harness.

“Obviously,” says Forrest Young, “it takes a lot of training and skills to do this diving and physical ability to carry all the gear against hydrodynamic drag. It is very risky and should not ever be attempted without extensive training and emergency support on the surface.” 

All of this support is expensive, thus explaining the high cost of rare deepwater fishes. The sale of four or five fish can support the entire cost of a four- or five-member dive team for two days, with one day spent in preparation and the other in executing the dive. 

There is also a cost associated with risk. “It is not easy to calculate how expensive risk is until you have experienced the loss of a team member,” says Young. “Then there is not enough money in the world to support the loss of a trusted friend.”

A Bit of History

After the War of 1812, “New England fishermen began extending their operations to the Carolina and Florida coasts in the winter,” says retired U.S. Navy submarine commander John Viele in The Wreckers, a fascinating little volume in his series about the history of the Florida Keys. 

The Yankees weren’t inclined to pass up an added opportunity to make a buck. Their speedy, shallow-draft sloops were perfect for patrolling the reefs in the Florida Straits between Key West and Havana. They helped save the lives of people stranded offshore when their unlucky wrecked ships had foundered in howling gales—and helped themselves to valuable cargoes of gold, silver, copper, cedar, mahogany, and cotton. The dangerous and sometimes lucrative business of “wrecking” continued through the Civil War, when the U.S. Naval presence in and around Key West put a damper on the semi-piracy operations.