Topsy-Turvy History of the Spiegel Grove

Anybody living in the Florida Keys in 2005 likely remembers the trials and tribulations of acquiring and sinking a certain retired naval ship that was destined to become an artificial reef off Key Largo. Florida Keys residents were passionate about acquiring the Spiegel Grove, and many dedicated people pursued extensive fundraising and endured the ship’s long period in dry dock for cleaning until the day of its scuttling arrived.

On the day of its trip to the Atlantic Ocean’s floor, the Spiegel Grove’s sinking took an unexpected turn – literally – but it all worked out in the end. Seventeen years later, the 510-foot Navy landing ship continues to a popular and challenging dive site for proficient divers.

The Key Largo Chamber of Commerce had a vision back in the early 2000s, as it was the Diving Capital of the World, according to the Florida Keys public relations team. The chamber sponsored the ship and committed to fundraising. At the heart of the campaign was a medallion program in which 1,000 donors would have their names inscribed on a plaque which was to be attached to the Spiegel Grove. The $250 contribution netted a commemorative bronze medallion with a brushed gold finish, and a gold-colored lifetime dive medallion as well. 

The chamber kept the community updated on how many sponsorships remained. For example, on Oct. 26, 2012, only 34 lifetime medallions were left. Soon thereafter, on Nov. 9, 2012, the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce presented Divers Direct CEO Kevin Senecal with the Chairman’s Award which recognizes outstanding contributions to the Key Largo Chamber. Divers Direct guaranteed a $250,000 loan to support the sinking of the Spiegel Grove. The Monroe County Tourist Development Council contributed $750,000 to the effort as well. The total investment was $1.3 million to get the Spiegel Grove to the position it is in today, according to Captain Spencer Slate.

According to Rob Bleser, owner of Quiescence Diving Services in Key Largo, the Spiegel Grove was named after President Rutherford B. Hayes’s Ohio estate and was launched in 1955 and commissioned June 8, 1956. The Grove was designed to carry cargo and craft for amphibious landings and spent the greater part of her active service participating in amphibious exercises along the eastern seaboard and the Caribbean. The A Thompson-class dock landing ship was retired by the Navy in 1989.

Although the quest to acquire the Spiegel Grove for an artificial reef began in the mid-1990s, years of red tape and fundraising delayed the sinking until 2002.

According to Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), the Upper Keys Artificial Reef Foundation and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary worked closely to obtain, clean, scuttle and sink the vessel, as well as raise funds for the effort. 

FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY (Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO)

After sitting in the “mothball fleet” in James River, Newport News, Va., until 2002, the Grove was cleaned and sunk June 10, 2002 in 130-feet of water near Dixie Shoals in Key Largo. Bleser, a dive shop owner, a member of the Key Largo water emergency diving response team, and wo for 10 months served as project manager of the Spiegel Grove project, said the circumstances and possibilities of the sinking were understood to contain a 1/6th probability that the ship, due to its configuration and “non-water-tight openings” and the strength of currents in the chosen area, could end up turning on its side. 

Quiescence’s website says, “For reasons unknown, potentially due to an interior bulkhead breaking, the Spiegel Grove prematurely started to sink, stern first, with air trapped in the bow still above water.” The Grove is 510 feet long and 84 feet wide. For environmental reasons, using explosives was not allowed.

Chamber of Commerce members were not totally upset when its sinking did not go according to plan because it generated even more national publicity as the situation kept the Spiegel Grove in the news for weeks. The navy landing ship dock prematurely sank and rolled over May 17, 2002, leaving the ship’s upside-down bow protruding above the surface of the water. Bleser recalled the propellers were accessible to divers and at a 48-feet depth to the ship, tropical fish and baby lobsters could be seen. After three weeks, a salvage team used lift bags, and many divers and a demolition team from Resolve Marine enabled the ship to rest on its starboard side in 130 feet of water.

Bleser noted that in the three years that followed, a northeast current flow resulted in a dredging effect that dug a trench underneath and behind the starboard side of the ship. “The ship was anxious to roll,” he said, and eventually that came to pass.

FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY (Stephen Frink/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO)

Meanwhile, REEF “implemented a five-year monitoring plan to document fish species presence/absence, sighting frequency and estimated abundance over time at the Spiegel Grove site and seven nearby natural and artificial reef sites. The primary goal of the monitoring was to document fish recruitment to the Spiegel Grove site, detect changes over time and compare patterns between sites.”  The Grove rested on its side for three years, until July 10, 2005 when Hurricane Dennis caused a massive surge to upright the ship. Until that time, the Spiegel Grove had been the most popular artificial wreck in the Florida Keys and home to more than 160 different aquatic species,   according to Lad Akins, executive director of REEF.

Disclaimer: All photo’s are credited to (Florida Keys News Bureau/HO) – Stephen Frink & Andy Newman –

– Jill Zima Borski has been a self-employed writer, photographer and editor in the Florida Keys since 2001.

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