KEY WEST — One year after it was scuttled seven miles off of Key West, a former Air Force missile-tracking ship is not only attracting thousands of divers, but also more than 100 species of fish.
The 13-year-long project to sink the 523-foot-long Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary culminated May 27, 2009, with the ship settling on the bottom of the ocean in less than two minutes.
Project founder Joe Weatherby said the artificial reef is exceeding expectations.
"We have giant schools of fish, there's all kinds of invertebrate life covering the ship, and big bait balls show up to the point where you can't even see the ship through the fish sometimes," Weatherby said. "It's like a big party going on."
Lad Akins of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, an organization spearheading a multiyear fish population study at the Vandenberg site, confirmed 113 different species of fish have been documented.
Marine residents include loggerhead sea turtles, goliath grouper, amberjack, Spanish mackerel and a green moray eel living in one of the ship's many cubbyholes. Clouds of baitfish — including blue runners, big-eyed scad and round scad — fill the ship's bridge, attracting bigger fish that feed on them.
Economic impact studies estimated about 15,000 divers have descended on the Vandenberg via a charter dive operator and about 35 percent more in recreational boats.
Dive Key West owner Bob Holston said his revenue increased 18 percent compared to the same time period a year before the Vandenberg was sunk.
"We're having our best year ever, in 40 years of business," Holston said. "We've had groups from as far away as Brazil and Europe and 80 percent of our phone calls relate to the Vandenberg."