After 11 years, 'Grove' is paid off

kwadlow@keynoter.comMay 15, 2013 

Since it went down 11 years ago, the 'Spiegel Grove' has attracted more than 200 species of fish -- and thousands of divers.

BY STEPHEN FRINK

The Spiegel Grove is free and clear after a decade plus a year.

A payment made last week closed the books on a loan taken out by the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce to finance the sinking of the mothballed U.S. Navy ship Spiegel Grove, now one of the diving world's best-known shipwreck reefs.

"We're excited to have that behind us," chamber board Chairwoman Dawn DeBrule said Tuesday. "The Spiegel Grove has been a very successful project, and we're very proud to have played a part in it."

Sinking the 510-foot ship in June 2002 after eight years of planning and permitting cost about $1.4 million, including an unexpected bill of more than $250,000 when the vessel capsized -- but remained partially afloat -- several hours before the planned sinking. A salvage company was hired to settle the massive ship on its side so it could be visited by divers.

Then a remarkable thing happened: Hurricane Dennis came along in 2005 and its winds stirred the sea so much that the Spiegel Grove was righted on the bottom -- making it a perfect dive.

The Monroe County Tourist Development Council provided about half the sinking cost; the chamber took out a loan to cover the balance.

A program to sell $10 annual shipwreck medallions to divers who want to visit an Upper Keys artificial reef has provided much of the money needed to repay the loan.

"Nobody balks at buying a medallion," said Connie Boykin, operations manager for Ocean Divers, which has sold more medallions over the past decade than anyone.

"The Spiegel Grove has done a lot" for the Key Largo diving community, Boykin said.

"People came from all over the world to see it," Boykin said. "Then many of them came back when it rolled upright. And it's such a big ship, you can't see it all in a couple dives."

During the busiest dive months, Ocean Divers typically runs at least four trips a week to the Spiegel Grove. Other dive shops report similar schedules.

Chamber officers estimated at the Spiegel Grove's 10-year anniversary in 2012 that the wreck has attracted an estimated $25 million in vacationers' spending on boat trips, motel rooms and restaurants since it went down.

Getting it down was no easy feat. The ship, commissioned in 1956 to launch landing craft and carry troops, capsized in May 2002 when compartments flooded more quickly than calculated. The stern landed on the ocean floor 130 feet down with the bow protruding above the surface like a metallic iceberg adrift in the subtropics.

"It could have been a catastrophe but it turned into an opportunity," said Andy Newman, the county's public-relations consultant. "A sinking would have been a one-day story; this went on for weeks."

The shipwreck reef has attracted more than 200 species of fish, and thousands of divers who otherwise would be putting people pressure on the coral reef.

Dive shops and the chamber will continue to sell Upper Keys Artificial Reef Association medallions to help finance regular maintenance of Spiegel Grove features like donor plaques and mooring buoys.

Most of the mooring buoy costs have been covered by grants through the National Marine Sanctuaries Program but government cutbacks could mean a new funding source is needed, DeBrule said.

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