As I pull myself down the mooring line the ghost-like image of the smoke stack of a large ship appears below. The only sound I hear is my Darth Vader sound breathing.
I release the line and glide down to an upper deck. In front of me is a hatchway. Turning on my underwater light I fin into the hatchway and see a corridor decades ago occupied with men scurrying to battle stations and now populated with all manner of fish, big and small.
Immerging at the other end, I find myself on what must have been a command center. I am on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Duane that was born on June 3, 1936 at Philadelphia Navy Yard and intentionally sunk as an artificial reef on Nov. 26, 1987 off of Key Largo.
Once known as the “Queen of the Fleet,” the Duane was among a group of cutters or “327's” famous for peace time and wartime service during World War II, Korea and Vietnam, providing naval gunfire and search-and-rescue support, fighting off German U-boats, rescuing survivors from torpedoed convoy ships, and serving as amphibious task force flagships.
Her sister ship, the U.S Coast Guard Cutter Bibb, also intentionally sunk in November 1987, rests on its side near the Duane.
Drifting over the rail, I come to the main deck and kick towards the bow in the distance. On the way, I see a Goliath grouper who seems to be providing escort service to the resting cutter. Arriving at the bow, my mind plays tricks on me. There she is — a pretty girl with long flowing hair with arms outstretched leaning into the wind. Oh well, no girl, but my new friend the grouper is still there.
My dive computer says it is time to leave. I swim back to the smokestack and pause at the lip to marvel at the array of small yellow fish. I look up and start pulling my way back up the line to the surface. The sun casts a round halo of light around the dive boat. I swim towards the light.
Next comes a shallow dive on Davis Reef. I step off the dive boat into an aquarium of fish. Swimming down the ledge of the reef, I pass massive schools of jacks, grunts and goatfish. My first stop is to visit an old friend, a large green moray eel.
Across from the eel is a giant brain coral. Behind the brain coral is a small statue of Buddha, which is guarded by a tiny but feisty bicolor damselfish. Heading back to the dive boat, I see a southern stingray flapping its wings to cover itself with sand. I linger too long, and the stingray gets annoyed and swims away. I can almost hear it say harrumph. A nurse shark looking like it is on a busy errand darts between me and the ledge.
Diving in the Florida Keys is a world class experience. It hosts a multitude of scuba dives from easy to navigate shallow reefs with an abundance of sea life, to deep wreck dives. For more information on the Duane and its history go to: http://www.uscg.mil/history/webcutters/duane_wpg_33.asp.
Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 28 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier three years ago where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers.