Dry Tortugas Wreck Diving
Just seventy miles from Key West lie a tiny group of islands, set like gemstones that rise from the cobalt blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Discovered by famed Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513, the low-lying islands are harsh and mostly barren, with only patchy mangroves and scrub brush to cover the arid coral outcrop. An unusually large abundance of sea turtles on the sandy beaches prompted the infamous Spaniard to name this small archipelago the turtle islands, or “Tortugas” and with no natural water to be found, the description “dry” was added to warn future sailors that there was nary a drop to drink. So the islets became known as the Dry Tortugas, which is the second oldest surviving European place-name in the United States.
Old Ponce went on to search for the ever elusive fountain of youth and as the years rolled by, the small island group bore witness to incessant European exploration of North America, and with them came ships and shipwrecks! In 1622 the Tortuga’s first recorded wreck was the Spanish Nuestra Senora Del Rosario, a 600 ton galleon lost in a hurricane while in route from Cuba to Spain. A hundred and twenty years later the HMS Tyger foundered here. Her British crew survived nearly two months of depredation on the dry atoll, battling starvation, dehydration and Spaniards before escaping to Jamaica in small boats. Over the next two-hundred and fifty years the Tortugas would become an American military base, a federal prison and currently a protected National Park. This remote outpost would see multiple wars, hurricanes, accidents and even intentional sinking’s that would commit stately sailing vessels, American submarines, German U-boats, battleships and steamships in the shoals and deeper waters of the Dry Tortugas.
Over the past few years I have participated in many expeditions to explore the wrecks of the Dry Tortugas and it has become one of my favorite places to dive. So often we travel so far from home for awesome visibility, warm water and great shipwrecks and for North Americans, the Tortugas are quite literally right here in our own backyard. With more divers switching to closed circuit rebreathers, the deeper wrecks of the Tortugas are becoming more accessible and the logistics for multi-day dive trips easier to handle. With new wrecks being found, and more waiting to be found, there’s a lot to see and more to look for.
Depending on moon phase there can be an occasional light current, but for the most part the diving here is normally what I like to call armchair tech; 85 degree water to deco in, 75 degree bottom temps one hundred foot plus is the norm for visibility and an incredible plethora of marine life. Whether it's spearfishing, artifact hunting or awesome pictures there is something to appeal to every tech wreck diver. A sample of the wrecks you can hit,
MS Rhein, Dry Tortugas
This huge German freighter was built in 1928 in Bremen Germany for the Hamburg Amerika Line and in mid-1940 found itself interred in the neutral port of Tampico, Mexico along with two other German freighters. During an attempt to break out of the Mexican port and escape home to Germany, the Rhein was shadowed by US destroyers who vectored in the British flagged Dutch warship, the Van Kinsbergent to intercept the freighter. The United States had not as of yet entered the fray that would soon become World War Two, and was in effect and name a neutral. This action by US Naval vessels committed a gross violation of neutrality by informing a belligerent to the German vessels disposition, in effect bringing the lamb to slaughter. The Dutch warship fired upon the unarmed freighter to make her stop, which prompted the German crew to set fire to and scuttle their ship rather than surrender it the enemy. Another British vessel, the H.M.S. Cardoc, soon arrived on the scene and put 22 six-inch shells in the furiously burning Rhein . As the German vessel settled slowly to the bottom, she was hissing and popping as sea water snuffed out the fires and cooled the near molten steel , the ship landing upright and intact on the sandy seafloor 250 feet below.