A S S O C I A T I O N   OF   U N D E R W A T E R   E X P L O R E R S  

Date: Mon, 20 Nov 2000 15:59:54 GMT

AUE Weekend Trip Report, November 18-19 Key Largo
"Antics in the Atlantic"

The usual suspects traveled to Key Largo to conduct dives on the Northern Light (190'), the USCGC Duane (125'), and the Vitric (309'). We convened at the boat on Saturday for an afternoon dive on the Northern Light, a fun wreck with abundant marine life that always keeps us entertained. The Northern Light was a Great Lakes steam freighter built in 1888. It was 300' in length with a 40' beam. It was one of the earliest steel-hulled ships on the Great Lakes. In 1927, the owner attempted to commit insurance fraud by setting fire to the ship, badly damaging it. It was then cut down and converted into a barge. In 1930, the Northern Light broke into two parts and sank off Key Largo. The bow is upright in the sand with its anchor hanging on the starboard side, still secured by its chain to the windlass. Aft of this is a cargo hold full of modern anchors left by fishermen unable to retrieve them after having set them into the wreck. Further aft is the stern of the ship upside-down on top of the midships; the rudder, turned hard to starboard, is within 145' of the surface.

The team dropped in and cruised for the bottom, quickly making out the looming shadow of the wreck. Visibility was stunning (150'+): you could almost see the whole wreck as we swam in from the port side. I could make out the bow and back past the rudder and sloping hull as it dropped down to the sand at the break. We proceeded to drop down to the sand and formed a single-file line as we swam up into the hull to do the horseshoe penetration of the interior. As I followed Mikey, we glided up to the sand dune turn-around and then headed back in the direction we entered, but on the opposite side of the wreck. At this point you are also ascending a bit, sort of like a spiral staircase. Once passing the boilers, we could look down on the last few divers that were following the line, just inside the entrance. After poking about the interior for a bit, I headed out and then under the stern section where it is folded on top of the midship section. Swimming aft, a head (toilet) is strangely visible against a bulkhead. This area narrows into a roughly triangular tunnel that eventually leads back to a small opening that is adjacent to the turn-around in the wreck above. Unfortunately, it was too small for me to pass so I backed off and headed out. As I exited I observed a couple of bull sharks cruising about the wreck. Joe edged up next to me as we watched the show. One 6' specimen cruised into the enclosed bow section and disappeared. From my vantage point I could not tell what the shark was doing but was curious where he went. Apparently, Jeff was also curious as he scootered right into the bow section. The next thing Joe and I saw was a bull shark EXPLODE out of the bow at warp speed. I have never seen a shark move that fast. I had to recover a bit as I flooded my mask during my subsequent laughing fits. There were 3-4 bull sharks cruising about the wreck, as well as one nurse shark. We were also visited by a couple schools of African pompano and rainbow runners.

I swam the perimeter of the wreck and then out into the sand off the port side to inspect some dark spots. As I headed back towards the bow to rally with the rest of the team I noticed 3 lights already up off the wreck a bit in the water column which I signaled "OK?" to, which was promptly returned. As I reached the bow with the rest of the team, we noticed that our upline was gone. The other divers were hovering over the bow until the group was together and everyone accounted for. With our bottom time at an end, a couple of us shot bags and we drifted off to conduct our decompression. Decompression was uneventful, aside from the copious amounts of ctenophores (comb jellies) that were near the surface.

We were met at the dock by JT Barker, who was joining us from Virginia to do a night dive on the Duane and then a morning dive on the Vitric. Chuck Roth, a recent transplant to South Florida, also joined us for the night dive. After introductions were made and we chatted for a while, we eventually loaded up and cast off for the Duane. Seas were light, and thinly scattered clouds provided us a pleasant sunset as we cruised to our destination. There were several boats occupying the various mooring buoys, so we elected to position ourselves just upcurrent from the ball and free-drop the wreck. Chuck and I were first in and quickly dropped right past the crows nest. I dropped to the deck, trying to find a calm area out of the current to put my gloves on before setting out on our dive. With my light off, phosphorescence lit up the outline of the wreck as it smashed into the various surfaces of the Duane. In a short time, we were joined by the rest of the group as we explored the wreck. Orange cnidarians enveloped the wreck and individual polyps were extended to feed in the darkness; the wreck was alive and extremely colorful. After we checked out the bow and observed all the sleeping parrotfish, Chuck and I opted to inspect the interior. After swimming through a couple rooms, we dropped down through grating near midships and then proceeded to run a line towards the bow. After reaching the end of the corridor, we headed back, again observing all the side rooms, as well as the signs and placards that still remain attached to the bulkheads. Exiting back on deck, I happened to notice a turtle in the sand along the portside of the wreck. Apparently, some other nasty divers had already awoken the sleeping turtle with their bright lights. After playing with Mr. Turtle for a bit, we moved back to the deck and to the crows nest. After realizing there was no upline on subsurface float at the crows nest, we drifted back to a line just aft of the stack. Our abbreviated decompression stops went smoothly as we "flapped in the breeze" from the light current. However, we had to constantly keep an eye out for large aggregations of Aurelia jellyfish that cruised near the surface; divers had to bob and weave to avoid getting smacked in the head by the platter-sized jellies. We all exited the water looking forward to our upcoming dive on the Vitric.

I had made arrangements at a restaurant next to the dock for an informal dinner party. Joe had brought a tv/vcr so we could watch dive videos and JT brought a CD with footage from his recent Marine Electric dives, all of which kept us occupied through dinner and into the night.

We met early Sunday morning to prepare for our morning dive on the Vitric. The Vitric, a wooden schooner-barge, was built in 1911 and was 165' long and 36' wide, with a stern deckhouse. The ship capsized and sank in March 1944 in an area southeast of Molasses Reef. The exact position of the wreck was not known with certainty, but local fisherman knew of a site called the "Molasses Wreck" in about 310' of water which was probably the Vitric. In March 2000, a group of AUE divers confirmed the identity of the "Molasses Wreck" as that of the Vitric.

As we headed past the outer reef, it was apparent the weather was starting to take a turn for the worst as the wind had strengthened, seas were building, and the skies had darkened. Reaching the site, we were pleased to hear that the current appeared to be absent. We attempted to hook the wreck with our shot line, but the wind pushing the boat off site complicated the task. Eventually, we decided to motor upwind and drop the hook and shotline and hope it wouldn't drift far off the wreck; based on the negligible current, this seemed feasible. After we had all geared up, Mikey and I stood on the back platform as the rest of the team stood ready. Once in position, Mikey and I dropped and finned for the bottom. We quickly descended and were joined by a large school of mixed jacks and pompano that rose to meet us. I observed the dark mass of the wreck as we approached the bottom. The visibility on the bottom was exceptional (100'+), though muted due to the overcast conditions topside. The temperature on the bottom was brisk at about 64 degrees. The large molasses containers are the most prominent features on the wreck as they line the port and starboard sides. I set out to inspect the wreck and make a mental map of the site. Heading aft, I saw a porthole that Mark found and placed on a molasses tank on their first visit to the wreck in March. There is little structure of the former vessel: the hull is absent and the site basically consists of all the fittings and light machinery that now lie loose and scattered amongst the large tanks. Reaching the stern, I noted the steering quadrant lying on its side in the sand. Adjacent to the quadrant, I observed the edge of a clean brass object buried in the sand. I dropped to inspect it, pulling it out of the fine, sugary white sand that covers the seafloor at 309'. It turned out to be an intact and pristine porthole, apparently from the stern deckhouse. After determining that this was the stern, I turned my attention to the rest of the wreck and the bow section. As I swam forward, I checked out the rest of the guys as they hovered over the wreck or looked in the various nooks and crannies. Schools of large snapper, as well as solitary grouper, darted about the wreck at our intrusion. A lone nurse shark apparently had an episode at the sight of scary divers and bright lights that disturbed its nap.

I poked about the bow wreckage noting the solitary windlass that remained elevated on wreckage off the seabed. I poked about the scattered wreckage trying to find the bell in order to have proof-positive that this indeed was the wreck of the Vitric but I came up empty. I did notice an intact fresnel lens which I picked up and swam over to JT in order to show him some of the neat stuff we find on our "sterile" wrecks. I looked about the bow a bit longer, as well as the midships area which has lots of jumbled wreckage. As I drifted back to the stern area, I noticed Mark's light way up on the line approximately 200' away; the hook had fallen just off the stern in the sand, well within sight. Mikey, Jeff, and I brought up the rear and after doing a quick head-count, I made a loop in the shotline so Mikey could foul the hook. It didn't really matter as we remained more or less static due to the absent current. As we left the bottom after our all too short 21 minutes, we slowly made our way up, pleasantly passing into warmer waters around 250'. Decompression was uneventful. I played around a bit, inspecting the random Aurelia jellyfish. Each had its own tiny microcosm, either supporting small shrimps or juvenile fish.

We all exited the water very enthusiastic from a great dive. Due to the excellent dive conditions, I had a very sedate and laid-back dive, one that I think we would all be eager to repeat. The ride back in was wet, but the even the worsening weather couldn't dampen our enthusiasm. The team was glad to meet and dive with JT and we all hope he enjoyed his dives with us.