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Navy says there are no restrictions on diving former military ships that are now artificial reefs

The 'Spiegel Grove' is scuttled in 2002. It sunk earlier than planned and ended up upside down and sticking out of the water. Then it went to its side. Waves from Hurricane Dennis in 2005 righted it so it sits on the ocean floor as planned.
The 'Spiegel Grove' is scuttled in 2002. It sunk earlier than planned and ended up upside down and sticking out of the water. Then it went to its side. Waves from Hurricane Dennis in 2005 righted it so it sits on the ocean floor as planned.

The U.S. Navy has no plan to prevent diving on the Spiegel Grove off Key Largo or the USS Vandenberg off Key West.

Navy officials cited the renowned Keys shipwreck reefs by name when "clarifying" a federal rule on former military vessels intentionally scuttled as artificial reefs.

"The Department of the Navy does not intend to restrict access to those [military] craft purposely sunk to establish artificial reefs," the Naval History and Heritage Command responded to a query from the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association.

DEMA, a national dive-industry organization, was concerned that a 2014 regulation forwarded under the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004 had the potential to prohibit recreational diving on former military ships.

The Spiegel Grove is a 510-foot former military ship sunk as an artificial reef off Key Largo in May 2002. The 522-foot Vandenberg, another former military ship, was scuttled off Key West in 2009.

"This definition seems to imply that if the vessel 'was at one time owned or operated' by a government ... when it sank, then it is protected under these new regulations from being 'disturbed'," DEMA had queried the Navy.

Ownership of some retired ships -- like the popular Key Largo diving sites Spiegel Grove, Duane and Bibb along with the Key West Vandenberg -- was signed over to local governments and are therefore exempt from any Sunken Military Act prohibition, the Navy later responded.

Divers can even descend to most military vessels covered by the law but cannot remove any artifacts.

"According to the Department of the Navy, there appears to be no issue at all with recreational divers visiting a sunken military craft," DEMA Managing Director Nicole Russell said Thursday. "There is, however, a necessity to have appropriate permits if one intends to remove artifacts."

The Navy noted that since the Keys wrecks lie within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the artificial reefs remain under the jurisdiction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and could be subject to NOAA regulation.

"The diving and snorkeling communities by and large have served as effective ambassadors for the protection and preservation of underwater resources ... including sunken military craft," J.B. Thomas Jr. wrote for the Navy.

The military branch "does not intend to impose unreasonable restrictions on diving or dive operations," he concluded.

The four Keys shipwreck reefs were intentionally placed on the bottom between 1987 and 2009 as dive attractions and alternatives to reef diving.

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