The Eagle ‘just right’ for most divers

Anastacia and Tony Washer on a 2018 dive on the Eagle wreck.
Anastacia and Tony Washer on a 2018 dive on the Eagle wreck.

The Eagle is a Goldilocks (from the 19th century fairy tale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”) wreck dive. Lying about 110 feet under the surface, it is not too shallow, not too deep, but just right for many recreational divers with adequate training, supervision and appropriate dive gear. And, like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” it has a bit of intrigue.

I had been out of the water for several weeks recuperating from cataract surgery and it was time to try out my new eyes that no longer needed a prescription lens in my dive mask.

I pulled out my dive gear, one of my underwater cameras (the smaller, easy one to use) a 5-mm wet suit, 2-mm vest, 5-mm hood, gloves and thick booties. OK, I know what some of you divers are thinking, “this guy’s a wimp.” Guilty!

In my younger days I waded through snow in the winter to dive in Lake Tahoe, Nev. Now, I consider water temperature below 75 degrees Fahrenheit an ice dive.

As I finished putting my gear in the car, I realized I couldn’t use my old mask — the one with the prescription lens. So, I reached into the bin containing extra dive equipment and grabbed a mask.

After a relatively short boat ride we arrived at the site of the wreck. There was only one mooring ball in sight. Before Category 4 Hurricane Irma hit the Keys on September 10, the Eagle had mooring balls at both the stern (rear) and bow (front), plus a marker buoy at its center. After the storm, only the stern ball remained. Later, it also disappeared. The day before my dive the stern ball mysteriously reappeared. Magic! Must have been dive elves.

Pulling down the mooring line, I realized the mask I grabbed contained a much higher volume of air than my usual mask. So, equalizing the pressure on my ears proved trickier than usual — very embarrassing as I waved a few divers by me on their way down to the ship.

The stern came into view. Things had changed. The crow’s nest had fallen off and its support was lodged under the ship. I swam down through the bridge (the wreck lies on its right side). It looked intact but power washed clean.

The open space, which had been created when the purposely sunken Eagle’s bow and the stern were ripped apart approximately at the center of the ship in 1998 by Hurricane George, had grown noticeably. I could feel a current pushing through the gap and thought that in poor visibility (especially with no mooring line at the bow to assist with ascents or safety stops to breathe off excess nitrogen picked up during the dive) divers should be mindful of navigation.

The bow seemed to suffer the most damage and was settled farther into the sand. Open spaces had collapsed but there was still a swim-through and several ledges serving as hiding spaces for schools of fish.

I thought, “wow, this ship was 110 feet deep. What would have happened if the hurricane had caught it on the surface?” That was not too difficult to visualize after seeing images of the vast number of derelict boats left by Hurricane Irma.

Heading back to the stern, I passed Anastacia and Tony Washer, long time divers in their 50s from Sterling, Virginia. They are frequent visitors to the Keys and had dived on the Eagle three years earlier. After the dive we compared the changes we saw to the Eagle. I was impressed with the amount of fishing line the couple had taken off the wreck.

“We must have picked up 10 pounds of fishing lead weights from the wrecks we dove during our 3-week stay,” Anastacia said. She also proudly announced that Tony had completed his 1,000th dive earlier in the week.

The 269-foot long, 40-foot wide and 65-foot tall Eagle’s first name was the Raila Dan. She was built in Werf-Gorinchem, Holland in 1962 to be a hull freighter. The ship went through several different owners and seven name changes during her troubled life.

In 1985, while on route from Miami to Venezuela, she experienced her second fire (she had an earlier major fire in 1977) damaging the vessel beyond repair. The Eagle, named the Aaron K at the time, ended up a gutted derelict at a shipping terminal on the Miami River.

Curtis Kruer, then President of the Florida Keys Artificial Reef Association, and Keys’ dive shop owners were searching for a suitable ship to serve as the upper Keys first major artificial reef. The Aaron K. came to their attention and the purchase of the ship was arraigned.

Joe Teitelbaum, owner of the North River Terminals shipping company and the Eagle Tire Company, donated $20,000. An enterprising dive store employee (with the help of local divers, dive shops, the Monroe County Tourist Council, the Artificial Reef Committee and local businesses) raised another $10,000 to defray the expense of purchasing and cleaning the vessel.

After being cleaned and rendered safe for divers, the Aaron K. was christened the Eagle Tire Co., in honor of her previous owner, and was ready for the deep.

The official story of the sinking, or at least the version found during a search of the Web, goes like this:

The original location to scuttle the Eagle, about 3 miles northeast of the light at Alligator Reef, was selected by the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure the ship would settle onto the sand and not the reef.

Prior to being sunk the Eagle was moored to a sunken barge named the Alexander.

She broke free.

Rather than return the Eagle to the originally selected position, it was decided to drop the port (left side) anchor and sink her where she was floating.

With the help of the Miami and Dade County Bomb Squad and $873 worth of explosives, the Eagle was sent to the deep.

If the stories of the folks who are intimately familiar with the sinking of the Eagle are accurate, there was good old fashion skullduggery to prevent the Eagle from ending up in about 150 feet of water, which is beyond the limit of recreational scuba diving.

It seems that a local dive shop owner knew the location originally planned to sink the Eagle would place the wreck in water too deep for recreational scuba divers. This wouldn’t be good for business.

It was time for some Conch initiative.

The evening of the day before the Eagle was to arrive from Miami a group of divers was dispatched to move the mooring markers used to identify the planned scuttling location to a place closer to shore, and still over sand, where the water was shallower.

The next day, the ship was towed to the newly marked location. Nobody seemed the wiser.

A local diver made three calls to the Coast Guard station advising that the ship was about to be sunk. Finally, after being told that the big explosion may cause some concern (if not for old time Conchs, but maybe for those on a passing ship), the Coast Guard showed up and a radio advisory went out on Coast Guard hailing channel 16.

Then, the Miami and Dade County Bomb Squad had a great time sending the Eagle to the deep. Big boom, gurgling sounds, the Eagle went to its final resting place. (Actually, Hurricane George moved it again in 1998.)

Even after being roughed up by Hurricanes George and later Irma, the Eagle is a great wreck dive. The bridge area provides a nice swim-through. Railings, ladders, and cable winches are still visible. The hurricane scrubbed off many of the coral growth and sponges on the wreck and but the wreck is still home to an abundance of sea life.

Dive instructors consider the Eagle an excellent location for teaching deep, wreck and mixed gas (breathing mixtures other than normal air) diving.

The Eagle, located at GPS coordinates 24 52.180 by 80 34.210, provides divers an exhilarating and rewarding diving experience. Who knows, you might see the ghost of an old “Conch” dive store owner grinning at you from one of the ship’s hatches. But, “dead men tell no tales.”

For more on the wreck of the Eagle see: http://www.florida-keys-vacation.com/Eagle-Wreck.html#ixzz3qRN4u5Ob , http://www.shipwreckexpo.com/fkeagle.htm

Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 30 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier five years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers. He can be reached at donrrhodes@gmail.com.