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USS Spiegel Grove

USS Spiegel Grove Expedition
Key Largo, Florida

Image: Courtesy U.S. Naval Institute
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East Coast Diving | Shipwreck Corner | Shipwreck Gallery

On May 17, 2002, a dramatic addition to the reefs alongside Key Largo in Florida was planned: The USS Spiegel Grove was due to be intentionally sunk to create an artificial reef and a diver’s haven. This was to be the largest ship ever intentionally sunk and, in the warm clear waters of the Florida Keys. The experience of diving such a massive vessel was sure to be an enormous attraction to the entire diving community. However, unlike most ships that are intentionally sunk for these types of artificial reef programs, the Spiegel Grove had one last chapter to write in its storied history.

Sometime during the previous night, well ahead of the planned public sinking, the Spiegel Grove decided to surrender itself to the sea on its own. Unfortunately, she sank vertical and stead straight up out of the water! upside down! After years of legal wrangling, and months of expensive cleanup efforts and structural modifications to make the ship as safe as possible, she was now lying deeper than intended and in the wrong orientation. A frantic effort was mounted to find a salvage company to assist in righting this enormous vessel. Eventually, on June 11, 2002, the Spiegel Grove was “righted” by turning her to her starboard side. This was to be her final resting place and orientation: lying in 130 feet of water near the Dixie Shoals lying on her starboard side.

The Spiegel Grove (LSD-32) is a former Loading Ship Dock measuring 510 feet in length and 85 feet in width. She was originally constructed in September 1954, launched on November 10, 1955 and commissioned on June 8, 1956. During her long and illustrious career, the Spiegel grove participated in action throughout the Caribbean Sea, the United States East Coast, Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, Panama and the Middle East, including a vital role in the original Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf. For a comprehensive history of the Spiegel Grove’s career, visit …

In 1989, she was finally decommissioned and placed in floating storage. In September, 1998, the second phase of her career would begin with the sale to the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce.

In August 2003, Eco-Photo Explorers visited Key Largo to dive the “largest ship ever intentionally sunk”. Our intention was to spend two days diving this wreck while documenting her condition and the marine life that presently inhabits the site.

Key Largo in August can be quite hot, and the morning of our first dive was no exception. With temperatures creeping past 90 degrees Fahrenheit with oppressive humidity, we set out for the site. By 9:45 am, we had entered the water and were pulling ourselves down along mooring line #1 on the end of the stern of the shipwreck. With visibility stretching towards 80 feet, the ship came into view almost immediately. She is enormous! As we continued our descent, the sheer size of the wreck overwhelmed us. She seemed to extend forever and her superstructure, angled at a disorienting sideways angle, disappeared into the distance.

We first “landed” on the wreck at the stern and were immediately greeted with a fairly stiff current blowing perpendicular over the wreck. Indeed, with such a massive body lying in the sand, the water currents play tricks on divers as upwellings, currents and strange eddies form all over the wreck, confusing some and causing divers to have to contend with water movement through most of their dives.

Our immediate impression is that we felt like insects on the side of a very large building! Dwarfed by the huge vessel, we made our way towards the bow, swimming along the deck and examining the huge cranes that jut out into the blue from the wreck. As we swam along in 70 feet of warm water, we photographed hatches and piping, deck railing and doorways. The entire ship is largely in pristine condition, with very little marine growth attached to the wreck at this point. Navigation, as long as you stay outside the ship, is fairly easy, although the angle at which she has settled into the sand can be somewhat confusing to the first time visitor. The dive to the Spiegel Grove is for divers of some experience, although dives for varying degrees of skill can be constructed based on the large variation in depth and opportunities for penetration. Although relative novice divers can visit the wreck safely, all divers must be prepared for strong currents in this section of the ocean.

Our fist visit to this once proud vessel ended with a fairly strenuous swim into a stiff current and a return up the mooring line to the dive boat. As we approached the mooring line, a school of Barracuda eyed us warily and accompanied us throughout our safety stop at 25 feet. Measuring 3 or 4 feet in length, these fearsome looking creatures provided a diversion as we waited on the mooring line to return to the hazy, hot and humid Florida weather.

Our second visit to the wreck the next day found us fighting very strong surface currents and a wearying upwelling, which sapped our energy as we began the day of diving. Still, once we reached the wreck along Mooring Line #3, we again marveled at the ship and its beauty. On this dive, we explored open hatchways at 90 feet and penetrated inside a control room for one of the ship’s equipment cranes. Divers who penetrate any shipwreck must prepare properly for this type of diving. However, all that swim inside shipwrecks can’t help but feel a certain attachment to the sailors who walked those very same halls years ago when the ship was “alive” on the high seas. Ships like the Spiegel Grove possess such rich history, and these memories are retained inside the corroding metal and deserted walkways of the sunken ship. What did the operator see as he looked out the open hatch and down the deck towards the stern of the ship? We can imagine the open ocean rolling behind the ship as she steamed towards her next destination, the foamy white wake spreading out behind her. Perhaps a blue sky and puffy white clouds surrounded the ship. Maybe a sea bird flew behind the ship, seeking to spot a small piece of refuse to eat. Maybe the distant sound of gunfire filled the air as combat raged on some far away shore.

Today, however, as we peer out from inside the ship, the cobalt blue of the open ocean has replaced the sky and schools of Yellow-Tail Snapper fill in for Sea Gulls. Scuba Divers, swimming against the ocean currents, have replaced the sailors who once roamed the decks of the one time military vessel. Today, she rests in peace, an artificial reef with a story to tell. The Spiegel Grove will live for decades to come, bathed in the warm currents of south Florida, and attracting divers the world over to visit her impressive structure. Some have been quoted as saying “you could dive the Grove 100 times” and still not see all of her. She will remain a challenge for those explorers who wish to see this wreck and come to know her secrets. 

The Spiegel Grove rests in 130 feet of water, and rises to within 50 feet of the surface. She has been cleaned of any harmful debris and chemicals prior to her sinking. Inside, many openings were created and ropes were installed to assist divers in moving from room to room. Unfortunately, because of the angle of the sinking, many of these ropes are now useless and penetrating the wreck is actually somewhat disorienting and can be dangerous. The conditions on the wreck can be challenging and changeable. Strong currents, including upwellings and current eddies, swirl around the wreck. On the surface, currents can also be strong. Water temperatures in the summer can reach 85 degrees while dropping into the upper 70s in the winter.

There have been xx permanent mooring lines installed along the wreck. Most of the local dive operators run trips to the wreck several times each week. We dove with Ocean Divers, who ran a very competent operation. When planning a visit to the wreck, please check with the operation you plan to use for availability on their charters and for pre-requisite experience. In addition to the wreck itself, you can expect to see many of the endemic species of tropical fish beginning to inhabit the wreck: Barracuda, schools of snapper and grunt and small grouper were all seen on our dives. As the wreck becomes overgrown with corals and other marine life, we expect more fish to make this place their home.

For some shipwreck divers, exploring artificial reefs lacks some appeal due to the lack of history surrounding the sinking and the “safe” condition of the wreck. The Spiegel Grove, however, is different. With an unplanned sinking, a confusing bottom orientation and a rich history, this shipwreck should be one that entertains and challenges for years to come.

Ship Specifications

Date Laid Down:
Date Launched:
Date Sunk: 
Date Commissioned: 
Date Decommissioned:
Type of vessel: 
Hull Construction: 

Boat Capacity
Depth of Water:
Skill Level:  
Loran C Position: 
Named For:
September 7, 1954 - Ingalls Shipbuilding Corp.
November, 10 1955
June 11, 2002 (intentionally sunk)
June 8, 1956
510 feet
84 feet

6,8880 tons (light),  12,150 tons (full)
22.5 kts
U.S. Navy Landing Ship Dock
1,390 tons
2 Babcock & Wilcox, 40.8kg/cm² pressure
5,300/22.5; 10,00/20; 13,000
6/76.2-mm DP (II x 3)-LSD 34 also: 2/20-mm Mk 15 CIWS (I x 2)
18 officers, 325 men + 318 troops
21 LCMs
130 feet, rises to within 50 ft of the surface
Lying on her starboard side, slight angle upwards
Near Dixie Shoals, 6 Miles off Key Largo

25° 04.00' N; 80° 18.65' W
Ohio estate of US President Rutherford B. Hayes
Was due to be intentionally sunk to create an artificial reef and a diver’s haven. About 400 feet of the 510 ft length is accessible at a depth of 48-50 ft, but most of the wreck can be explored at depths of 50-85 ft.


In The News

Divers discovered the USS Spiegel Grove had rolled upright, apparently courtesy of waves spawned by Hurricane Dennis.

USS Spiegel Grove - Courtesy: APHurricane Dennis fixes botched Florida reef
MIAMI, Florida (Reuters) -- Mother Nature tidied up a man-made mess off the coast of the Florida Keys when the force of Hurricane Dennis flipped a sunken U.S. Navy ship into the perfect position to help form an artificial reef.

Powerful waves and currents generated by the hurricane flipped over the 510-foot (155-meter) USS Spiegel Grove and set it to rest on its keel on the ocean floor, reef project managers said on Tuesday.

That was the position Key Largo scuba divers and tourism promoters had aimed for when they scuttled the 6,880-tonne hulk in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 2002.

"I'm flabbergasted," said Rob Bleser, the volunteer project director, after diving on the reoriented wreck on Monday. "Nature took its course and put it where it belongs."

The Cold War relic was the largest vessel ever deliberately sunk to form the backbone of a coral ridge to nurture sea life and amuse scuba divers.

Work crews had planned to slowly sink it upright. But it went down prematurely and rolled over, creating a navigational hazard when it landed bottom-up with the stern on the seabed and the bow jutting above the waterline.

Salvage crews used giant airbags and steel cables to nudge it over onto its starboard side, where it was safe from passing vessels but slightly disorienting for divers to swim through.

Then Hurricane Dennis blitzed past on Saturday, staying well west of the islands of the Florida Keys but kicking up 20-foot (5.6-meter) waves.

"Waves that high in close proximity to the reef can produce unusually strong currents with tremendous force," said National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Strahan.

The Spiegel Grove carried landing craft and cargo in the Mediterranean and Caribbean and was retired in 1989. It lies in 130 feet (40 meters) of water, a few miles off Key Largo.

Source: CNN, Tuesday, July 12, 2005; Posted: 1:57 p.m. EDT (17:57 GMT)


Service Awards:

View detailed information about these service awards

18 Jul 1958 - 6 Aug 1958

Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (Lebanon)

23 Aug 1958 - 7 Sep 1958

Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (Lebanon)

14 Sep 1958 - 18 Sep 1958

Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (Lebanon)

3 Jan 1961 - 1 Mar 1961

Navy Expeditionary Medal (Cuba)

8 Feb 1962 - 5 Mar 1962

Navy Expeditionary Medal (Cuba)

10 Mar 1962 - 14 Mar 1962

Navy Expeditionary Medal (Cuba)

24 Jul 1962

Navy Expeditionary Medal (Cuba)

24 Oct 1962 - 30 Nov 1962

Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (Cuba)

19 Jul 1965 - 21 Jul 1965

Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (Dominican Republic)

25 Aug 1966 - 16 Sep 1966

Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (Dominican Republic)

20 Jun 1976

Humanitarian Service Medal

1 Oct 1980 - 30 Sep 1981

Navy 'E'

8 Mar 1981 - 9 Apr 1981

Meritorious Unit Commendation

1 Oct 1981 - 30 Sep 1982

Navy 'E'

1 Oct 1982 - 30 Sep 1983

Navy 'E'

1 Oct 1984 - 31 May 1986

Navy Unit Commendation


Artificial Reef MedallionsArtificial Reef Medallions

To defray the costs of cleanup, preparation, and towing, the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce Artificial Reef Committee will be selling medallions which will be required for divers wishing to visit the artificial reefs off the Upper Keys.

Annual Medallion: $10.00
Lifetime Medallion: $250 - Purchaser's name will be engraved on the plaque which will be  installed on the USS Spiegel Grove (only 1000 will be cast/sold).

Lifetime Medallions can be ordered by calling the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce at (305) 451-4747. Both medallions can be ordered from the Chamber of Commerce website.


Sinking Images:

For images see the NavSource Online: Amphibious Photo Archive
Photos courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute
By Joe Radigan, MACM USN Ret.


Detailed History of the USS Spiegel Grove
NavSource Online: Amphibious Photo Archive - Images of she sinking
Key Largo Chamber of Commerce - Diving information on the USS Spiegel Grove.
Underwater Plaques - View pictures taken during the underwater installation of the 3 large plaques that were mounted to the side of the sunken USS Spiegel Grove off the coast of Key Largo Florida.

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Last Modified: November 30, 2006

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