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Hidden in the Lower Keys, The USS Wilkes Barre

Updated: Sep 3, 2019

It's Friday morning and looks like I can handle the rest of my workday from the car, on the phone... There is something going on in Key West that I wouldn't miss for anything in the world, so we packed some clothing and the scuba gear and hit road down to the keys with Ceci.

Already in Key West, Doug has his boat ready on Galleon's Marina, Tyler is all set up with Diogi and (the other) Tyler, Julie and Scott are ready embarque on their Friday, which I won't be part of as I'm traveling, but I'll join them later.

Diogi on Doug's boat

We arrived on Key West early afternoon, had some lunch, answered some emails that piled up during the trip... to sum up we settle in, as we heat the news about the great conditions that welcomed the guys in the ocean for their dive to the S-16 Sub, warm water, no current, great viz!

Later that night, we had dinner together (Diogi included) at Schooner Wharf, a really nice bar on the Key West Marina, to prep ourselves for Saturday and, of course, to share stories...

The Wilkes Barre History

The U.S.S. Wilkes Barre, CL-103, was a Cleveland class light cruiser, here is a brief recap on its history:

  • Dec. 24th,1943: Built and Launched by the New York Shipbuilding Corp.  Her armament consisted of twelve 6-inch guns, twelve 5-inch guns and a battery of 40 and 20-mm anti-aircraft guns.

  • July 1st, 1944: commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, with Captain Robert L. Porter, Jr., in command and saw quite a bit of action during World War II.

  • Feb. 16th, 1945: screened aircraft carriers, as their planes bombed Tokyo

  • Feb. 21st, 1945: called in to assist in the shore bombardment of Iwo Jima

  • Mar. 19th, 1945: was steaming east of Okinawa when gunners on the Wilkes Barre bagged her first enemy aircraft, a Judy dive bomber

  • April 1st, 1945: supported the largest American amphibious assault in history, the invasion of Okinawa

  • Jan. 13th, 1946, the Wilkes Barre sailed for the United States. She had received four battle stars for her World War II service and had shot down seven enemy aircraft.

  • Oct. 9th, 1947: Decommissioned and placed in Philadelphia

  • May 12th, 1972: was used as the subject for underwater explosive tests. The explosion broke the ship in two.

Her stern sank quickly, but her forward section needed an additional scuttling charge to send her to the ocean's floor.

The USS Wilkes Barre on its splendor

The Divesite

As mentioned, the USS Wilkes Barre, was used as a testbed for explosives, splitting the giant ship in half.

Wreck Info from

Both bow and stern sections remain intact in 220 feet of water where she was intentionally placed so as not to be a hazard to navigation. Her stern sits on an even keel, and her bow rests on its starboard side. Because of her deep resting spot, the Wilkes Barre can only be dove by very experienced deep divers. Her superstructure can be reached at 145 feet. This huge wreck abounds with marine life, artifacts and a fascinating history.

Our Dive

After a 45 min ride on the DC Diver, Doug got us to the site, the sonar clearly showed the two bumps that composed the broken shipwreck. Our initial intention was to dive the stern of the wreck, as it sits upright. I don't need to be mysterious here... we dove the bow 😃.

After playing around with the anchor for a bit, we dropped it right by the wreck, again, like the previous day, no current, great viz! It was time to gear up!

For this particular dive I prepared myself with this set of gases:

  • Trimix 18/45 as a back gas

  • Nitrox 50% as a first deco gas

  • Nitrox 80% as a second deco gas

The plan was to run a 22 minute bottom time and overall runtime of 70 minutes including deco.

The first team jumped in the water, composed by Tyler, Scott and myself. We reached the wreck at approximately 190 ft (58 m) of depth, realizing that wasn't the section we were supposed to be in, but stoked by the size of the wreck and amount of life in it.

Here's the dive profile, that spike you see at the bottom, gives a true idea of the relief in the wreck:

The Dive Profile

The bottom time run like a fast-forward movie, we managed to dive a good chunk of the section, but only on the deck, no penetration. All the structures are mostly intact, cannons, turrets, the bridge... so much to see and so little time! During the dive we saw plenty of life, including very active barracudas, a Goliath Grouper and even a Bull Shark while decoing. Being a wreck that is hardly ever visited it was of course, carpeted with Lion Fish, on that front Tyler took care of as many as possible, as usual.

Check out the video from the dive:

Once back on the surface, we chilled out while the second group of divers went to check out the wreck. Around 5:30 we were ready to head back to the marina, when we realized that... the anchor was stuck.

At this point, the first diver that was out of the water is the first in line for the recovery mission 🤓, so, long story short, I geared up again added a very sharp knife and a couple of lift bags to my setup, and took my second dip of the day to the wreck. Found the anchor at 210 ft (63 m), totally tangled, not only in fishing line but in ropes as well. Cut all of them but was unsuccessful to tie the anchor to the lift bags... at that point, I just placed the anchor in an open space and ascended, finish my deco stops and indicated Doug where to to move the boat to release the anchor. Thankfully, he was able to retrieve the anchor!

Now, back on the boat, we were on our way back to the marina.

Ceci was waiting for me at the dock, as we needed to return to Miami (I had to teach a class that sunday). We arrived at 7:30. load the car, dinner and back to road.

To sum up: Epic day with amazing people, Epic wreck, Totally a do over!

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