“Into the darkness”
The sun was setting as the line was slipped from the post and the twenty-eight foot dive boat pulled slowly away from the Dock at Amy’s Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo, heading towards the opening in the mangroves, the last daylight gradually being replaced by the darkness of the ocean ahead of us.
Snowy egrets searched the shallows for signs of dinner, hidden amongst the exposed roots of the mangroves. The roots were doing their best to conceal tonight’s main course as we slipped by. The mangroves seem to be an endless, tangle of roots, impossible to penetrate. Unless, of course, you are a small fish in need of a place to hide while you grow. These roots hide countless tiny creatures who take refuge amongst the tangles. The mangroves provide shelter and protect the coast line from the torrents of hurricane season, all the while, surviving where other trees cannot, in the salt water. I say a silent prayer for the calm evening and the protection of the mangroves as we pass through them.
Soon we are slipping out of the pass and into the sand flats on the outskirts of the island. A light breeze carries us out to sea, into the unknown. The anxiety and excitement starts to build in my stomach, the butterflies stretching their wings.
Lights from the last of the fishing boats reflect on the calming water, as we head farther out to sea. I wonder about the stories of their captains and crews, the generations of secret spots passed down from fathers to sons….. each day now harder to make a living, hard working men and women spending fourteen hours a day on a boat, well past its prime, all for the love of the sea.
I could sense the excitement in the eyes of my children as the boat slowed into the growing darkness and started the search for the buoy that marked the watery grave of the SS Benwood.
Launched in 1909, for the Joseph Hoult company out of Liverpool, the 345 foot freighter hauled for numerous shipping companies until April 9, 1942 when the ship, then owned by a Norwegian merchant set forth on her final journey. The ship held a small armament during war time that included twelve rifles, one four-inch gun, six depth charges, and 36 bombs.
Benwood Image by divedocumentaries.com
That same evening, the Robert C. Tuttle, a 544 foot American steam tanker was en route to Atreco, Texas. Due to the threat of attack by German U-boats in the area, the two ships were completely blacked out, each keeping the Florida coastal lights in sight to navigate by. The Benwood, on a routine voyage from Tampa Bay, Florida to Norfolk, Virginia, carrying a load of phosphate rock, held a crew of 38. While they spotted other, in time, confusion ensued and the two ships collided. It’s said that the shells aboard the Benwood exploded and the bow collapsed on itself and began to take on water. The captain turned for shore in an attempt to save the ship by grounding, but sometime shortly before 2 am, they abandoned ship. The Benwood came to rest in 45-55 feet of water off the Key Largo, Florida. The Robert C. Tuttle, made for port to repair her damage.
The next day, a salvage tug was sent to inspect the wreckage and determined that the keel of the Benwood was broken and she was a total loss. The cargo was salvaged. The stern section, a hazard to navigation, was destroyed by explosions to remove the hazard. She now sits in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park where she sank.
Later that Same year, the Robert C. Tuttle, while sailing off the east coast of the United States, hit a depth charge and one of the crew members lost their life. A testament to the dangers of shipping along coastal waters during world war II.
Since 1942, the Benwood has become home to Goatfish, Grunts, snapper, lobster, grouper, hog fish, huge schools of parrot fish, reef sharks, turtles, and one very large Morey eel. By day the wreck is teeming with colorful fish of all shapes and sizes, turtles, and amazing coral.
The light peered through the growing fog in search of the weathered white buoy for several minutes until the young second mate called out “port side” and directed the captain with flailing hand gestures. At last we had arrived. The butterflies in my stomach took flight.
We completed our pre-dive planning and strapped into our tanks. Safety checks repeated……No looking back now. Waiting my turn near the back of the boat, my heart was pounding as I stepped into the seeming blackness and deafening quiet of the Atlantic Ocean. Falling into the darkness, surrounded by an ocean of unknown I questioned my sanity for a moment. A surreal, yet spooky feeling. The only light came from a small glow stick tied to the back of my tank. A small fish or two rose up to greet me through the growing darkness. I drifted slowly towards the bottom mesmerized, I almost forgot where I was.
Oh yeah……slowly falling into the darkness and unknown beneath us, I fumbled for my flashlight. The light secured I searched the ever increasing darkness, but the small fish had vanished, nothingness had replaced them as far as I could imagine, and then a flash of white shattered the darkness, followed quickly by a second flash…… The belly of a reef shark checking out my light. My heart now beating out of my chest, I continued to fall for what seemed like forever.
Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the shadowy outline of the Benwood came into view. The coral covered bow was resting on the sand. In the darkness the reef takes on a new personality. Each nook and cranny filled with wary fish, hiding, sleeping the predators on patrol. Parrotfish, feeders on the coral by day, take refuge all around the ship at night in a shield of their own mucus.
My flashlight covers a small swath but I catch glimpses from the other diver’s lights exploring the ship. I shut off my flashlight and take in the view from the lights of the others. The ship’s hull is filled with lobster scouring the bottom for their dinner, their eyes glowing in the light. My son searches the tears in the hull and finds a huge Morey eel peering back at him. His excitement is hard to contain even under his mask as he excitedly gestures to show what he has found.
Another sudden flash to my left, over my daughters shoulder, turns out to be a sea turtle, awakened by our flashlights. It narrowly misses her as it escapes to the surface. A few moments later, my son taps his tank to get our attention and turns his flashlight on and off. As we slip over the side of the ship, a huge nurse shark stares at us through the darkness from beneath a shattered piece of the ships hull, its eyes reflecting the light. One swipe of its large tail and it disappears into the darkness.
We continue to search the nooks and crannies of the ship wreck. Squirrel fish with their huge eyes, navigate the darkness. Everywhere we look are schools of fish taking refuge in the ships remains, more life in this shipwreck than I could possibly imagine. The colorful small reef fish that occupy this wreck by day have been replaced by the predators in search of their dinner. Reef and nurse sharks, grouper and eels all in search of a meal.
We slip in and out of the ships structure finding treasure around every corner in the form of marine life. Soon, another tap on his tank and my son was motioning that it was time to end our dive.
I turn my flashlight off again to take in the vast shadowy darkness of the ocean around me as I work my way to the surface. Suddenly something magical a few feet from me. Out of nowhere, the bioluminescent glow of a small squid appeared, all alone in the vastness of the rugged Atlantic ocean, drifting silently, effortlessly. I stop my ascent and marvel at its beauty for what seemed like minutes. Something so simple, so marvelous. The flash of the lights from my children above searching for my light, broke the silence and I responded with my light so as not to worry them. A moment in time I won’t soon forget.
Our boat ride in was an endless story of what we saw in the eerie darkness. Soon followed by “when can we do it again Dad?” Special thank you to my daughter Emma, who took several of the images in this blog post.