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Cayman Salvage Master, Unusual Key West Dive With A Strange Past
The Cayman Salvage Master is a Florida shipwreck that has gone by many different names and has a questionable, perhaps even mysterious past.
Known also as Cayman Salvor, her beginning was almost as unusual as her ending. Instead of being a typical assembly line ship she was specifically built.
She was also the first diesel electric vessel that had cable and mine planting capabilities.
There are numerous, conflicting theories regarding the Cayman Salvor's past, but the best reports indicate she was delivered to the Army in 1937.
She was responsible for not just laying mines, but for running communications cable needed at the various fortifications being established throughout the United States.
Since mine laying was somewhat similar to buoy planting, it was relatively easy for this ship to eventually enter service as a buoy tender with the U.S. Coast Guard.
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It's also believed that a Key West FL commander used her in some capacity as a personal vessel while she was officially acting as a cable layer.
Later, she served under the Panamanian flag as a freighter, before entering the final checkered phase of her career.
Her latter days of service occurred during a period in history referred to as the Mariel boatlift. This event took place between April 15 and October 31, 1980 at Mariel Harbor in Cuba.
It was a mass exodus of Cubans bound for the United States, and these numbers included criminals and mental patients.
While on one of her illegal missions, the ship was seized by the United States government and 1,400 Cuban refugees were discovered on board. She was then towed to Key West FL where she inexplicably sank a few days later at the dock.
Cayman Salvage Master Scuttle History and Wreck Conditions
In 1985 she was refloated with the intent of transforming her into an artificial reef. Her superstructure was removed, and she was properly cleaned. Doors, cables, wires and other entanglements were removed from her frame, and holes were blasted in her hull.
As the Cayman Salvor was being towed to her final resting place in the Atlantic, the cables attached to her snapped. Instead of reaching her intended destination of 300 feet, she sank in 90 feet of water. When she finally settled, she was positioned on her portside.
Later, in 2005, the strong surge from Hurricane Katrina that obliterated New Orleans and the Mississippi coast, repositioned the vessel into her current upright position.
Today, the Cayman Salvage Master is considered one of the more popular sites when scuba diving Key West. The benefits are that she sits at a reasonable diving depth, in upright and good condition.
I've included below an assortment of dive maps for the area, including Garmin diving site memory cards for many of the wrecks and reefs in the Florida Keys.
You'll definitely want to check out your options as these dive maps are handy for planning your diving trip. They'll also give you details of the wreck so you're prepared for the 'lay of the land' once you get down to the dive site.
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You'll also notice that she has a number of interesting features that can be discovered while exploring her length and breadth.
First, there are 3 bicycles on board, no doubt left behind by several of the Mariel boatlift Cuban refugees. There's also a payphone, a cable spool and pulley on the bow, and a rudder under the stern.
Coral is developing on the ship, and a vast assortment of tropical and Florida game fish frequent this artificial wreck. Several large goliath grouper and moray eels have also set up permanent residence in her hulking mass of steel.
Even though this Key West diving site is extremely popular with anyone Key West wreck diving, it's reserved for the advanced or technical diver for the following reasons.
Proximity to the Gulf stream means the currents will be strong and unpredictable. Plus, there are still obstructions that can entangle a Key West diver, even though the ship is intact and was properly cleaned.
This is why diving into the wreck is only advisable on the second or third Key West diving trip because orientation is necessary. As an added precaution, it's also wise to scuba dive with someone who's familiar with the Cayman Salvager wreck's layout.
Due to the potential of becoming entangled you'll also need to make sure you are carrying a good diving knife and that you have a good flashlight with you.
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At-A-Glance Wreck Diving Description and GPS Coordinates
Cayman Salvage Master / Cayman Salvager Wreck / Cayman Salvor - 187' long and 37' wide mine layer built in 1936. When used by the US Army, she was called Lt. Col. Ellery W. Niles and she served as a mine planter and then as an Army Signal Corps cable ship. In 1965 she was refitted and used as a research vessel and her name changed to R/V F. V. Hunt. It finally was changed to her final name which she carried with her to the ocean floor when she was sunk off Key West in 1985 Location
1 miles SW of 9 Foot Stake, 7 miles SE of Key West Florida GPS Co-ordinates
24 27.210N 81 45.980W Markers
Buoy marks the dive spot Level
60' - bow
72' - deck
80' - engine room
93' - maximum depth Visibility
Excellent Wreck Diving Description
This Key West diving site is near the Gulf stream so currents can be strong. Ship sits upright and is mostly intact except for super structure which has been stripped clean to make a better habitat for marine life. Intact large cable spool and pulley on bow, a public pay phone, rudder under the stern, and 3 bicycles are some of the favorite dive features Marine Life Snook, goliath grouper, nurse shark, moray eel, grouper, bar jacks, barracuda, silversides, permit
If you're planning a diving holiday, the Cayman Salvage Master will be one of the more remarkable and memorable Key West wrecks you can visit when scuba diving Key West.
Even though she rests at a relatively easy depth, the current and possible dangerous obstructions make this a Key West scuba site that should be reserved for someone more experienced.
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