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UNITED STATES OF AMERICAUSS OriskanyThe USS Oriskany is, at 277 metres in length, the world’s largest artificial reef by a considerable margin, and along with the USS Saratoga and the HMS Hermes, one of only a handful of ‘diveable’ aircraft carriers. However, with the Saratoga being located in the remote Bikini Atoll, and the Hermes lying turtle off Sri Lanka, the Oriskany is by far the easiest to get to – you can jump on a boat in Pensacola and a couple of hours later be descending on to this gigantic ship.The Oriskany became the first ship sunk for reefing under a new US Navy programme to dispose of old warships. The project came with a US$20 million bill and was originally scheduled for 2005, but a series of setbacks due to hurricanes and problems getting environmental permission meant the vessel was finally sunk in May 2006.
Dubbed ‘the great carrier reef’, the Oriskany, which was commissioned in 1950 and served in the Vietnam and Korean Wars, is mind-blowingly massive. It is difficult to get a grip on the sheer scale of the vessel, but as an indication, recreational divers will carry out their entire dive(s) on the tower, and it is so vast that even several dives would not take you through every section. It is possible to work your way in and out of various rooms and corridors from the flight deck level right up to the highest point, and wherever you explore inside, you are never far from an exit.
Inside you can find radar consoles, control boxes, even a safe! The ‘pre-fly’ and the flight and admiralty bridges are wide open and beckon you to enter. From the seemingly endless flight deck down to the seabed is the realm of the tech diver, and again, there is so much to explore that you could rack up 20 or 30 dives and still be left wanting more.
You can descend into the hangar deck and beyond directly below the island, or if you have access to a DPV, you can head off on the long haul to the bow or the stern. This could be the best training ground for technical divers I have ever seen, as deep stops can be carried out on the island itself.
The exterior of the vessel is getting well colonised by shellfish and encrusting marine growth, but when you venture inside, it is a different matter. As soon as you are a metre or so away from a doorway or hole cut through the side, the growth peters out, and the walls – apart from a light covering of silt and some rust – look much as they did when it was sunk.
The visibility inside is also very good, as long as you are careful with your fin tips, though there wasn’t a lot you can do about the rust and silt showers dropping down on you from your exhaled bubbles, so only venture inside if you are appropriately trained.
Did you know?Following Hurricane Gustav in 2008, the ship shifted 3m deeper leaving the flight deck at 44m. The island structure is accessible to recreational divers, but the flight deck and beyond requires additional training and equipment.Essential informationLocation: Gulf of Mexico, Pensacola, Florida, USA Depth: 24m-65m Diver level: Advanced to technical USS OriskanyFlorida, USA 30° 02.600’ N, 87° 00.400’ W