Lee County, Fla. -- Diving into the Gulf's blue abyss, an outline of the former Coast Guard cutter appears. It takes only a moment to descend to the ship's deck 70 feet below the surface. Barracuda, up to five feet in length, grin and greet us, the protectors of the USS Mohawk.
In the three short months on the sea-floor, marine life aboard the Mighty Mo has flourished quicker than ANY ship reef recorded. The ship is now home to thousands of fish...from schools of bait fish and colorful cocoa damselfish to blue runners and the protected Goliath Grouper. Weighing approximately 400 pounds, the "Captain" of the ship is camera shy and lumberly swims below deck...another Goliath blends itself in with the bottom.
Visibility is a remarkable 40 feet...the density of the fish the main obstacle. The current is light and manageable.
We swim along the 165 foot long deck, peaking in portals and gazing in gashes in the ship's planks.
Now surrounded by sea-life, the gun at the bow reminds us of the Mohawk's place in history. During World War II the Mighty Mo launched a total of 14 attacks on German submarines. Marking her service and victory, four Campaign Ribbons painted on her side are still very distinguishable through a light film of algae.
After 30 minutes and nearly out of air, we begin our ascent and pause for a safety stop 15 feet below the surface.
Like the new reef, our dives have been a success, but the finale is yet to come.
Her school bus-sized body and domino-shape features give her away: a 25 foot whale shark, the largest fish in existence and a RARE sight to see, especially in the Gulf, nears us, as curious about us as we are of her. Fellow diver and News Press partner Kevin Lollar captured her grandeur. A fearless Cheryl McWilliams reaches out and touches the shark's massive fin.
The USS Mohawk Coast Guard Cutter Veterans Memorial Reef is the first of its kind dedicated to United States veterans.