The Vandenberg shipwreck off Key West has long been billed as an underwater classroom for the wealth of marine educational lessons to be learned from its placement on the ocean floor. As of Wednesday, the 522-foot former military ship also became an underwater art gallery, as divers finished installing 12 oversized artistic images to the starboard side at a depth of 93 feet.
The digitally layered photographs by Austrian artist Andreas Franke are attached to the ship's weather deck with strong magnets. They are not permanent and do not damage the ship or any marine life, said Capt. Chris Norwood of Florida Straits Diving, who coordinated and oversaw the installation of Franke's "Vandenberg: Life Below the Surface."
Franke, an avid diver and professional photographer, explored the Vandenberg last year and took several photos of the wreck, which rests in 120 feet of water and rises to 55 feet below the surface.
When he returned to Austria and examined his photos, Franke wanted to add life to what he saw as a dead ship, which was sunk as an artificial reef.
"Even though there is so much life, marine life, all over and around it, the shipwreck itself, to me, is a dead thing," Franke said. "But I thought that if I put people on it, then there would again be life on that ship."
His ethereal images contrast the industrial metal of a shipwreck, with flowing human figures performing human activities. A little girl is shown on the weather deck, holding a butterfly net, as if trying to capture some of the fish that are shown in the actual underwater image of the wreck. In another shot, a couple is waltzing inside the ship, and a bartender is pouring a drink for a supposed passenger.
"Fortunately, no one died tragically in this shipwreck," Franke said. "Anyone can interpret the images how they want, but I like to think of the shipwreck as a theater or a stage, with people acting on it."
Once Franke created the composite images, he started thinking how fascinating it would be if they could be displayed on the ship, said Donna Belej, his New York producer who was the project liaison during the planning.
She got in touch with the artificial reef project organizers in Key West and started making plans.
The images are encased in 3 millimeter plexiglass and mounted in stainless steel frames sealed with silicone to keep out water.
Sanctuary permitting officials and city Port Director Jim Fitton were kept apprised of the art project and its installation methods, said Joe Weatherby, who worked for 12 years securing permits, raising money and preparing the Vandenberg for its May 2009 sinking. He met with Joanne Delaney, who handles permitting for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
"I had become intimately familiar with the permitting process for reefs," Weatherby said. "But I met with Joanne to be sure, and she said that with artificial structures, permits are only needed to do something permanent or if we were going to do something involving the ocean floor."
He emphasized that no harmful materials were used in the installation or exhibit.
"We installed the images right where all the dive boats and dive masters take their divers, and they're along the weather deck, where divers can easily pull themselves along the railing that's there," Weatherby said, adding that the 12 images are spaced along 200 feet of the ship, just aft of amidships -- basically in the middle.
"Obviously, we're asking all charter operators to not to let their divers damage or deface the images," Weatherby said. "They're not permanent, and we'll leave them up probably for a few weeks to see how people respond."
A website at www.the-vandenberg.com, which is under construction and expected to be finished in two weeks, will feature photos and video of the shipwreck and the installation of the exhibit. The site also will include information about ordering prints of the images that are displayed on the wreck, Belej said, adding that Weatherby will be a local contact for print orders.