The Golden Venture had a nefarious past -- running aground in the Rockaways carrying illegal Chinese immigrants 20 years ago -- but is making up for it now as an artificial reef in Florida.
The freighter, sunk in the Atlantic Ocean in 2000, provides a destination for divers, a haven for marine life and an economic boost for Palm Beach County.
New York officials rescued more than 300 immigrants from the Golden Venture off Fort Tilden in the Rockaways on June 6, 1993. It later was renamed the United Caribbean and carried cargo in the Caribbean.
Palm Beach County purchased the 147-foot vessel in 1999 and sank it in 70 feet of water near Boca Raton Inlet on Aug. 22, 2000. The county spent $80,000 to buy it and have a contractor spend almost a year cleaning it of PCBs, asbestos and other toxic substances, remove all the hatches and cut holes in the hull for better diver access and get it onto the ocean floor, said Carman Vare, environmental program supervisor for the county that has sunk almost 50 ships to make reefs.
"It's one of the better wrecks that we go to," said Captain Tony Coulter, owner of SunStar Aquatic Services, a dive shop in Deerfield Beach. He said more than seven dive operators make trips out to the wreck, usually at least twice a week.
Because of scouring of the sand by the currents, the wreck now sits in up to 79 feet of water and divers hit the top of it when they pass a depth of just more than 50 feet. The visibility underwater is usually 60 to 70 feet.
"It's broken into three pieces, courtesy of the 2004 hurricanes Francis and Jeanne," Coulter said. "The stern has leaned over onto the starboard side, the bow is pointing up a little bit and the wheelhouse has broken off and is to the south of the stern section."
Besides giving divers something to explore, the ship is meeting the goal of providing a marine habitat.
"There's a ton of life on it," Coulter said. "There's probably four or five big goliath groupers on it, anywhere from 200 to 500 pounds. You get stingrays, you get some green morays, schools of barracuda. There is soft coral all over it and hard coral is starting to grow on it. It's a real pretty dive. It's a good introductory wreck because it's shallow with easy penetration."
Coulter said he recites the history of the ship to divers before they go in the water and "most people have no clue" that it was once the Golden Venture.