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Florida's Favourite Road Trip Wreck Dive Site Has a Birthday Thursday

04/08/2015 12:11 EDT | Updated 06/08/2015 05:59 EDT

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Eastern Canadian scuba divers think of the wreck of the Benwood as the reward at the end of the annual 24-hour non-stop marathon road trip to Florida. The shipwreck is at the top of the Florida Keys, is close to shore, safe to dive on and the water in April is bathtub warm. Canadian divers have been visiting the shipwreck for over 50 years and on Thursday the Benwood is marking a birthday!

It was 73 years ago Thursday that the Merchant Marine freighter Benwood collided with another freighter, the Robert C. Tuttle and sank off the shores of Key Largo, Florida. It was an accident caused in no small part by World War 2 -- rumours of German U-boats in the area that night required both ships to travel completely blacked out, even though they were just 3-miles off-shore in the reef filled waters of Key Largo's Atlantic coast.

The 360 ft. long Benwood was filled to the gunnels with phosphate rock and was armed with a deck gun, depth charges and bombs. When her bow was crushed in the collision, she took on water and 30-minutes laters the captain and crew abandoned ship as the Benwood sank. She now lies close to shore between French Reef and Dixie Shoals on a bottom of low profile reef and sand in depths ranging from 25 to 45 feet.

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Stephen Weir photographs the Benwood

According to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, (NOAA) time has not been kind to the Benwood. "Salvage began soon after the sinking and continued into the 1950s. It is believed that she was dynamited as a navigational hazard and was used by the U.S. Army for aerial target practice after World War II."

The Benwood rests inside the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary close to Key Largo and the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Both the State of Florida and NOAA have control of this huge underwater sanctuary...including the wreck of the freighter.

Over time the wreck has become part of the ocean floor, an artificial reef. She is the only high-profile reef in the vicinity and as a result provides protection for fish and other sea creatures.

She is also one of the most popular wreck dive sites in the world. For over half a century dozens of dive vessels, snorkel charter ships and glass bottom boats have visited the remains of her ship two and three times a day, almost 365 days a year.

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Wreck of Benwood - photograph by Stephen Weir

Lying in the shallow protected warm waters the Benwood is considered a safe dive -- perfect for novice divers. Because of the abundance of fish and the coral encrusted hull plates that cover the ocean floor, the site is also a favourite spot for underwater photographers.

All of the charter boats that take visitors out to the Benwood meet strict US Coast Guard stringent safety rules. The wreck is well marked with floating buoys and the site is patrolled by a variety of Federal and State safety crews.

No one perished in the mash-up of the Tuttle and the Benwood back in 1942. However, despite the benign nature of the wreck, and the high safety standards in place, divers and swimmers do die on the Benwood at the rate of one or two a year (usually because of health problems), making caution a watch word for Canadian divers, on the Benwood's birthday this Thursday (and every other day too).