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Alabama Sinks into the Future

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Alabama offers great wreck diving for divers and fish

Article by Selene Muldowney

Shipwrecks, man-made reefs, and natural reefs instill a sense of awe and discovery in divers, marine biologists, historians, environmentalists, and oceanographers. To see the wrecks up- close; to touch and feel them brings up a reverence for preservation and protection of its historical significance as well as a better understanding of how vital the wreck has become to the marine life serving as a habitat. Biologists are finding these reefs are crucial to the preservation of marine life as they provide a beneficial physical structure on an otherwise sandy barren ocean floor.

Although Alabama has one of the smallest coastlines of any coastal state, it enjoys one of the best, most dynamic artificial reef programs in the country. Replacing breadth with depth, the Alabama Gulf Coast Reef and Restoration Foundation (AGCRRF), formally established in 2012, has made it their mission to sink and support the sinking of artificial wrecks along the Alabama coast, supporting most recently the sinking of the New Venture. The foundation’s board represents a number of interests in the reef building projects, including engineers, fisheries, environmentalists, biologists, state representatives, and scuba divers.

Artificial reefs provide enumerable benefits to coastal ecosystems as well as communities. Marine habitats attract fish and other marine life, which equals healthy and thriving marine populations, which in turn boosts the fishing industry, tourism (especially in water borne activities), and in the case of the New Venture, scuba diving.

For a number of years, the coastal communities witnessed a decline in fish populations especially in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alabama. Unfortunately, Alabama’s substrate is primarily featureless with few natural structures, resulting in transient fish populations and a lack of habitats to seek shelter and establish underwater communities.

While laws and methodology have changed, Alabama is no stranger to artificial reefing. Officially, Alabama has been putting down artificial reefs since 1953 when 200 car bodies were cabled together and deployed in two segments by the Orange Beach and Dauphin Island fishing communities.

Bob Cox, owner of Gulf Coast Divers in Mobile, Alabama, has been diving since the mid ‘70s and would often see collections of junk and appliances, an attempt by charter captains to create artificial marine habitats in order to attract King Mackerel. While it seems awfully irresponsible to sink unregulated cars and appliances, in light of the standards established today, most of the charter captains and fishermen removed engines and cleaned up the tanks. Even in those early days, it was clear that barren substrates seldom attracted spawning fish and in order to mitigate that it was necessary to create these artificial underwater structures to attract and retain thriving marine ecosystems.

Cox recalls, “Before the Loran was released to public consumption most charter captains would keep their good fishing sites to themselves, after creating their mini reefs and realizing the benefits of using those reefs as an attractant.”

Since those grassroots actions, the reef program evolved under the wing of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Alabama Marine Resources Division (AMRD): a portion of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. By working with local organizations with a similar goal, the AMRD has overseen the installation of thousands of reefs within local waters – both vehicles and structures designed to emulate vessels.

In 1961, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designated the“SnapperBanks” as the first artificial reef zones off Alabama. 1974 witnessed the first deployment by the Conservation Department when five 415-foot Liberty ships, part of what is known as the Ghost Fleet in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, were hauled offshore and sunk. There after the Alabama Marine Resources Division (AMRD) strategy changed to creating artificial reef zones instead of individual reef sites. It wasn’t long before the state and aforementioned organizations realized an increase in pounds of biomass at each of the established reef sites. Today, as the evolution of how reef structures are deployed and organized, and a heightened understanding and appreciation for aquatic ecosystems closer to shore, the reef projects have grown in both formality and demand. Reef-building has been, and continues to be, extremely important to the state of Alabama as they continue to pursue building fish havens.

On June 27, 2018 the Fairfield New Venture became the newest artificial reef in Orange Beach. This 250-foot-long, 56-foot-wide former oceanographic research and survey vessel was built in 1986 in Louisiana. She sits in about 125 feet of water within close proximity to another significant project developed and sunk by the Alabama Marine Resources Division, The LuLu, deployed as an artificial reef in May of 2013. It has three deck levels: the top of the ship is right at 60 feet, the main deck level at the top of the cargo hold is right at 95 feet, and then the sand bottom is about 112 to 115 feet making the Lulu not only a magnificent marine habitat but also a recreational diver’s dream.

Captain Gary Emerson, owner of Gary’s Gulf Charters in Orange Beach Alabama is an avid supporter of the reefing projects in the state. As an active member of the AGCRRF, Captain Emerson has been an avid advocate for creating marine habitats as well as encouraging divers to visit and explore these artificial reefs.

“Alabama has the largest artificial reef program in the country and we are enhancing some of our spots with concrete culverts and manholes –big stuff around six to eight feet in diameter,” he says. “We enhanced some individual army tanks, sunk by the Marine Resources Division, though there’s not a big enough spot to take a group of divers. We’re also trying to get eco reefs closer to shore.”

Located approximately 20 nautical miles south of Orange Beach, the Fairfield New Venture is expected to develop a thriving ecosystem as well as become a scuba destination, boasting multiple decks, five levels to explore, an accessible wheelhouse, and penetrable. Multiple access holes have been created along the hallway providing divers, especially wreck certified divers, natural light. These same access holes also provide marine life, including pelagic fish, to explore and establish residence within the vessel, the constant flow of water provides movement and distribution of nutrients for spawning marine life.

“The LuLu has been a constant draw for divers, more so than the USS Oriskany as of late as she is becoming less accessible to recreational divers because she is sinking slowly into the substrate – and what is accessible stays extremely busy. The New Venture is so close to the Lulu that divers can make a trip out of it and explore both wrecks. The New venture offers so many new opportunities for divers from all levels of certification. She is truly impressive – when swimming over the aft of the ship where the engines where located it gives you a sense of flying as you look down at the lower levels. I would recommend gloves, a knife to cut fishing lines, which won’t be a problem for some time, and at least a three to six-millimeter wetsuit for June through September or October,” states Captain Emerson.

Bud Howard, President of Down under Dive Shop in Gulf Shores Alabama, agrees with Captain Emerson’s assessment of the New Venture, “the primary goal of the wreck is marine habitat and the by product is the draw for scuba divers. Having both the LuLu and the New Venture so close together offers more dives, more adventure, more exploration, and more options for divers. The Oriskany’s flight deck at 140 feet plus which makes it great for technical divers and also great for training while the upper decks are easy access for recreational divers.”

Howard, a member of the AGCRRF, strongly believes in the reefing projects and understands the importance of organizations working together to create sustainable marine habitats and was extremely impressed with the collaboration between divers, environmentalists, fishermen, and the state to make these projects successful.

He continues, “To be honest, if anything is gleaned from Alabama’s successful reefing projects, is for divers in other areas looking to establish their own reefs, to stop talking about diving and start talking about the environment, mainly marine habitats. Our purpose is the accommodate the wellbeing of the fish and their habitats – while offering divers a place to explore and ultimately maintain. When these reefs are installed it enhances the food chain – we see the maturation of these reefs and a stronger ecosystem is realized on what was once barren substrate. Ultimately, these reefs become living underwater artifacts – amazing to watch the transformation. Environment first – scuba thereafter.”

Cox wholeheartedly agrees with Howard, “New venture is just part of the story – we [Alabama] have the most comprehensive and successful reef program in the united states – the big story is really the cooperative level of effort between the state and the folks in the Alabama Gulf Coast Reef Restoration Foundation. Our methodology provides other states to learn how to address building reefs and then take the necessary measures to move forward and to see what works and why it works to the state agencies – and offer solutions.”

Craig Newton, Biologist with Alabama Marine Resources Division, reiterates the need to establish a healthy and thriving underwater ecosystem, “The goal with new venture was to create different compartments within theship that would provide small scale complexity for a wide range of marine life to utilize it. We cut holes in the side of the ship with the intent toproduce a more productive artificialreef – of course divers see it as an opportunity to swim through which is our secondary goal. We have researched designs for building more efficient and productive reefs – things that help us maintain the ecosystem and fisheries production.”

Newton also mentions there are other projects such as circalittoral reefs currently being planned and built off in shallow waters so they would become more accessible to divers and snorkelers.

Besides the environmental impact, it is important to emphasize the value for tourism. Cox states, ”Tourism is a great subject – so many people have no idea that Alabama has a coastline. We have to educate people that there are dive sites – Gulf Coast is our primary place to dive. We dive from the Alabama state line to Panama City area. As far as the locals – they know about the diving and what’s there. Lulu will make a good pair wreck with the New Venture. It may actually attract people to the Oriskany as well. All this adds to dollars for shops, charters, restaurants, heads in beds, and more.”

Howard adds, “The Gulf of Mexico is a man-made haven of dive sites that range from man-made to barges and ships. This new reef [New Venture] is great for tourism and specifically scuba tourism – the reefs fuel the local economy starting with the dive shops feeding the charters and dive instructors who in turn feed the hotels and restaurants and return to the dive shop for gear. There has been a significant uptake on people wanting to dive in Alabama because if the LuLu and now the New Venture.”

Andy Ross, owner of Niuhi Dive Charters and has been diving in the Gulf of Mexico for at least the last 14 years, reiterates the sentiment, “The New Venture was sunk primarily as a habitat restoration reef but it serves a dual purpose of also attracting divers. Snorkelers also have a chance to explore these reefs.” He is excited about exploring the wreck and watching it mature.

Nature didn’t create marine habitats near the shoreline because she didn’t know humans would be using the shallow waters as a fishing resource. All these projects along the eastern and southeastern seaboard are great examples of the importance of the artificial reefs and how they are all tied together. A balance is createdwhen the fish have a place to spawn,a place to seek shelter, and a place to thrive.

Diving in Alabama truly is an incredible experience and if you have an opportunity to visit the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” it is well worthwhile. The cooperation between the different government agencies as well as public and private funded organizations has created a magnificent model for other states to follow suit. The efforts led by the different clubs and interests to combine their mission and build a sustainable marine habitat while also serving the need for tourism is remarkable. Fishing, scuba, swimmers, marine science and conservation, and tourism rolled intoone collaborative effort – it has beendone successfully and can happen again!

S.M.