Artificial reefs create environments for colorful marine life

DIVER-FRIENDLY FLORIDA

December 01, 1991|By Bill Belleville

By all accounts, my fellow divers and I are enjoying the schooner Mercedes I today far more than Palm Beach socialite Mollie Wilmot did when the derelict ship rammed her sea wall and swimming pool in late 1984.

Maybe that's because we're floating over and through it -- as if in some nautical dream -- nosing in every porthole and cabin in search of exotic life. The life we're looking for out here, 97 feet beneath the warm tropical waters off Fort Lauderdale, Fla., isn't the ghostly specter of crewmen long gone. Nope, we're seeking colorful sponges and soft corals, spiny lobster and barracuda, Nassau grouper and yellowtail snapper. If we're lucky, we might even see a sailfish cruise in from deeper waters.

That's because the 197-foot-long Mercedes I is on its final voyage on the bottom of the sea, forever listing on the sandy ocean floor as if it were weathering a rough chop. The ship has evolved from a rogue freighter into a beautiful artificial reef over the last six years. As such, it's become the flagship of an entire fleet of underwater wrecks -- derelict ships purposely sunk as part of an environmental program -- that has created a new dimension of diving and snorkeling off south Florida.

"Ten years ago, there were probably two dive shops in Fort Lauderdale, and not much in Miami either," says Steve Somerville, an ocean engineer who oversees the artificial reef program for Broward County. "There's probably close to 20 here now. That crazy ship Mercedes kicked it all off."

Although there were already about 25 artificial reefs offshore at the time the Mercedes I was towed out and submerged, nearly all of those structures were in deeper waters -- well over 100 feet -- and used mainly by fishermen. The Mercedes I and the other relatively shallow sinkings that followed marked the beginning of an era in which ships and other ballast, such as rocks and even old drydocks, were placed in more diver-friendly waters. Today, there are over 24 ships more than 100 feet long in these waters off of Broward County alone. All the sites are mapped, and most are marked with anchor buoys.

While this continent's northernmost living coral reef is limited to the warmer waters of the keys, from Key Largo to the Marquesas, there is a series of linear "coral communities" offshore from south Florida. Since they are farther north, though, these corals grow much slower and in less diversity than their counterparts in the keys. Moreover, divers and fishermen from the heavily developed mainland are already stressing these natural "reefs."

Artificial reefs take the pressure off the natural systems by creating entirely new underwater habitats where fish and lobster can seek shelter, feed and reproduce. As they gradually acquire a patina of marine growth, the manmade reefs also become fascinating ecosystems in their own right. And, since most are already old ships, they meet the average diver's expectations as the classic shipwreck. "We put in boulders and platforms too," says Mr. Somerville. "But divers really love the wrecks."

It's true. There seems to be a mystique about a shipwreck on the bottom of the ocean that I've found hard to resist in my 15 years of diving. There are good reasons for this: At its most visceral, wrecks tweak childhood fantasies about underwater discovery, offering lots of dark nooks and crannies to explore in ways that an open reef never can. On a more dramatic level, sunken ships provide the stage for a number of action thrillers, from the treasure-diving flick "The Deep" to the real-life hunt for the Titanic. Surely, not everyone can go off like some aquatic Indiana Jones in search of shipwrecked adventure; but a visit to a wreck on the bottom of the sea makes us feel as if we could, if only for a day.

The way Mr. Somerville explains it, the wrecks provide a reference point for larger marine life on an otherwise oblique and barren sea bottom. And while some fish come in to seek sustenance and shelter, others visit simply because it's there -- much like dolphin cluster under clumps of sea grass or flotsam far at sea.

On a recent weekend, I visited three of these sites, including the Mercedes I, a 130-foot steel schooner once owned by an emperor of Vietnam, and a newly scuttled wreck that most recently served duty as a floating restaurant. Like the other ships consigned to this underwater fleet, these went down with a bang. Rigged with highly flammable explosives confiscated from area cocaine labs, the old ships sank in a blast of light, noise and thick smoke -- like "giant Bic lighters," recalls Mr. Somerville. This is, after all, south Florida, and Miami Vice-style flash still plays big here.

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