Since I qualified as a diver nearly 10 years ago, I’ve been lucky enough to see more incredible marine life than I can name – from finding a turtle resting under some coral on my first ever night dive in the Great Barrier Reef to coming eyeball to eyeball with grisly-looking ragged tooth sharks in South Africa.
As well as the fascinating creatures you might spot on a dive, the non-living things can be a huge draw for divers too. Namely: shipwrecks – after some time underwater they gradually begin to deteriorate. The wreck becomes both a historical capsule frozen in time (with artefacts that went down with the ship – such as tools, maps in cabinets or medicine packets – still identifiable) and a diver’s underwater playground that changes over time and blends in with the marine habitat as it deteriorates and coral grows over it.
According to the United Nations, there are over three million wrecks at the bottom of the ocean. Thousands of these are popular scuba diving sites and many of those in shallower waters (such as the Liberty Shipwreck in Tulamben, Bali) can also be visited by snorkellers.
There are many ways in which a ship might have come to its final resting place on the seabed. By their nature, many wrecks will have been victim to a misfortunate incident: an accident or collision, a storm, warfare, piracy or just human error. Only last month I visited the wreck of the MV Christina with Scuba Safaris in Nevis – a passenger ferry that tragically sank on the crossing from St Kitts and has been preserved as a memorial site. Chillingly, some human remains are still visible as not all the bodies could be recovered from the wreckage.
Yet, not all shipwrecks sink as a result of an accident or misfortune – many are put there on purpose. A recent example is the Ana Cecilia: a 170-foot cargo ship was sunk in Palm Beaches on 13 July 2016. She was once used to smuggle drugs into America and was seized when an investigation discovered more than $10 million of cocaine on board.
Watch this video by Scuba Nation of the sinking and a diver exploring the sunken ship:
Just ten days after the scuttling of the Ana Cecelia to make for an ecotourism attraction, another new diving attraction was created in Greater Fort Lauderdale: on 23 July 2016, a 324-foot environmental tanker, Lady Luck, became the latest addition to be sunk at The Shipwreck Park in Florida. The underwater ‘cultural arts park’ is already home to 16 other wrecks but Lady Luck will be a special attraction: as well as exploring the captain’s deck, engine room and 16 staterooms, divers will be able to see the work of renowned local artist Dennis MacDonald, including a faux casino, on the deck. Lady Luck is expected to boost tourism to the area by attracting 35,000 divers each year.
Maintaining the ecosystem
You might think that huge ships ending up at the bottom of the ocean is bad for the environment. So why are people sinking them on purpose?
In fact, shipwrecks can play an important part in providing a habitat for marine life and maintaining a diverse ecosystem. Once sunk – or ‘scuttled’ as it’s called in nautical terms – the ships offer the type of hard surface coral needs to attach to and grow on. This, in turn, creates a whole new marine habitat that attracts fish and other ocean creatures. By giving divers new sites to explore, they also reduce pressure on popular natural reefs to help ensure their sustainability.
This is a popular practice across the world. For example, The Palm Beaches, where Ana Cecilia was scuttled, are home to 151 artificial reefs which have been created to protect and preserve the ocean’s ecosystem.
Not just ships!
Wrecks found at the bottom of the ocean could be anything from cargo ships, cruise ships or tankers to fishing boats and even submarines. And it’s not just boats…
The largest artificial reef in the world is the USS Oriskany, nicknamed “The Mighty O”, an aircraft carrier which was deliberately sunk in Florida in May 2006. She was large enough to carry 90-100 aircraft and was awarded several Battle Stars for service during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Redbird Reef, off the coast of Delaware, is an artificial reef made of an obsolete fleet of 1,200 subway cars, which were retired to make way for newer models on the New York subway system.
In Jordan, divers can visit the artificial reef ‘Seven Sisters To Tank’ which was created when an American M40 anti-aircraft tank was sunk by the government in 1999.
Burial at Sea
There’s even a reef that has been created (again, in Florida!) as a memorial site for the dead. At Neptune Memorial Reef, people’s remains are mixed with cement and made into artworks or structures before being added to the reef. The site was conceived by Gary Levine and designed by Kim Brandell as an artistic rendering of the Lost City of Atlantis.
Growing new coral
In the Philippines, a new dive site, called the ‘Underwater Chocolate Hills’ has been created as an artificial reef. The dive centre running the project finds broken and damaged pieces of coral which they fasten to underwater wire structures and place back in the ocean to grow into coral reef. Divers can learn about the project’s conservation efforts and even try attaching some of the old coral to the wire structures.
Creating underwater art
Last year, I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful island of Grenada in the Caribbean where I discovered another unique artificial reef. British artist Jason de Caires Taylor designed and built specially-made sculptures to rebuild coral reefs that were destroyed by a hurricane. Similar to scuttling a ship to offer coral something to latch onto, the sculptures were sunk as a way of helping revitalise the reef – as well as offering some respite for the natural reefs by encouraging tourists to visit other attractions in the area.
It’s fascinating to see the difference between the newest sculptures, whose pristine nature still stands out against the natural life under the water and the old artworks that have become so closely entwined with the marine habitat that they’re barely distinguishable. Although it’s slightly unnerving when you notice an octopus crawling up the leg of one of the ‘children’ in the sculpture gallery!
Following the success of this world first ‘underwater gallery’ at Molinere Reef, Taylor now also has a similar sculpture park in Cancun, Mexico.