If You Sink It, They Will Come

Creating an artificial reef is no longer a slam-dunk affair, despite an abundance of missile sites, water towers, and wanna-be philanthropists

Tuesday, April 25, 1995, was a good day for long-boarders and a bad one for Portuguese man-o'-war. Throughout the morning the surf near the Government Cut jetty came thundering in from the east, mean and green. Surfers in wet suits showed up on Miami Beach at sunrise to pick their way barefoot through the stinging sea creatures washed up by the gusting winds.

Up the beach at 44th Street, behind the Fontainebleau Hilton, a small crowd gathered on the sand to watch the sinking of the Tortuga, a 185-foot freighter destined to be the newest addition to Dade County's extensive artificial reef network. The sinking itself -- to be effected with fifteen pounds of dynamite -- figured in the filming of the Cindy Crawford/Billy Baldwin action vehicle Fair Game, a Warner Bros. movie due to be released that summer.

Miami Beach city commissioners had voted in November to spend $5000 in public money on the ship sinking. Two weeks before the event, however, they had upped the ante to $10,000 after discovering that Warner Bros. was considering moving the shoot to Broward County. The rationale for spending the money was the reasonable assumption that the scuttling, and the eventual movie, would generate direct and indirect publicity for Miami Beach, and demonstrate the city's friendliness toward the film industry.

The sinking was delayed more than two hours because of rough seas. Then, with the Tortuga riding at anchor two miles offshore, the director gave a signal and the cameras rolled. A film crew pyrotechnician flicked a toggle switch.

"I actually expected to see something much more spectacular," says Henri Spiegel, an entertainment lawyer who watched the explosion from a suite atop the Fontainebleau. "I thought there would be billowing smoke and fire. You heard the detonation, there was a flash, and the ship immediately started to list. Then it went down very slowly and smoothly, and that's what the filmmakers wanted. They used the right explosives and did it in just the right manner so that it would be protective of the environment."

Within minutes the freighter's pilothouse vanished beneath the waves and the Tortuga settled on the sandy bottom 110 feet down. Since then hundreds of scuba divers have explored the ship, and it has been used as a fishing destination by numerous local anglers. As expected, the sinking of the Tortuga receded favorably into the collective unconscious of assistant producers, location scouts, and professional cinematographers. But in the broader scheme of things, the worn-out vessel became merely one more chip in the odd mosaic of culture and history surrounding artificial reef creation.

From Pensacola to Key West to Jacksonville, Mother Ocean has swallowed an astonishing assortment of junk since 1918, the year Florida built its first official manmade reef. The underwater stockpile includes a small mountain of toilet bowls, truck tires, and shopping carts, as well as road-building rubble and concrete bike racks.

Two miles off Miami Beach's condo-dappled coast lies the Pflueger Reef, one of Dade County's ten offshore artificial reef sites. (There are seven inshore sites that hug the edge of Biscayne Bay, from Sunny Isles to Coconut Grove.) At Pflueger, in 110 to 330 feet of water, not one but thirteen ships are sleeping, the largest being the 210-foot-long Deep Freeze, a steel freighter. There's also a scattering of metal dredge pipes. Elsewhere beneath the waves off Greater Miami, a diver can explore mammoth Tenneco oil rigs, discarded FPL smokestacks, a collection of steel antenna towers, two M-60 army tanks, 500 tons of highway bridge, and a Boeing 727 jet. This past October county planners began seeking state funding to sink a new batch of material on the Pflueger Reef: a collection of radar towers left over from the Cold War, and the pastel pink municipal water tower that stands on the tip of southern Miami Beach.

Farther north or south along the Rolex Coast, even odder examples of reef creation pop up, ranging from the grotesque to the sublime. In the waters off Palm Beach in 1985, a publicity hog wearing a tuxedo dumped his Rolls-Royce off a barge in satirical response to Broward County's deployment of the Mercedes, a 197-foot German freighter, as an artificial reef. And off Key West, environmental artist Ann Labriola sank a 200-foot-long sculpture made of steel tables punctured with constellation designs. Named "Stargazer," the art reef immediately attracted divers as well as schools of bait fish such as blue runner, ballyhoo, and thread herring. Pilots say the sight of phosphorescent sea creatures glowing inside the reef at night is a stunner.

Artificial reefs try to be all things to all people. Officially, Dade County builds so many of them because it wants to replace a natural habitat all but destroyed by pollution, human population growth, and overfishing. "The Dade County Artificial Reef Program was established in 1981 with the primary goal of increasing the habitat available to marine organisms for the enhancement of Dade County's fisheries resources," a pamphlet published by the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) explains. At the same time, though, local government loves manmade reefs because they're instant moneymakers. In 1988 Walter Milon, a marine economist at the University of Florida, estimated that Dade's existing artificial reef system was worth roughly $17.5 million, with each reef generating an average of $122,000 annually in revenues from meals, hotel rooms, boat charters, and other expenditures brought in by reef visitors. Milon's study, based partly on surveys of what nearly 1200 sportsmen said they would hypothetically be willing to pay for new reefs, found that 28 percent of fishermen and 13.5 percent of divers had visited an artificial reef during the previous six months.

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