The creation of artificial reefs has become more and more popular off the coast of the Florida Panhandle, also known as the Emerald Coast. Concrete and metal are placed on the sandy bottom, following a lengthy application process with both the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as well as the Army Corps of Engineers. Within days fish, such as grouper and snapper, come to the structures, and eventually soft corals begin to grow.
I knew all this, but had never actually seen the construction of a reef take place. That all changed last week, when I spent almost ten hours on the water watching concrete from the Eglin Air Force Base being placed into a reef less than three miles from Destin’s East Pass.
At 6:30 a.m. I was on the docks, waiting for my ride to pick me up and take me out into the Gulf. It was densely foggy, difficult to see even 20 yards away. As I waited, the tug boat and barge carrying the concrete slowly moved past me, ducking in and out of the rising mist.
When my boat arrived, along with two other co-workers working on the artificial reef, I hopped aboard, carefully stowing my gear and camera away. I had come prepared: in addition to snacks and water, I had brought sweat pants in case I was cold, a rain jacket in case it rained, and my favorite pair of binoculars in case I got bored. In our smaller, faster boat we zipped by the tug and barge, heading for the GPS coordinates that marked the center of the reef.
The hardest part of the day was making sure the barge anchored in the correct location, for we wanted all the material pushed over as close to the centroid of our artificial reef as possible. This involved not only our boat, but another boat placing buoys and constantly checking them to see if they were staying in the right place. It was still foggy, and large swells made us nervous that no buoy would stay put. Eventually, everything was in place, the barge anchored and ready to begin.
Now came the fun part. I had been working on this artificial reef project for almost four months, and I couldn’t wait to see material go in the water. A large excavator sat heavily on the barge’s surface, moving the giant concrete cylinders, some of which looked like giant quarters. With a splash the first of the concrete went in, pushed overboard by the excavator’s huge bucket. With some of the smaller pieces the excavator operator merely picked them up and threw them to the side, reminding me a little of a petulant child.
After hours, the task was finally complete, and all the pieces were resting on the bottom, waiting for the Gulf to make them its own. When everything settles, I will dive the new structure to see how the new ecosystem is coming along, to document the species that now call the reef home!