Seventy-five feet below the surface, sea life flowed in rainbow schools and channels around a metallic reef. A cat-like nurse shark lazed about nearby, scaring easily as baitfish darted frantically. And above the layers of hot and cold currents, on the surface, waves rocked a small dive boat.
But the reef below wasn’t just any underwater habitat. On the seafloor sat a pair of F101 Voodoo fighter jets, one of the state’s more than 3,000 artificial reefs.
His passengers held onto the boat’s sides as it bounced over waves, and Frank Mancinelli joked, “Wish they’d pave these roads.” Mancinelli, a Florida Sea Grant volunteer and U.S. Air Force veteran, positioned his boat above the Voodoos, a few miles off the coast of Panama City, Florida.
For more than three decades, Florida Sea Grant agents, scientists and volunteers have lead the development of the state’s artificial reefs. Reef projects around the state benefit from the 51-year-old program’s research expertise and access to more than 800 coastal and ocean scientists. The program represent partnerships between universities across the state and the federal government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Artificial reefs lead by Sea Grant are designed based on the needs of individual communities, whether that means building new habitats, removing pressure from natural reefs or stimulating the economy. The Voodoos, like hundreds of other artificial reefs in Bay County, are the product of partnerships between Florida Sea Grant, based at the University of Florida, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, local county officials, and a number of private organizations.
In Bay County, Sea Grant agents knew ex-fighter jets make bountiful reefs. Wrecked military equipment attracts thousands of divers and fishermen each year at older artificial reef sites, plus red snapper and other reef fish had been observed during surveys of an F106 aircraft deployed off the shore of Bay County in the 1990s.
Once piloted by two local Air Force veterans, many people were anxious to bring the Voodoos home before they were sent to a scrapyard.
Three years after the jets were deployed, Mancinelli and diver Allen Golden, the artificial reefs program coordinator for Bay County, put down anchor at the reef.
Golden put on his dive gear and prepared to monitor and document the reef. Artificial reefs throughout Florida are monitored to track progress and ensure they’re thriving. In fact, anyone can participate in artificial reef monitoring by completing a survey after a reef visit.
Golden jumped into the Gulf and dipped below the waves.
As he dove down, the reef gradually came into focus.
He saw the first jet’s tail, then its wings, and, finally, a cockpit spewing life. Barnacles grew from the jets as if their metal parts were natural; barnacles aren’t particular. Neither are fish.
After nearly an hour, bubbles appeared on the surface. “Wow, what a dive,” Golden said, removing his goggles. Triggerfish, snappers…a shark. Less than three years after the Voodoos were sunk to the bottom of the sea, a fully functioning habitat exists.
Decommissioned jets aren’t all Floridians sink into the sea. Everything from chunks of concrete to aircraft carriers are being recycled to mimic ocean habitats. But, why?
Early mariners noticed fish and other ocean life forming reef habitats on shipwrecks. In the 1830s, fishermen in South Carolina experimented with log huts to enhance their favorite fishing spots, but those quickly deteriorated. To attract prized reefs fish, Florida fishermen in the 1950s and 60s began sinking things like railroad cars, school buses, tires and porcelain toilets.
As is the case with modern artificial reefs, larger animals were attracted to makeshift reefs, too.
These early attempts were criticized as underwater junkyards because the materials easily degraded. Over the past few decades, the process for implementing artificial reefs has become science-based in Florida. Artificial reef projects lead by Florida Sea Grant today are the result of a combination of ecological expertise, engineering, design informed by scientific data and intended to last for decades, said Scott Jackson, Bay County’s Florida Sea Grant agent with UF and the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
“It does nobody any good to have something that falls apart, so over the last 25 years artificial reefs have drastically improved,” Jackson said. “Making them durable increases the amount of time they stay in the water and encourages different parts of the marine ecosystems to develop over that time.”
The materials are also made ocean-safe. The Voodoos, for example, were stripped by Mancinelli and his dive club volunteers of anything that could harm marine life or result in pollution, including wires, glass and oil.
Once the process is completed and a new artificial reefs is deployed, Jackson said, “fish show up almost immediately,” and then take anywhere from three to five years to create a fully functioning habitat.
An hour west of Panama City, a concrete reef shaped like a sea turtle, aptly named Sea Turtle Reef, has given tourists and locals a new reason to visit a blueish-green stretch beach.
Because the Gulf of Mexico has a mostly sandy bottom, with its limestone ridges often covered by sand, natural reefs do not form to the same degree as they do in the Caribbean. For places along the Gulf Coast like Grayton Beach State Park in Walton County, Florida, that lack natural reefs close to shore, artificial reefs have provided an enhancement and attraction for snorkelers and fishermen, said Laura Tiu, Florida Sea Grant agent for Walton and Okaloosa Counties.
Paddling a kayak above Grayton’s Sea Turtle Reef, Tiu pointed out how quickly the 2-year-old artificial reef came to life.
The reef consists of 58 structures designed with 5 foot diameter concrete plates embedded with limestone. Each reef structure is held in place with fiberglass piling sunk deep in the the sea floor.
“It’s a very intensive process, but it has had a noticeable impact on tourist draw and local businesses,” Tiu said.
While early artificial reef projects focused on improving fish populations, Florida’s artificial reefs today play a role in improving aquatic habitats, mitigating damage to natural reefs, and, as is the case in Walton County, providing recreational opportunities for visitors and stimulating coastal businesses.
“We’re still enhancing fish populations by making sure there’s habitat, but we’re thinking about it in a more strategic way,” Jackson said.
Florida Sea Grant agents like Jackson and Tiu live and work in coastal communities where they build strong relationships and trust. Coastal residents turn to agents for reliable science-based information and as sources of expertise for special projects, like artificial reefs.
When President Donald Trump proposed eliminating National Sea Grant funding as part of his 2018 budget request released in March 2017, 23 senators from 15 coastal states drafted a letter asking Trump to reconsider the $30 million cut to the program.
Native Floridian Reginald Paros drafted a response to the proposed cuts in a blog for Ocean Conservancy. “Growing up in Florida, I know these cuts mean more to my community than numbers on a spreadsheet,” he wrote. Paros continued, “For the past half a century, Sea Grant has helped to build and sustain the needs of coastal economies that may have otherwise faced dire times.”
In May, the President signed a bill to keep the program operating until September 2017.
What happens after September is uncertain.
“People who work in the program know that what we do is important, practical and responsive to the needs of people who live along the coast and coastal business,” said Karl Havens, director of Florida Sea Grant. “And we’ve had strong support in congress for the past 50 years.”
In other words, Floridians know the impact of artificial reefs reach further than what happens in the ocean, Havens said. Because impacts are felt on land, too.
Florida’s artificial reefs:
Estimates are from the most recent economic analysis of artificial reef impacts funded by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation.
An artificial reef even led to the discovery of a strange new species glued to a ship’s hull. The slime-spitting worm-snail, Thylacodes vandyensis, is nicknamed “Vandy” for the USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg. The retired naval vessel now serves as an artificial reef in the Florida Keys — a deliberate shipwreck. The reef is the only place the new worm-snails have ever been found.
The Vandenberg also took pressure off nearby reefs by providing recreational fishermen and divers with an alternative reef to frequent.
Reefs like the Voodoos and the Vandenberg will continue to support life for decades. Florida Sea Grant officials are confident their program will, too.
“We’re moving along with the program as though we’re going to continue on for many years,” Havens said.
This story first appeared at news.ulf.edu, and was created by writer Stephenie Livingston and photographer Bernard Brzezinski.