By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
The contract has been signed, sealed and delivered. That means sometime this fall or early winter, Alabama will have a new diving destination about 20 miles south of Orange Beach.
New Venture, a 250-foot surveying vessel, is currently being prepped for deployment and will be towed to a predetermined spot and sunk as soon as the prep work is completed and the weather allows, according to Craig Newton, Alabama Marine Resources Division’s (MRD) Artificial Reefs Coordinator.
“Right now, they’re in the preparation stage,” Newton said. “All the tanks have been cleaned. The vessel is free of any hydrocarbons in the form of diesel fuel, oil, lube or hydraulic fluid. Now it will be moved to another shipyard to clean out the inside. That means cleaning out insulation, wiring, glass, wood, generators and drive train.”
Newton said New Venture was once used to perform different types of surveying with big spools that released cable into the water to find possible mineral and oil resources.
“There’s a lot of complexity to this vessel, compared to a cargo ship of similar size,” Newton said. “It has a lot higher sides than most cargo ships. There are a lot of different levels. It has more decks than a typical ship. So, we’re excited about it and the dive possibilities.”
Newton said New Venture will be reefed 20 miles south of Orange Beach in 120 feet of water. The top of the structure will be between 55 and 60 feet below the surface. Any deployed reefs must have a minimum of 50 feet clearance from the surface.
“When we look for reef sites, we look for coarse sand bottoms that are not too close to adjacent reefs,” he said. “We try to place them in spots that help maintain the production potential of the reefs nearby without creating a negative competitive interaction among the critters from one reef to the next reef. The preferred distance between reefs is about 200 meters.”
When New Venture is ready, only the stripped hull of the ship will go to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
“We will have them cut holes in the sides of the ship to create pass-throughs and add complexity to the structure,” Newton said. “This will increase the habitat quality. It will start holding fish within the first several of months. Maximum productivity will take several years. There’s a lot of substrate for what I call bioengineers – corals, bryozoans and sponges and things like that – that will grow on the side of the ship and create complexity at a much smaller level. Those organisms will provide some rugosity to the shipwreck so things like different types of crabs, shrimp, blennies, gobies and damselfish can seek shelter.
“There will be bigger fish hanging around it within the first few months. Fairly quickly, red snapper, amberjack and blue runners (hardtails) will be swimming around the shipwreck, as wells as tomtates, gray snapper and triggerfish.”
Newton said this shipwreck will provide excellent opportunities for divers with a wide range of skill sets.
“The top of the superstructure will be just 60 feet below the surface, so divers with less experience can go down and see the superstructure and swim in the shallower portions of shipwreck and stay within their dive limits,” he said. “But it’s also going to have opportunities for technical divers, divers with more experience, to gain some dive time as well. The dive will be right at 120 feet. With the penetrations and holes we’re going to cut into the ship, the technical divers will be able to swim into the shipwreck.
“But we will have somewhat limited access to prevent divers from getting too far into the shipwreck. We’re taking precautions to make the dive site as safe as possible and providing opportunities for divers with a wide range of experience.”
The money to create the shipwreck came from oil spill funds through a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
“This deployment is just one component of a larger plan we’ve been working on the past couple of years,” Newton said. “Last year, we spent a little more than $3.5 million on artificial reefs. We’re working on about the same budget this year. The total money allotted for artificial reefs is $11.8 million. Once that funding is exhausted, we’ll have a much more connected ecosystem. We’ll have artificial reefs within the 9-mile state waters boundary. We’ll enhance the structures that are offshore, and we’ll have a much more productive inshore reef system as well.
“It’s important to focus on each one of those areas because of the level of connectivity between inshore and nearshore habitats. Things like red drum (redfish), flounder and mangrove (gray) snapper grow up in estuaries and migrate to the nearshore waters for spawning. This money is helping to provide habitat where it has been a limiting factor.”
New Venture will be deployed near The LuLu, a 271-foot coastal freighter that was deployed in 2013 with great fanfare. The Alabama Gulf Coast Reef and Restoration Foundation (AGCRRF) spearheaded a fundraising drive to be able to sink The LuLu.
“It’s going to provide ecotourism opportunities,” Newton said. “It should be a better draw for people in north Alabama and Georgia who like to dive. They are more likely to come to the Alabama coast and boost the economy here rather than going to Florida.”
Chandra Wright, a dive enthusiast and ecotourism specialist with the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, is of the mindset that if we build it, they will come.
“Right now, our dive shops are running trips to The LuLu and making two dives on the same ship,” said Wright, who also serves as AGCRRF secretary. “By having a second ship, you do one dive on The LuLu and come back and dive New Venture on the same trip.
“Another perspective on that is as we get more operators running dive trips, if the Down Under (dive shop) is tied up to one of them, the other operator can unload their divers on the other shipwreck. And then at some point, they can swap.”
Wright said diving multiple times on a new wreck is especially rewarding
“When the wreck comes down, it’s clean with nothing on it,” she said. “Over time you can watch it develop with corals and sponges. It won’t take long for the fish to show up. It’s fun to see that development.”
Wright said the main challenge for the Alabama Gulf Coast will be development of the businesses that serve the dive community.
“We have a limited number of dive operators,” she said. “Down Under Dive Shop can carry about 20 divers at a time. We have two or three dive charters that have six-pack (passenger) boats. I think as we get more wrecks, we’ll get more divers, and I think we’ll see increased capacity in dive operations.
“In fact, a new shop, the High Pressure Dive Shop, opened in Robertsdale after The LuLu went down. They run a six-pack out of Flora-Bama Marina. If people are driving down Highway 59 on the way to the beach, they may not even know we have scuba diving until they see that big dive flag on the way down.”
PHOTOS: (MRD, underwater by Niki Johnson) New Venture, a 250-foot surveying vessel, is being prepped for deployment to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico about 20 miles south of Orange Beach sometime this fall or early winter. New Venture will join The LuLu, a 271-foot coastal freighter that went to the bottom in the same vicinity in 2013. Chandra Wright poses in front of the logo on her first dive on The LuLu.