OKALOOSA ISLAND — The Emerald Coast Convention and Visitor's Bureau deployed Okaloosa Island's first artificial reef Tuesday.
The new destination for freedivers, snorkelers and scuba divers lies offshore from Okaloosa Island's Beach Access 4. It is the first of 50 reefs that will be placed 500 feet offshore.
Alex Fogg, Okaloosa County's Tourism Development Department marine resource coordinator, said the project's purpose is to give watersports enthusiasts an easily accessible place to enjoy Northwest Florida marine life.
The reefs will be arranged in different shapes on the Gulf of Mexico floor, in designs that include starfish, sea turtles and dolphins. Fogg said the designs will be visible from above to parasailers, planes and helicopters.
"What our tourists and locals want to see are fish," Fogg said. "There isn't much habitat near shore, so providing habitat for fish like this will be a good thing."
Okaloosa County plans to deploy four snorkel reefs in the coming weeks. Beasley Park, The Crab Trap Destin and Henderson Park East will be the three additional locations. That portion of the project will cost $700,000.
The entire project, which will be $1.69 million, will add even more reefs farther offshore. Those deployments will not likely begin until fall.
Money for the project comes from the Natural Resource Damage Assessment Fund, which was given to Okaloosa County following the BP oil spill settlement.
Fogg said it will take approximately six months for plants to begin growing on the reef and for the smaller reef fish to migrate to the area. The transient species (small fish that quickly seek shelter), he said, will likely be seen near the reef as early as Wednesday.
The shadows of curious marine life, accompanied by equally as curious paddle boarders, however, were already enjoying the reefs as they were being placed at noon Tuesday.
"In our area, you never know what you're going to see," Fogg said. "In the summertime, swimmers might see tropical species you'd only normally see in the Bahamas, like angel fish and cardinal fish — those really colorful fish. You also see the important commercial and recreational fish like red snapper and grouper."