Florida diving: 1000 Mermaids artificial reef dive site is growing off Riviera Beach
Mermaids have been part of mariners' mythology for thousands of years, with debates over whether they existed or were imagined by sailors who'd been at sea too long.
Ocean Rescue Alliance is working to make mermaids a reality — at least in a form that benefits marine wildlife. When weather permits, the nonprofit marine ecosystem enhancement organization will deploy about 55 artificial reef modules weighing over 88 tons at its 1000 Mermaids dive site in 45 feet of water off Riviera Beach.
The nonprofit is putting the 'art' in artificial reefs by working with Reef Cells, a Boynton Beach-based artificial reef construction business whose artists cast and sculpt mermaids, memorials and research modules for placement in Florida's coastal waters.
McCulley Marine of Fort Pierce plans to deploy the materials the week of Oct. 12, but bad weather has scuttled previous plans.
The first deployment at the 1000 Mermaids dive site in August 2019 placed 18 mermaids and artistic reef balls on the seafloor, said Shelby Thomas, director of research for Ocean Rescue Alliance.
In the upcoming deployment, seven monuments will be added:
- Five depicting each of the armed forces
- An 8-foot-tall mermaid bearing the likeness of Emily Guglielmo of Tampa, who calls herself The American Mermaid, and commissioned the work.
- A life-size memorial of the late Pembroke Pines firefighter and avid free diver Kevin Mehaffey, who is depicted wearing a mask, wetsuit, watch and fins.
The nonprofit also will deploy at 48 objects of varying size and shape, which look like abstract reef balls. "We're also testing a lot of different varieties of reef modules for habitat modification to benefit a bunch of different marine species," Thomas said.
Supporters who want to sponsor reef structures can do so for as little as $300, or can have their likeness scanned and then cast in concrete for as much as $20,000.
Within a few weeks after being lowered into the water from a barge by a crane, these statues may not spring to life, but life springs on their surfaces.
Corals, sponges, anemones, algae, barnacles and shellfish begin to grow immediately. Soon after come crustaceans, fish and sea turtles. Then, eventually, fish and sharks.
"This has become a relativity new trend in artificial reef construction the last 20 years or so," explained Keith Mille, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Artificial Reef program. "The well-known Christ of the Abyss statue at John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo was probably the first in Florida and dates back to the 1970s. Especially within the past 10 years, we’ve been seeing more and more of these ‘art-form’ reefs modules proposed."
The FWC and county natural resource management departments are responsible for working with groups that want to deploy memorial or artistic reef modules, Mille said.
"Natural resource managers have to make sure the art and memorial portion of the project does not take priority over its function as a beneficial habitat for marine life," he said. "I think the Ocean Reef Alliance and its 1000 Mermaids project is doing a great job of being mindful of that."
The purpose of an artificial reef must center on its ability to allow for the growth of corals, algae and other organisms to create high quality habitat for sea life, Mille said.
Florida has one of the most active and productive artificial reef programs among the 15 states bordering the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Since the 1940s, over 3,300 planned public artificial reefs have been placed in state and federal waters off Florida.
FWC receives funding from the Sport Fish Restoration Program administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as Florida's saltwater fishing license. The artificial reef program provides grants for new reef construction and monitoring and has distributed over $26.5 million since it began.
Many of the memorial and artistic reef projects are privately funded and receive no state grants, Mille said.
"Artificial reefs are manmade structures and start their life on land so it gives the broader public a chance to experience this habitat prior to deployment, where it is being staged or when it is deployed," he said. "Once it is under water, it is only viewable to the diving community. I think one appeal for these structures is to get the public engaged with the project."
Another interesting aspect of Ocean Rescue Alliance's next deployment will be the use of Coral Lok, an artificial reef design that could enhance the ability to plant coral raised by research institutions and reintroduced back into the ocean, Thomas said.
Fragments of live coral can be attached to the platforms, then easily screwed into the artificial reef, Thomas said.
"Coral Lok is an innovative design created to increase coral out-planting efficiency," Thomas said. "We have ingrained it into all of our modules and we are testing out a lot of different habitat varieties to see which will work best."
The technology will not be used immediately since it still is in the permitting process.
"We also have mini-habitat modules we can attach to the larger modules to create additional habitat," Thomas said.
The 1000 Mermaids Reef site still has more than 950 mermaids to go, but it is part of a robust business in Florida: diving ecotourism.
Artificial reefs in Florida generate $3.1 billion of economic output, according to a 2014 University of West Florida study titled "Measuring Florida Artificial Reef Economic Benefits: A Synthesis," by William Huth, Ashton Morgan and Christopher Burkhart.
The study calculated this much economic output from artificial reefs:
- $625 million by resident and non-resident divers
- $705 million by anglers
- 39,118 jobs created
- $250 million in state revenue
- $1.3 billion accrued income to Floridians
Reef Cells started helping artificial reef groups over 30 years ago, owner Christopher O'Hare said. His reef creation studio produced the Firehock Memorial Reef in 2005, named for Delray Beach firefighter and EMT Peter Firehock, who died in 2001.
"We've been involved in the reefs at Peanut Island, Phil Foster Park, the Andrew "Red" Harris Reef in Jupiter and 1000 Mermaids," said O'Hare, who has donated countless hours of labor and costs of materials. "I've been happy to do it. I felt there was a need for tourism reefs ... that would attract divers and visitors to Palm Beach County, who buy hotel rooms, meals, gas and dive charter services. I feel these reefs can have multiple functions to enhance habitat and tourism at the same time."
Ocean Rescue Alliance
To learn more about reef construction, go to Oceanrescuealliance.org.
Florida artificial reefs
To find a complete list of artificial reefs in Florida waters, go to: MyFWC.com/fishing/saltwater/artificial-reefs.
Artificial Reef Summit
The 2020 Florida Artificial Reef Summit will be virtual and is scheduled for Nov. 4-6. To learn more and participate go to FLSeagrant.org/fisheries/artificialreefs.
Ed Killer is TCPalm's outdoors writer. Become a valued customer by subscribing to TCPalm. To interact with Ed, friend him on Facebook at Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller or email him at email@example.com.