Marine industry, Collier leaders go full speed ahead to sink Navy ship as reef off Marco POLL

USS George Philip

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USS George Philip

Should Collier County pursue getting the USS George Philip to sink for a reef?

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— A new tourist attraction could be coming to Collier County.

Actually, it could be coming to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico about 30 miles west of Marco Island.

It’s the USS George Philip, a decommissioned Navy ship that divers and anglers are hoping to sink and make into an artificial reef.

“I think it would be perfect for our coast,” Naples diver and fisherman Mike Taworski said.

Web page with more information about the USS George Philip

The 455-foot frigate has been Taworski’s target for the past year, ever since he discovered it mothballed in Bremerton, Wash.

Last week, Collier County commissioners authorized a formal request to the Navy to put the ship on “donation hold” instead of sending it to the scrap heap.

Last week, divers from the county, the Sheriff’s Office and local fire departments found a sandy spot without environmentally sensitive hard bottom about six miles north of the so-called “R” Tower, already a fishing and diving landmark of sorts.

The next step is for the county to try to get a permit from state and federal agencies for an artificial reef at the spot.

“It’s a desert, which is exactly what we want,” Taworski said. “Once we reef the ship, she’ll be alive.”

Fish and other marine life would seek out the sunken ship’s nooks and crannies looking for food and shelter. Corals and macroalgae would attach to the ship, turning the steel shell into a marine garden.

Last week, divers from the county, the Sheriff’s Office and local fire departments found a sandy spot without environmentally sensitive hard bottom about six miles north of the so-called “R” Tower, already a fishing and diving landmark of sorts.

County officials estimate it would cost $2 million to tow the ship from Bremerton, clean it up and sink it.

The money would come from donations to be raised once the county knows it can get the ship, Coastal Zone Management environmental specialist Pamela Keyes said.

“I think it’s an exciting possibility,” she said.

The city of Naples, the Marine Industries Association of Collier County, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, University of Florida sea grant agent for Collier County and the Sheriff’s Office already are on board.

Until now, the county’s artificial reef program has relied largely on concrete rubble and metal _ not to mention the forces of war and nature.

A Honduran freighter went down off the Lee County coast in a 1993 “No-Name” Storm, and a ship carrying war supplies was torpedoed by a U-boat off Marco Island in 1942, according to shipwreck databases.

There’s even the remains of a Civil War-era paddlewheel boat that sunk off Marco, possibly carrying construction materials to the Fort Jefferson outpost west of the Florida Keys.

In 1997, a 46-foot Cuban fishing boat sank four miles off Gordon Pass as crews were towing it to a deeper reef.

The county bought the steel-and-concrete boat for $10 after the U.S. Marshal’s Service confiscated it off Wiggins Pass in 1994 for smuggling Cuban refugees. Later, sea turtle experts found evidence on board that the boat had been used for illegal sea turtle hunts.

The USS George Phillip would put Collier County into a different league and make it a dive destination akin to the Spiegel Grove that was sunk off Key Largo in 2002, dive enthusiasts say.

“Getting something off our coast would really put us on the map,” ScubaMarco owner Jeff Dawson said. “I think it could be a tremendous boost.”

County officials estimate it would cost $2 million to tow the ship from Bremerton, Wash., clean it up and sink it.

The Key Largo Chamber of Commerce estimates the ship pumped $14 million into the local economy in the year after it hit bottom.

The USS George Philip, at 45 feet wide, would be sunk on its side in 90 feet of water or so.

That would bring the ship close enough to the surface to make it accessible to even novice divers but would still give experienced divers plenty of structure to explore, Taworski said.

The USS George Philip has seen lots of above-water action since it was commissioned in 1978.

In 1982, it was deployed to keep sea lanes open in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War; in the 1990s, it helped run down South American cocaine traffickers.

The ship was named for a Navy hero from a family with a history of military service. Philip died in 1945 when a kamikaze pilot hit the USS Twiggs in the battle for Okinawa.

He was awarded the Navy Cross and was awarded the Silver Star for his earlier service on the USS O’Bannon.

Having her father’s namesake sent to an underwater grave would be a tribute as fitting as medals and official commendations, Philip’s daughter, Snow Philip of Key West, wrote in a letter of support.

“My father lies in an unmarked grave off the coast of Okinawa,” Philip wrote. “His brother and uncle also rest somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

“What better fate could this have than to commemorate the dead by becoming a site for new life?”

__ Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/

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Comments » 3

deltarome writes:

This would be a fabulous boost for fisherman, conservationsists, divers and local marinas, charter captains, restaurants, gas stations and those who love to give fish a place to fluorish.
It will be a long expensive tow thru the Panama canal. Other costs will include removing all the asbestos and oil bearing materials.
I would be glad to donate to it and I am sure others would too. This would benefit Marco more than some other projects of dubious benefit.

19thhole writes:

How could we go wrong with this? All of this will be done with donations (no government funding unless offered) and it will be available for Marco, Naples and Ft Myers to fish and dive. The county has been involved with numerous golf courses at our expense it would be nice if the did help.

moray writes:

in response to deltarome:

This would be a fabulous boost for fisherman, conservationsists, divers and local marinas, charter captains, restaurants, gas stations and those who love to give fish a place to fluorish.
It will be a long expensive tow thru the Panama canal. Other costs will include removing all the asbestos and oil bearing materials.
I would be glad to donate to it and I am sure others would too. This would benefit Marco more than some other projects of dubious benefit.

There is no Asbestos or PCB's on this ship it was built after 1970.

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