The Gulf waters of Southwest Florida aren't likely to overtake our neighbors to the south, the Keys, as a premiere dive destination anytime soon but for underwater enthusiasts there are still plenty of sights to explore.Soon divers will have another aquatic playground.
The retired Coast Guard cutter USS Mohawk will find its final resting place on the bottom of the Gulf. The 165-foot World War II-era vessel will be sunk 28 miles off the coast of Fort Myers on Monday as part of Lee County's artificial reef building program.
"Using ships like this a reef is great idea," said Ramiro Palma, owner of Scubavice Dive Center in Fort Myers. "Instead of just turning these ships into scrap and turning them into steel cans or something, the history of them will live on."
The newest artificial reef has quite a history. After being commissioned in 1935, the ship played an integral part of the war effort, sweeping the Atlantic Ocean for German U-boats and even giving the "all clear" signal to begin the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944.
After it is scuttled, it will become part of Charley's Reef system which sits in about 90 feet of water. The ship — with cannons and propeller intact — will be sunk using a series of explosives, which will be handled by the Lee County Marine Services Program and a Key West company called Reefmakers, at around 11 a.m. Although there are several existing wrecks — including the Bayronto and Fantastico — off the coast of Southwest Florida, this will be the first decommissioned military ship used for constructing a reef.
"For tourism, I think this is going to be great," said Palma, who plans on offering weekly trips to the site. "There are a lot of divers from all over the world who will come just to dive a particular wreck to cross it off their bucket list so to speak. I think this wreck will be the kind of thing that people will come for."
"We are all excited about it," Caloosa Dive Club president Sandy Canning said. "Anytime you have something like that that brings people in, not just for divers but for other stuff too, it is a good thing for tourism."
Once the ship reaches the sea floor it will only be a matter of time before a variety of marine life begins to call it home, making the site more attractive to divers. Although it will begin attracting fish immediately, it will take years, or even decades for other structures such as hard corals and sea sponges to take hold.
"The sea floor in the Gulf is mainly sand so it should attract fish quickly," Palma explained. "By next year it should have a lot of life on it."
"There may not be a lot of coral growth because of the sun penetration at that depth but fish should move in immediately," Lee County's Sr. Environmental specialist Mike Campbell said.
Although the ship will be a welcome addition to the undersea landscape, some in the local dive community warns that it won't be the instant boon to the industry that some expect.
"There is a lot opinion that Gulf diving isn't that good," Canning said, "and I think that it will take a lot of marketing and people reading about the diving here — like in the diving magazines and stuff — before people really start making this a place that they come to just to dive."
"It's a new site so there will be a lot of interest in it at first but I don't think one site is going to make a lot of difference," said Mark Garcy, who operates Naples Marina Excursions, a dive shop and charter on U.S. 41 in Naples. "It is always nice to have a new structure like that but I think the revenue created from the one site won't be that great."
Two of the biggest issues for the new site will be the distance from shore and the costs, like fuel, associated with getting there, and the depth, which at 90 feet to the bottom will preclude most recreational divers from being able to explore the structure.
"It will be available to advanced divers only since most divers are only certified to go about 60 feet," Garcy explained. "There's a lot of things that will keep this from being a really popular destination. I'd say 80 percent of our charter dives are around nine miles out, 15 percent are to around 20 miles and only about 5 percent go out further. It is cool to have but I think that the money spent would have been better used for several sites, smaller ships, barges and things like that, that are closer to shore."
Although special certifications are required for deep water and wreck diving, Palma doesn't think that will be an issue for the new site.
"Technical divers are going to love it. There will be plenty to explore inside the ship," he said. "And because of the profile of the ship, the smokestack will be in only about 50 feet of water so there will be something for everyone to see."