Reefs, wrecks and ruins

Story by Lois Carol Wheatley

Fish aren't the only species that love a good shipwreck. Fishing and diving enthusiasts love them because the fish love them, and history buffs love a ripping tale of the sea that ends with a century-long slumber on the ocean floor.

Treasure hunters seek them out as well, because not all pirates had the opportunity to bury their booty on a deserted island and draw an X on a map that marked the spot. Divers go down hoping for that huge chest dripping with gold coins and rich jewels, but are perfectly thrilled to come up with a vintage button or a belt buckle.

Along the South Carolina coast underwater explorers have discovered countless Civil War wrecks, merchant vessels sunk in hurricanes, and in one case, two ships that long ago collided and sank together. Over the years these turn into coral reefs, and when the SC Department of Natural Resources saw how wildly popular the wrecks were with the water sports crowd, it launched a program to create artificial reefs throughout the region.

In some cases it deliberately sank boats that were, shall we say, past their prime, to create new recreational areas for man and fish alike. Neither species seems to be particularly concerned with how these new attractions got there.

The state's offshore artificial reefs program has submerged over 100 steel-hulled vessels since 1969. It has deep-sixed steel and concrete bridges, New York City subway cars, concrete culvert pipe, steel dry dock work platforms, military aircraft, US Army tanks and even intercontinental ballistic missiles. And it has funded these efforts through fees generated from the Saltwater Recreational Fishing License Program.

The bottom's topography

You've seen videos of exotic aquatic life darting in and out of elaborate coral formations, hiding in nooks and crannies, cavorting among swaying sea fans and huge sponges. What you've probably seen is footage of Australia's Great Barrier Reef or the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean. That's not exactly what you'll find off the Carolina coast.

For one thing, the waters are murky and visibility is somewhat limited. For another thing, the reefs of the Jacques Cousteau variety are not found north of southern Florida. What we have here is known in the trade as hard bottom or live bottom areas.

A hard bottom area is a spot where the substrata, usually limestone, creates a suitable base for a rock outcropping. These are few and far between, as most of the Carolina ocean floor consists of ten to 15 feet of sand layered on top of rock. In the rare spots where the rock is actually exposed, coral, sponges and an assortment of invertebrates are able to attach themselves and create lively aquatic colonies. Experts estimate that maybe about five to ten percent of the ocean floor in this region is amenable to these conditions.

So that's where elderly ocean freighters, steel girders and subway cars come into play. For the length of their underwater life - an estimated 100 to 500 years - they're as good as rock-based reefs. And there's nothing artificial about the myriad of living organisms that take up residence in, on and around them.

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