When I was a little younger, I used to be obsessed with the Titanic. And no, I’m not referring to the movie, even though I do watch it from time to time. Maybe it had something to do with Titanic: The Board Game, which I used to play or the historical books I bought at a Scholastic Book Fair –either way, I was hooked. I was obsessed with the people. The boat. The history. The RMS Titanic: the unsinkable ship that sank. I replay the beginning of the movie in my mind; the video footage of the ship covered in coral, seamlessly integrated (over time, of course) into its life beneath the sea.

Photo courtesy of NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island (NOAA/IFE/URI) via Prioryman on Wikimedia Commons.

Photo courtesy of NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island (NOAA/IFE/URI) via Prioryman on Wikimedia Commons. Bow of the RMS Titanic, June 2004.

The Titanic wasn’t the first ship to sink and as much as I’d hate to say it, it won’t be the last; yet, the Titanic has become something more than a sunken ship. The Titanic now plays an essential role to marine life as an artificial reef. Reefs in general –natural or artificial– are prevalent to aquatic ecosystems, supporting an immense amount of biodiversity (“Coral Reefs;” “Reefs”). While natural reefs usually have a base of rock or coral, artificial reefs are created by humans and can be compiled with a number of man-made or natural objects (“Coral Reefs;” “Reefs”). Like the Titanic, some artificial reefs are created on accident, but that isn’t always the case.

Making Artificial Reefs

There are several programs in the United States dedicated to creating artificial reefs; for instance, in states such as Delaware, Florida, and Texas, but there are artificial reefs all over the world! Usually, materials that are no longer being used are up for grabs when creating an artificial reef, but it’s not as simple as dumping a pile of junk into the ocean –there’s much more thought and engineering, and a fine line between polluting and creating an artificial reef. Generally, artificial reefs have all toxic components removed before the material is deployed into the sea (“Reef”). If explosives are necessary for the material to be sunk, there are specific explosives used to ensure that harmful chemicals are not being emitted (“Reef”). Overall, there are hundreds (probably thousands) of artificial reefs, but let’s take a look at few notable ones:

Photo courtesy of Gareth Richards on Wikimedia Commons.

Photo courtesy of Gareth Richards on Wikimedia Commons. One of the largest artificial reefs: USS Oriskany, July 2008 .

Some of the more common hosts for artificial reefs are boats. In Florida, there is a trail of nine ships –Shipwreck Trail– that either sunk due to circumstance, such as The San Pedro which sunk during a hurricane in 1733, or sunk intentionally as part of an artificial reef project, such as the Thunderbolt in 1986 (“Shipwreck Trail”). Some programs have gone outside of the box when creating artificial reefs. For instance, in Delaware, Redbird Reef was named after the insignia of the “Redbird” painted on the subway cars that were sunk at this reef site (“Delaware’s artificial reef program”). Although artificial reefs had been placed at this site as early as 1996, it wasn’t until 2001 that the subway cars were added to the site as a generous donation by New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (“Delaware’s artificial reef program”). So how, exactly, did these subway cars make their way to Delaware? Well, other states initially rejected the subway cars as artificial reef making material, whereas Delaware gratefully accepted the donation (“Delaware’s artificial reef program”). With the success of Redbird Reef, more states have begun to seek out cars and subway cars for their artificial reefs (“Delaware’s artificial reef program”).

Other unique materials used as artificial reefs are oil rigs, such as in Texas. Several of these rigs are already in the water; thus, are already supporting marine life. There are generally two actions that can be taken when transforming an oil rig into a full time reef: partial or full removal. During partial removal, the decommissioned rigs remove all equipment that directly operated with the oil production (such as the deck, tanks, etc) to ensure that no oil pollutes the water (“Rigs-to-Reefs”).  This process preserves current marine life and expands upon it by cutting the rig and moving the top portion to the ocean floor (“Rigs-to-Reefs”). During Full removal, explosives are placed in the legs of the rig (don’t worry, it’s safe for the animals!) and moved to a designated site where the rig is laid on its side (“Rigs-to-Reefs”). In Texas alone, over 140 rigs have been repurposed as reefs (“Rigs-to-Reefs”)! On another note, decommissioned military vehicles are another source for artificial reefs. For instance, sunk in 1999, a retired tank that once served in the Jordanian Army rests at the bottom of the Gulf of Aqaba (Simon). Moreover, there are various military vehicles, such as ships, that serve as artificial reefs (“Delaware’s artificial reef program;” “Shipwreck Trails”). It may seem like artificial reefs are, somewhat of, a recent phenomenon; however, artificial reefs date as far back as ancient civilizations. According to National Geographic, Persians utilized artificial reefs –constructed of trees and rocks– as a barrier to deter pirates (“Reef”). Although artificial reefs have been around for a while, the engineering behind them has improved; however, despite the planning and science behind artificial reefs, an artificial reef may not work out as planned, while other times it will.

The Implications of Artificial Reefs

Whether artificial reefs are made from non-toxic concrete pipes, rocks, or decommissioned ships; there can be a positive impact for marine life, but for humans as well. This is especially important considering that several coral reefs are facing ruin, and 20 percent are marred and beyond the scope of recovery (“Coral Reefs”). So let’s take a gander at the positive implications of artificial reefs:

*Coastal Protection – artificial reefs help block storms that may damage the coastline (“Coral Reefs;” “Reef”)

*Enhance Marine Life and/or Repair Aquatic Conditions – as noted earlier, reefs allow for marine ecosystems to flourish by providing shelter (“Coral Reefs;” “Reef”), as well as create new habitat that may have been destroyed due to natural disasters or other occurrences, such as oil spills (“Texas Gulf”)

*Recreational Attraction – artificial reefs can be used as a tourist attraction, allowing scuba divers to explore the reef; in turn, helping bring revenue to the state or country and providing jobs (“Coral Reefs;” “Reef;” “Texas Reef”)

*Aquaculture – artificial reefs attract sea life and can increase the amount of fish caught, as well as other creatures that provide a food source for humans (“Coral Reefs;” “Reef”).

*Medicine Source – by analyzing the coral that attach to the material of the artificial reef, medicines can be developed from the chemicals involved in the coral’s defense mechanism (“Coral Reefs;” “Medicine”)

Despite all the benefits of functioning artificial reefs, artificial reefs may not always work out. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida an artificial reef constructed of tires began to drift away from its binding and wreak havoc on natural coral reefs (Nelson). Luckily, there are more cases of successful artificial reefs than those with good intentions, but just missing the mark.

Tires in water

Photo courtesy of Navy Combat Camera Dive Ex-East via Fourthords on Wikimedia Commons. The tires of Osborne Reef off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 2007.

Explore Artificial Reefs

Interested in finding some other artificial coral reefs? Check out Google’s ‘Ocean’ Street View to catch a peek at some artificial reefs and marine life from all over the world (like the Indonur Wreck located near Karimun Jawa Island, Indonesia) and share your favorite below! Also, if you’re looking to get involved in the efforts, look into your state government to see what you can do to make a different for marine life!

Sources:

“Coral Reefs.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: United States Department of Commerce. National Ocean Service, 20 Feb. 2015. Web. 29 Jun. 2015.

“Delaware’s artificial reef program.” Division of Fish & Wildlife. Delaware.gov, n.d. Web. 29 Jun. 2015.

Nelson, Bryan. “10 of the world’s most spectacular artificial reefs.” Mother Nature Network. MNN Holding Company, LLC, n.d. Web. 3 Jul. 2015.

“Reef.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, n.d. Web. 29 Jun. 2015.

“Rigs-to-Reefs.” Texas Parks & Wildlife. Texas Parks & Wildlife, n.d. Web. 29 Jun. 2015.

“Shipwreck Trail.” Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. National Ocean Service, 28 Jan. 2015. Web. 29 Jun. 2015.

Simon, Michael. “Seven Amazing Coral Reefs Made from Sunken Vehicles.” Recycle Nation. Electronic Recyclers International, Inc, 21 Mar. 2011. Web. 29 Jun. 2015.

“What does coral have to do with medicine?” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: United States Department of Commerce. National Ocean Service, 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 29 Jun. 2015.

“Why Does the Texas Gulf Need Artificial Reefs?” Texas Parks & Wildlife. Texas Parks & Wildlife, n.d. Web. 3 Jul. 2015.

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Feature Photo/ Photo One: Photo courtesy of NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island (NOAA/IFE/URI) via Prioryman on Wikimedia Commons. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Titanic_wreck_bow.jpg>

Photo Two: Photo courtesy of Gareth Richards on Wikimedia Commons. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_reef#/media/File:Oriskany_July_2008_-1.jpg>

Photo Three: Photo courtesy of Navy Combat Camera Dive Ex-East via Fourthords on Wikimedia Commons. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tires540.jpg>