As snorkel reefs are pounded into the Gulf just off the coast of Alabama and ready for visitors, officials here don’t have to look too far east to see what an impact the new attractions can have.
“Overwhelmingly successful, with great growth and with many species of fish usually not seen this close to the shore,” said Mike Sandler of Navarre Beach.
Walter Marine is busy putting down 166 of the reefs in three locations just past the second sandbar south of Gulf State Park’s Saltwater Pavilion, the Romar Beach Access and just east of Perdido Pass. It’s a $590,000 project paid for with BP fine money administered through a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant.
“The northern boundary of the reefs will be in about 10 feet of water and the southern boundary of the reefs will extend to about 20 feet,” official Kevin Anson said. “They each will contain two, three or four concrete disks on a piling. The piling will be jetted into the seabed about 12 or 13 feet.”
Anson, who works for the Marine Resources Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, says this is one facet of an extensive and growing artificial reef program off Alabama’s coast. Walter Marine is about halfway through a state project to deploy 600 pyramid reefs in the six- to nine-mile range offshore from Dauphin Island to the Florida line. It’s part of a $4 million state effort that also includes the recently deployed New Venture, a 250-foot former research vessel and about 140 25-foot pyramid super reefs.
But the snorkeling reef project is one Vince Lucido of the Alabama Gulf Coast Reef and Restoration Foundation has been longing to see since his group spearheaded the effort to sink the 271-foot LuLu on Memorial Day weekend of 2013.
“It’s something we’ve been waiting on for years,” Lucido said.
If the glowing reports on the Florida snorkel reefs are any indication, the new attraction will start paying off immediately. Just across the Florida line, Escambia County has two locations and is looking to add a third.
“It’s been phenomenal,” Escambia Marine Resources Manager Robert Turpin said. “The dive shops absolutely hear wonderful things.” Turpin said the fishing and diving activities on the artificial reefs generate about $150 million a year and 2,400 jobs in the Pensacola area.
Almost immediately, officials say, marine life will be attracted to the structures but it will take them a while to mature.
“Very quickly you’d see some life, but I would think within a year you’d have a fully functioning reef with all types of life you’d expect to find on a colonized reef,” Orange Beach Coastal Resources Director Phillip West said. “Everything from seahorses to octopus to sea turtles and various fish.”
But will safety be a factor? Crews in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach were overwhelmed on many days with water rescues in the Gulf, but officials say they don’t believe snorkelers will add to that burden.
“Typically, if they have mask, snorkel and fins they are in a better position to get themselves out of trouble,” Orange Beach Fire Chief Justin Pearce said.