In early April, Joe Weatherby advised a local demolition crew using explosive charges to send the decommissioned Canadian Forces naval destroyer, HMCS Annapolis, to the bottom of Horseshoe Bay off Gambier Island near Vancouver. Joining seven other vessels  and a Boeing 737 airliner — sunk by the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia, the 366-ft. ship began what Weatherby calls “its final duty as a world-class recreational destination and educational resource and research opportunity."

Ships are the largest objects used to create artificial reefs, which can function to bolster local fishing industries and, in some areas, serve the diving community. Also attracting sea life on the ocean's bottom are a variety of subway train cars, military vehicles, tires, concrete culvert pipe and manufactured concrete structures called reef balls.

Eternal Reefs
Deployed 35-60 feet below the surface, these reef balls serve as living memorials to the deceased whose ashes were used in the concrete mix. (Credit: Eternal Reefs)

Weatherby, 52, has been involved with artificial reefs since the 1980s. In 2009, he helped sink the USS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, a 522-foot missile tracking ship that now lies in 150 feet of water six miles off Key West in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Since 1942, Florida has sunk 188 barges and 318 other vessels of all types. Sinking a large ship is a costly endeavor -- $8.4 million in the case of the Vandenberg, according to Jon Dodrill, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Division of Marine Fisheries Management.

But Weatherby maintains that the sunken ships make a strong economic case, creating permanent jobs in nearby communities. The ships attract marine life, which helps bolster and support local tourism, diving and fishing industries. When the Vandenberg was sunk, for example, Weatherby estimated it could generate $10 to 12 million a year for Key West’s economy and create 125 permanent jobs.

F-106 Drone Reef
One of three F-106 drone airplanes donated by Tyndall Air Force Base and sunk in 112 feet of water off Panama City, Fla. in Sept. 1995. Photo taken two years later shows it serving as a home and feeding ground for a variety of marine life. (Credit: Florida Artificial Reef Program).

Ships-to-reefs programs are not without detractors. Seattle-based Basel Action Network says the standards for cleaning toxins such as PCBs from ships are not stringent enough.  As the result of revised policies, military vessels for use as artificial reefs have not been available from the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) or the U.S. Navy for about five years, Dodrill indicated.

He said both MARAD and the Navy have focused on ship-breaking and scrapping of their surplus large military ships. Various kinds of other vessels are still occasionally prepared to environmental standards and sunk off Florida, however.

“Typical vessels sunk these days are the occasional deck barge, tug, or coastal freighter and all have to be free of petroleum products, regulated PCBs, floatables, plastic, and other pollutants,” Dodrill said. “The last large military vessel sunk nationally as a shallow water artificial reef was the 563-ft. Navy guided missile destroyer Arthur Radford, sunk August 10, 2011.”

 Army Tank off Miami 600
One of dozens of 50-ton army battle tanks sunk off Miami to become artificial reefs. (Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

The Radford was a three-year collaborative project involving the Navy and the states of New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, and it is one of 14 artificial reef sites managed by Delaware. At two other sites, after rolling beneath New York City streets for decades, hundreds of obsolete subway cars now host a plethora of marine life 90-135 feet below the waves.

Between 2001 and 2009, New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) donated subway cars to New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina. Today, the train cars are teeming with fish and other undersea life, invigorating local fishing tourism.

The reefs foster life where there was little before. Jeff Tinsman, artificial reef program manager at the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, explained that the reefs offer what nature does not along the Mid-Atlantic's largely featureless sand and mud bottom.

“The subway cars provide a hard substrate that otherwise does not exist there," Tinsman said.

NYC Subway Car In SC
A New York City subway car on its way to the ocean’s bottom off the coast of South Carolina. The sunken cars become artificial reefs that attract a wide array of sea life. (Credit: South Carolina Department of Natural Resources / Creative Commons)

The submerged subway cars first attract blue mussels, which in turn draw several dozen more species including worms, crabs and shrimp. They create a feeding ground for sea bass, mackerel and flounder and other fish. The fish attract fisherman, which benefits coastal community businesses and state tax coffers. In Delaware, fishing angler trips have gone from a few hundred to many thousands per year, thanks to the artificial reefs.

New York also realized a financial benefit. Because the old subway cars contained some asbestos, remediating and recycling them would have been more costly than donating for reefs. The EPA determined that that asbestos was not a problem in a marine environment.

Tinsman said it cost the MTA more than $8 million to clean, prep and transport the first 619 cars for Delaware. But remediation costs would have run perhaps 50 percent higher. The first round brought subway cars from the 1960s, called “Red Birds" for their dark red paint. A second round in 2007-2009 brought stainless steel subway cars. Concrete is another popular reef material.

“About one percent of concrete culvert pipe is rejected and can't be sold," said Tinsman. “It's generally donated to reef programs. We get it from about eight manufacturers in Delaware. It's got a calcium carbonate base, like coral reefs, and is very stable. It will hold up for thousands of years in a marine environment."

From Ashes, New Underwater Life

Many might associate burial at sea with a ritual for sailors. But for the past 15 years, ashes of those cremated after death have been helping foster fish habitat at artificial reef sites in seven states. A Sarasota, Fla.-based company, Eternal Reefs, blends human cremains into low-Ph concrete to make reef balls, 750-3,500-pound structures that are lowered to a depth of 35-60 feet of water.

Eternal Reefs Casting
Eternal Reefs of Sarasota, Fla., uses ashes from human cremains in the concrete mix to make undersea memorials. (Credit: Eternal Reefs)

Eternal Reefs started as an offshoot of reef ball manufacturing. Don Brawley, who founded the company, designed the concrete reef ball in the early 1990s with fellow University of Georgia graduate, Todd Barber. The two men, both avid divers, had seen the degradation of coral reefs in Florida and envisioned a man-made object that could mimic nature's work.

Today, more than 700,000 reef balls – essentially molded hollow concrete spheres punctuated with large holes – have been deployed at 4,000 sites in more than 70 countries. Projects include fish habitat, mangrove and coral reef restoration and shore erosion mitigation.

Concrete Reef Balls
University of Georgia graduates designed the concrete reef ball in the early 1990s. More than 700,000 have been deployed at 4,000 sites in more than 70 countries to serve as fish habitat, mangrove and coral reef restoration and shore erosion mitigation. (Credit: Eternal Reefs)

Brawley's father-in-law once suggested that when he died, his ashes be added to the concrete in a reef ball. Eternal Reefs began operation in 2001 and today populates 12 reef sites from South Padre Island in Texas to Atlantic City, N.J.

“Families can personalize the reef with hand prints and messages in the concrete," said Eternal Reefs CEO George Frankel.

Pet cremains can be used, too.

“We usually suggest to clients that they hold on to their pet's cremains until they, too, have been cremated and their cremains can go in the same reef ball," said Frankel.