Originally found on IOL
May 17 2002 at 03:17PM
By Jane Sutton
Key Largo, Florida - Florida islanders will send a US Navy "ghost" ship to the Atlantic seabed off Key Largo on Friday, making the 6 880-ton hulk of rusting gray metal the largest vessel ever to be deliberately sunk to create an artificial reef.
If all goes as planned, the 155-metre transport ship Spiegel Grove will soon become a nursery for the fishes and a playground for snorkelers and scuba divers.
The sinking committee plans to set off four small explosive charges in its engine rooms on Friday, blowing holes in the bottom of the ship and allowing it to flood and sink in 39 metres of water off Key Largo.
Dive shop owners, the local Chamber of Commerce and the tourism development agency for Monroe County, which encompasses the Florida Keys island chain, spent eight years raising money, winning permits and persuading regulators to let them sink the decommissioned ship in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Though the area is littered with ships sunk by mishap or scuttled on purpose to foster reef development, the Spiegel Groves' size sets it apart.
"It's two and a half times as large as anything else that's been put down here," said Dave Score, manager for the part of the sanctuary where the ship will lie.
Built in 1956 and named for President Rutherford B Hayes' Ohio estate, the Spiegel Grove saw active duty off Lebanon, in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean during the Cold War.
It sat for a decade at a Navy shipyard on the James River in Virginia, one of 97 decommissioned "ghost ships" mothballed there until someone figures out what to do with them.
Letting them sink on their own would be an environmental and navigational hazard. Maintaining them enough so they don't sink costs $20 000 a year per ship. And federal taxpayers would have to shell out $1,6-million per ship to send them to be cut up at scrap yards.
So giving the ship to Florida, which passed title to Monroe County, is "a hell of a deal for all parties concerned," said Michael Bagley, superintendent for the Virginia ghost fleet.
Within six months, the Spiegel Grove should be coated with barnacles, sea urchins and soft algae that draws nibbling fish, which in turn draw larger ocean predators. More slowly, it will build up coral polyps that form the region's colorful reefs.
"I think you would look at 10 years before you would see this as a big coral habitat," said George Garrett, Monroe County's director of marine resources.
Project sponsors see the Spiegel Grove as an amusement for local residents and a draw for visitors in the tourism-dependent Keys.
Some 3,1 million people visit the islands annually and 60 percent of them swim, snorkel, dive, fish or participate in some water sport, Score said.
"Pretty much everybody in the keys, their livelihood is intricately linked to the marine environment here," he said.
Islanders raised more than $1-million (R10-million) in local donations and tourism tax pledges for the project. Most of it went to hire contractors who spent 28 000 hours scrubbing and stripping the ship to prevent ocean contamination from fuel residue and now-banned chemicals in the lighting fixtures and wiring.
Under the watch of environmental regulators, they had to remove hundreds of thousands of feet of cable and sand off paint chips that could float into the sea.
Engineers plotted how to orient the ship to best protect it from hurricane surges that could dislodge it or break it apart. Then the Coast Guard had to certify it seaworthy to ensure it didn't sink accidentally during the five days it took to tow it from Virginia to Florida earlier this month.
With the anchor chains rusted into coils on the deck, it took a pair of tugboats a whole day to yank them free, letting the ship drop the four anchors, some weighing over 11 tons.
Volunteers cut large holes in the hull and the bulkheads with acetylene torches so divers will be able to swim through the sunken ship.
If the vessel sinks upright, the upper decks will be 12 metres below the sea surface, giving snorkelers a glimpse of its upper decks, cranes and giant guns.
Sponsors hope the Spiegel Grove will draw divers away from some other nearby reefs that have become too popular for their own good, endangering the coral with their sheer numbers.