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Plans moving forward
to sink artificial reef

By D. Desmarais

Joe Weatherby, president of the nonprofit Artificial Reef of the Keys, has enthusiasm that’s contagious. So much so that, after a few hours of recent negotiations and presentations, the Key West District Advisory Council to the Monroe County Tourist Development Council voted to support making the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, a 553-foot, 13,000-ton vessel, an artificial reef in Key West waters.
With approval of the County Commission Wednesday, that support will translate into a much-needed $250,000 to help finance the scuttling.
A project to sink off the Upper Keys the 510-foot Spiegel Grove, like the Vandenberg a former Navy ship, also has a $250,000 commitment from the county.
While the Spiegel Grove project has long been delayed, the Vandenberg sinking seems to be moving quicker.
Over the past year and a half, Weatherby has garnered the support of more than 30 local organizations, including the Key West Chamber of Commerce, Reef Relief and the Lodging Association, and federal agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmosphere Association, which governs the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The wide range of endorsements make it clear that the Key West community views it as a project that umbrellas the benefits and interests of business, education and environment alike.
“As it is,” said Weatherby, “all artificial reefs are hugely successful. They grow fish where there are none by providing the needed habitat.”
Since 1980, there have been more than 400 deliberate sinkings to make artificial reefs, generating new biomasses in those areas. But certain components of the Key West project set it apart from other artificial reefs.
One thing is size. But larger than size is the fact that Artificial Reef of the Keys was cited by the RAND Corp., a federal think tank, as the prototype for artificial reefs. Stamped with National Marine Sanctuary approval and working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to garner support there, as well, Artificial Reef of the Keys is already providing an educational platform for the monitoring process, through collaborative efforts of Florida Keys Community College.
Distance learning is just one of the educational projects already underway, and with verbal agreements from remotely operated vehicle manufacturers made during the recent Diving, Equipment and Marketing Association trade show, a student in Middle America will be able to operate their device live over the Internet.
“Manufacturers were wild about the idea, and have agreed to test it here. Key West will be the epicenter for this kind of education,” said Weatherby.
According to Bob Smith, program director of diving technology at the college, distance learning is already an increasing interest throughout the state, and one that is very important to the college. Because of the surrounding marine environment, the college is able to respond to the distance-learning initiative in terms of exporting rather than importing.
“And,” said Smith, “the [Vandenberg] project is a terrific stage to do that from. We’re very excited about the potential.”
In short, Artificial Reef of the Keys is making its mark as more than just sinking the premiere recreational dive site. It is setting a precedent in the world of manmade reefs and underwater classroom gateways. With the support of research and data to study the effects on users and the environment (collected at no cost and already implemented in the curriculum), Smith “hopes to increase funding to expand the data collecting” in order to create what science calls “increasing the end and making things statistically significant.”
But the ship’s not sunk yet. Even with the TDC grant and funding from the Jimmy Buffet Singing For Change Foundation and PADI Project Aware, battleship Vandenberg needs the navigation of a serious fund-raising campaign in order to leave the docks of James River, Va. — where the Spiegel Grove has been sitting.
With that, new sponsors and Weatherby’s ideas and vision for continued funding, the Vandenberg likely will meet its final resting ground sometime next spring. For more information, go online to

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