Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Panhandling for New Wrecks In the Gulf of Mexico

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By Stephen Weir

·      From the June 2016 issue of Diver Magazine



OceanWind was sunk to create a new dive site for Florida Pan Handle divers. Close too shore and not too deep.  Not yet part of the Trail (but could be soon) wreck already a popular dive site

Florida Panhandle divers don’t have to apologize for having a sinking feeling tug, away at their C-cards.  Early this year OceanWind, a retired harbour tug was made environmentally safe, hauled out into the Gulf of Mexico and scuttled. Dive shops in Pensacola are already running scuba charters out to the first new artificial reef of 2016 and promise that there are more ships to be sunk this year and beyond!The OceanWind was a floating workhorse.  Built in 1952, she worked in the Pensacola Harbour pushing and pulling big ships as they came in and left port. The OceanWind has a massive engine to bully much bigger craft near the docks.  She was 30 metres long, 8 metres wide and 12 metres tall.

Panhandle snorkel shop - Photo Stephen Weir
In January, Pensacola’s Marine Resources Division sank the tugboat in 29 metres of water.   The newest Gulf of Mexico artificial reef is about 16 kilometres southeast of Pensacola and is far enough out into the Gulf to be in, most of the time, blue water.

The State of Florida takes a Field of Dreams approach to artificial reefs.  Sink one and a few divers will come.  Sink a lot of them and many many divers will come.  As a result the Ocean Wind is just one of hundreds of ships, airplanes, scrapped bridges and oil rigs that have been sunk off Florida’s three coasts over the past decade.  The State believes that artificial reefs boost the sport fishing and the sport diving industries.

 “ We are aggressive,” explains Florida County Commissioner, Steven Abramas. “Between 70 and 100 artificial reefs are deployed each year in Florida using a combination of state, federal, local and private money, including funds from the sale of fishing licenses. These reefs must be made of clean concrete, rock or heavy gauge steel. Ships, cars or other items are carefully cleaned before being placed on the ocean floor.”
 
Panhandle Dive Boat - Stephen Weir photo
The Florida Panhandle region has built a dive tourism industry one sinking at a time.  According to the Pensacola News Journal “data from a recent economic analysis for the FWC found that Escambia County’s Artificial Reef Program has an annual economic benefit of more than $150 million (US), while also supporting nearly 2,350 jobs.”

This drive to sink things off the Panhandle – they have also sunk two fighter jets - began in 2006 with the sinking of the Mighty O (or as it is called now “The Great Carrier Reef”). The USS Oriskany was a United States Navy Aircraft Carrier built shortly after the end of World War Two. She was scuttled in deepwater three hours out from Pensacola -- the Oriskany is the world’s largest artificial reef and considered one of the top ten wrecksites in the world.

The Oriskany was meant to the cornerstone of Florida’s Panhandle Trail – a dozen-must dive shipwrecks . Ironically, the ship that earned the Panhandle Trail the most media is probably the least dove of the 12 boats on the Trail. 
 
Divers swim deep along the side of the Oriskany 
aircraft carrier. 
The flight deck of the Oriskany is at 44m.
Photo – Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail
    
The wreck is a long, long boat ride out from shore, and the bottom-time of is very, very short, typically 25minutes or less.  Except in the late summer and early fall, the water is cold and the visibility can be limited.

Originally the flight deck of the Oriskany was at the edge of sport diving depths. But following Hurricane Gustave the 271 metre long warship sank a further 3 metres  putting the massive landing deck of the aircraft at a depth of 44 metres, out of the safety range of scuba (tech divers are free to explore the ship at any depth). Compressed air divers must stay on the bridge tower at 40 metres overlooking the deck.  When I was on her in 2014 many people I was diving with did a bounce dive onto to flight deck, making for a short bottomtime.

The flight deck of the Oriskany is at 44m.
Photo by Stephen Weir
“ We have not done an archaeological inventory of the shipwrecks off the coast of the Panhandle,” said Franklin Price, an Archaeologist with Florida’s Bureau of Archaeological Research. “ We assume there are hundreds of them out there, but we need to get all the historic records in a wreck database.  I think that our Panhandle Trail with the Oriskany is highlighting (for tourist) the historical aspects, the ecological tourism and the recreational diving in the area”



For now neither the tug Ocean Wind nor the Voodoo fighter jets are included in the Panhandle Trail, although they could be added soon now that dive shops are taking divers out to them. “ We worked with the dive industry to figure out which wrecks should initially be on the Trail” he continued. “ No reason why new wrecks can’t be added.  Right now what is on the Trail are 10 artificial reef ships and 2 that were sunk naturally”

PANHANDLE SHIPWRECK TRAIL PASSPORT

Currently on the Trail there are 12 shipwrecks near Pensacola, Destin, Panama City and Port St. Joe, Florida.
The Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail offers a unique passport program highlighting discovered facts and historical data for each of the shipwrecks along the Trail. Whether exploring the largest artificial reef in the world – the USS Oriskany,or marveling at the wonder of Mother Nature’s arrangement of two tugs situated atop one another on the FAMI Tugs – divers and snorkelers can track experiences with the official Panhandle Shipwreck Trail Passport available from participating dive shops and dive charter operators or by visiting floridapanhandledivetrail.com.  




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