They’re economic drivers and protectors to the natural reef. Look no further than Spiegel Grove in Key Largo and the Vandenberg in Key West.
In Islamorada, leaders in the diving industry want to see that same impact with a shipwreck in the waters. Led by Joe Weatherby of Artificial Reefs International (ARI), a group of divers visited the Jan. 9 meeting of the village council to discuss the benefits and how the village would need to be involved to make it happen.
“I’m very optimistic about the power of artificial reefs,” Weatherby said. “I’ve consistently underestimated results that come from this kind of activity. This is the kind of economic development that comes with no overhead and no costs.”
ARI is bringing more than 25 years of experience in highly competitive, market-driven industries such as artificial reefing, scuba diving, water sports, fisheries and sailing. Weatherby said, every ship ARI has submerged is deployed properly, is clean and complies with regulations to produce happy tourists and exceptional scuba diving.
In order to do the project, Weatherby told the council that a municipal entity needs to hold the permit. As for project costs, the village wouldn’t need to pay anything. Weatherby said he’s working with Marathon on a big project that’s similar to what he’s proposing for Islamorada.
“We’re going to go out and pay for and deploy off of Islamorada,” Weatherby said.
Council members including Jim Mooney expressed interest.
“It’s a proven fact that it’s working throughout the Keys,” he said. “I got cool pictures of all of them. I have so many friends who fish and dive these wrecks. It works with the environment. It turned out to be good, creating growth and fish and a habitat for humans and animals.”
Capt. Spencer Slate is a dive shop owner of 42 years. He also served as project manager of the Spiegel Grove project. Following the ship’s sinking, NOAA’s Bob Leeworthy and he conducted stops to get head counts. He said stats they compiled showed more than 70,000 dives in the first 18 months.
“Most dive shops charge $100 for tanks and a dive. TDC rolls that over five times between lodging, food and supplies. It’s contributing almost $80 million a year, and that’s less than 18 months.”
John Bruen, a dive instructor at Key Dives, said they’re looking to sink a military shop that has some historical value to draw people from all over the world.
“The goal is to make this project for the whole community of Islamorada that will benefit recreational divers, tech divers and fishermen,” he said.
Mark Rusco, a Tavernier attorney who has practiced law since the ’80s, said he’s handled diving-related cases as far west as Guam and as far east as the Virgin Islands. Rusco spoke to the council about potential liability, of which he said the village would have very little. He said there are two types of liability: personal and environmental.
“If you think about it, millions of dives on Spiegel and others, and having access to that environment, there’s only five to six cases where people filed lawsuits,” he said. “They never named Monroe County, which was the owner of those vessels.”
With the village council’s interest in a dive wreck, Village Attorney Roget Bryan said there’s some due diligence that needs to be done on the staff end.
“We want to make sure we’ve reviewed appropriate documentation,” he said.
Lisa Mongelia, executive director of the History of Diving Museum, told council that everyone’s seen changes to the reefs over time between human activity and storms. She said an artificial reef will provide some benefits to the natural reef.
“It will give relief to the reef system as it is growing and still bring tourists to Islamorada and the Keys to enjoy what we have under our waters to see,” she said.
Weatherby said approval from the National Marine Sanctuary also would be required.