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Divers play key role in expanding artificial reef options for Northwest Florida

Joe Patti reef image (WEAR-TV)

Artificial reefs are a $3 billion a year industry in Florida, and the panhandle is getting its share of the profits.

From marquee wrecks, like the Oriskany aircraft carrier to smaller pyramids and bridge rubble, a variety of reefs attract visitors to the Gulf Coast.

Brian Asher is a dive master for Niuhi Dive Charters in Pensacola. He said divers come from all over the world come to explore our waters.

"Artificial reefs condense and draw wildlife," Asher said. "Making it a lot easier for divers who come here to experience sharks, experience lionfish, experience snapper and grouper and jack and all the wonderful things we see out here."

The Oriskany is the area's star attraction.

The ship sits in deep water, about 20 miles offshore. It offers options for recreational divers and more advanced technical divers.

"It's something the diver can enjoy in different ways throughout your diving career," Asher said. "To me, that wreck's never going to get old."

Asher and other divers will play a key role in the expansion of dive sites along the Northwest Florida coast.

University of West Florida professor Dr. Bill Huth is one of the researchers now surveying divers, asking what kinds of sites they want to see.

The survey asks about types of reefs, location, and depth.

Dr. Huth said initial results indicate divers want reefs that are quick to access.

The Oriskany is a two-hour boat ride away.

Surveys also indicated a preference for larger, longer ships in shallower water.

Retired ships are available through the U.S. Maritime Administration's reef program.

The survey will help decide what kind of ships to ask for and where to sink them.

Dr. Huth said, "When you're actually trying to attract divers from a tourism perspective, you're interested in placing those reefs where the divers want them to be."

The cost of sinking a ship is generally about $1 million.

Huth and Asher agree the reef would quickly pay for itself.

Asher said divers pay hundreds of dollars a day for charter boats and equipment rental, along with lodging and other standard vacation costs.

Huth said it adds up, citing the Oriskany's return on investment.

The older ship cost $18 million to prepare and sink, in large part because of environmental cleanup requirements.

It brought in about $5 million a year in economic impact.

Huth and his partners are now expanding the survey to get input from more divers before any decisions are made.

For information on dive sites along the Gulf Coast, visit the Florida Panhandle Dive Trail website.

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