How not to wreck the sea

Deliberately sinking ships might not seem an obvious way to help the world’s marine life – yet as a new programme in Cyprus shows, it’s a viable way to kick-start underwater ecosystems

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, July 2014)

All around Cyprus, ships are sinking. There’ve been four in little over half a year – first an old French fishing boat sank, then a Russian trawler and a couple of mini cruise vessels.

Yet far from being bad news, boats keeling onto their sides and disappearing beneath the sea have represented hope – for divers, fishermen and anyone who cares about the marine life around the island. The ships have been deliberately sunk as part of the Cyprus Artificial Reef programme, a government-sponsored scheme which has created four Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) around the island, fishing-free areas with their own tailored wrecks and other types of artificial reefs made from ceramics, cement, steel and limestone boulders.

“Doing this is win-win all round,” says Giorgos Bayadas, the project manager for the programme, who has been involved since it started more than three years ago. “The fishing conditions have become dangerously bad in Cyprus, and this is a great way to replenish fish stocks. Then there’s the diving industry, which has been pushing us to do this for a long time.”

Cyprus has form with wrecks. The Swedish-built cargo ship MS Zenobia sank in mysterious circumstances outside Larnaca on its maiden voyage in 1980, leaving a monster ship filled with more than NOK2 billion worth of cargo, many of it cars and trucks for which the insurance was never claimed. The Zenobia is today considered one of the best dive sites in the Mediterranean, and it draws 57,000 divers a year. They come not just for the wreck and the mystery surrounding it, but for a cast of fish worthy of Finding Nemo.

Andy Varoshiotis, the vice president of the Cyprus Dive Centre Association, who has also been involved in the Cyprus Artificial Reef programme from the start, says the newly sunk vessels will provide a link for divers coming to Cyprus. “Instead of coming just to dive the Zenobia, » visitors will be able to come for package trips, where they might dive three or four wrecks around the island.” Plans to attract 120,000 divers next year is good news. Since the Cypriot financial crisis in 2012, when the tax haven’s credit rating was downgraded to “junk”, tourism has overtaken financial services as the island’s number one source of income. The aim is for Cyprus to rival Malta, which is currently the Mediterranean’s diving capital. As Varoshiotis puts it, simply: “We need this.”

The new wrecks aren’t on the scale of the 178m Zenobia. The Nemesis III, the first to be sunk last December, is a 25m fishing trawler, deliberately scuttled in shallower waters just half a kilometre off the shore at Protaras, on Cyprus’s east coast. At a depth of 21m-25m, it makes a good wreck for beginner and intermediate divers, and complements what’s already a great dive area that boasts an underwater canyon full of stingrays, a Blue Hole and a cliff jump/dive spot called the Chapel.

Since the sinking of the Nemesis III, followed by 1,800 curious divers on the first day, the programme has sunk three more ships: the Costandis and Lady Thetis off the coast of Limassol in February, and the Laboe cruise vessel near Paphos last month. A donated naval vessel The Kerynia will follow in 2015, and plans to further the programme include sinking larger ships.

According to Bayadas, the first stage of the programme has cost around €350,000 (NOK2.86m), funded largely by the European Fisheries Fund with support from the tourist board and divers association, with €80,000 (NOK653,125) spent on acquiring the ships and the vast majority of the rest going into cleaning and preparing them.

“It’s a massive job,” he says. “You have to remove any wiring, asbestos, oils, wood and any traces of liquid and anti-fouling paint. We also had to make holes and openings in the vessels so that they’re safe for divers. In the end, you’ve basically got a metal skeleton.”

The Nemesis III was sunk by drilling holes into the hull and plugging them with valves. The team of 10 overseeing the project also added cement to the boat’s hull and pumped in water to ensure a swift and straight descent to its resting place.

But what’s really interesting is what happens next. From the first week of the Nemesis’s sinking, small invertebrates and marine flora started covering the ship’s surface, and squid laid eggs in the vessel. “It slowly creates a chain,” says Bayadas, who points to the Liberty, an old Russian cargo vessel that was sunk 300m from the Nemesis in 2009.

“The Liberty is almost as vibrant as any natural marine reef,” he says. “If you dive around the Liberty you might see everything from groupers to eels, octopus, parrotfish, squid, bream and yellowtails.”

Having seen what’s happened around the Liberty, Cyprus’s marine biologists and oceanographers have worked to make sure the latest wrecks will be as welcoming as possible to marine life. As well as the »
ships themselves, they’re sending down about a hundred man made constructions, from limestone boulders to concrete breeding pods and clay pots designed specially for octopus.

“The Liberty site is full, and it’s growing all the time,” says Varoshiotis. “And every time we dive the Nemesis, we’re seeing new things – it’s incredible watching an ecosystem build before your eyes.”
With fish and divers happy, the final part of the triumvirate is Cyprus’s fishermen. The way Varoshiotis describes the deal for fishermen, “It’s like a deposit. They agree to not fish in a few areas but they get benefits outside it because of the spill-over effect. Fish will breed in the protected areas and then leave those areas in greater numbers. It’s good news if you’re catching fish.”

Sinking ships to create artificial reefs isn’t a new thing, and it’s far from unique to Cyprus. Japan first introduced primitive artificial reefs in the 1600s, and the practice has been widespread since the 1970s; the Reef Ball Foundation in Georgia, USA, supplies breeding balls to 56 countries.

Malta has sunk six ships in the last 20 years, while Florida alone has sunk four ships in the same period, including the world’s two largest artificial reefs, both decommissioned naval ships – the USS Oriskany in 2004 and the USNS General Hoyt S Vandenberg off Key West in 2009, which is notable for its spectacular onboard satellite antennae.

One of Europe’s most ambitious projects in recent years has been the Ocean Revival programme in the Algarve, where four naval ships were sunk in a small area close to Faro in 2012 and 2013, including the 102m, 2,700-tonne Hermenegildo Capelo frigate, a naval ship since the 1960s.

The man behind the plan is Luis Sa Couto, who started working on Ocean Revival more than six years ago. “I’ve dived since I was 16, and I’ve always loved wreck dives,” says Couto, who runs a diving centre at Praia da Rocha, on the Algarve. “The primary idea was to create a public attraction. This area is known for beaches and golf, but it’s never been seen as a diving destination. We were creating something out of nothing.”

The bill for cleaning the ships alone came to a whopping €2 million (NOK16.3m), which Couto and his team raised largely from corporate sponsorship. “The ships were donated, so the rigorous process of cleaning the ships and adapting them for safe diving made up 80 per cent of the cost of the project,” he says.

Couto, like Pagiatis, emphasises safety because one of the key objections to wrecks as artificial reefs has been the possibility of danger. Five people have died at the HMCS Yukon, which was sunk off the San Diego coast in 2000, with complaints that it’s too deep (30m) and too disorientating for divers operating with limited air. “The key with the Ocean Revival wrecks,” says Couto, “is you can always see the way out. We’ve done a lot of work to make sure you won’t get trapped.”

And when you’re diving, the fish will be plentiful. Couto says: “Things happened fast – after a month you could see huge schools of fish, which started attracting bigger fish.” Today you’ll find everything from groupers to conger eels, sea bass and even damselfish around the old wrecks, as well as crabs, lobsters and up to 150 species of invertebrates.

“The University of the Algarve has been studying the wrecks, too,” he says. “It’s a unique opportunity to watch an ecosystem grow, and they’re really excited about it.” Divers have been excited, too – from practically zero, the area is expecting 7,000 dives this year.

The final argument against sinking ships for artificial wrecks seems to be that it’s a form of waste disposal, putting man-made items in a natural environment. This doesn’t hold much sway with Couto: “It’s for divers, it’s for fishermen, it’s for the sea. The way we see it, this is an intelligent way of disposing of ships – these ships are still serving Portugal.”

Or, as Giorgos Bayadas of the Cyprus Artificial Reef programme puts it: “Usually, a vessel goes to a scrapyard after 50 years. This is a nice end – our trawlers have gone from catching fish to hosting them. There’s a beautiful symmetry to that.”

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