DeeperBlue.com stopped by the Ships to Reefs booth at DEMA Show 2016 and chatted with organization President Joseph Weatherby about the group’s continuing mission and how it has been changing to meet the times.

Joseph began by telling me about the recent resurgence of public interest in artificial reefs. They’re good for the local ecology, providing a vertical structure for reef life to settle on and hide in, which in turn attracts bigger pelagic creatures until eventually there is teeming life where it once was only sand.

In the old days, volunteers would strip and clean donated ships, preparing them for their new homes at the bottom of the sea. The game has changed in recent years, and Ships to Reefs has changed along with it to reflect a growing consciousness of just what we’re putting in the water. All ships contain toxins which can leach into the water if the proper precautions aren’t taken. So, goodbye casual volunteers, hello experts!

Today, Ships to Reefs projects are taken on by professionals who come part and parcel with better infrastructure, more oversight, comprehensive training, funding, and insurance. While the hands-on volunteer no longer has such a prominent role in the process, Ships to Reefs projects still need community support. In addition to divers, the organization seeks to involve the communities of other water-based sports and activities, as well as courting the support of locals at the sites where ships are sunk. It is that ownership and care that keeps the wrecks in good shape, ready and waiting for curious humans to come explore.

Along with the new approach to processing wrecks, Ships to Reefs recognizes a shift from their previous service-based strategy to a more market-minded modality. In this day and age, Joseph confides, you have to have a product to sell. The first and most important product being the ship-as-reef itself.

Wrecks are good for business. They boost the local economy and provide an attraction where none existed before. Joseph recalls a project he worked on, the sinking of the USS Mohawk off Fort Myers, Florida. It cost $1.25 million to clean up and submerge the ship, but even with the the potentially prohibitive 42-mile voyage out to the site, the eventual artificial reef paid for itself within 90 days.

Ships to Reefs provides a slightly more tangible product as well, with their Sinking World art gallery. A collaboration between divers and photographers, the show features photos of wrecks combined with studio photography of fanciful models, then printed and affixed to the ships themselves with powerful magnets. Once the ocean has done its unique work on the prints, they’re recovered and sealed for display. Check out their online gallery at thesinkingworld.com.

Though divers know that conservation of the ocean is a worthy goal in and of itself, Ships to Reefs recognizes the need for practicality and is mobilizing the marketing strategies of the future to ensure they can continue sinking ships and creating exciting dive destinations all over the coastal United States.

For more information on Ships to Reefs‘ activities, check out the organization’s website.

Erin Durbin-Sherer

Erin began diving in 2012 as preparation for a trip to Hawaii and before the year was out she’d left her old life behind to work in the dive industry full-time. When she’s not out exploring the deep and collecting c-cards, you might find her making art or working on her master’s thesis in cultural anthropology at San Diego State University. Erin is an Associate Editor with DeeperBlue.com.

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