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‘It sounds like the ship is screaming’: Okaloosa sinks large vessel to join artificial reef system 

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Hunter Morrison / WUWF Public Media

On Sunday, the Okaloosa Coastal Resource Team deployed and sank the MANTA, a 180-foot-long research vessel, 16 nautical miles off the coast of Destin-Fort Walton Beach. Built in 1976 for oil exploration, the MANTA joins hundreds of sunken boats, barges, and other objects as part of Okaloosa County’s artificial reef system.

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Nick Tomecek
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Okaloosa County

Purchased from a shipyard and stripped of all harmful chemicals, the retired vessel was sunk to a depth of about 110 feet. The top of the vessel sits at a depth of about 55 feet, making this reef not only beneficial to the ecosystem but also accessible to scuba divers of many skill levels. A statue of Jesus Christ, known as Christ of the Gulf, rests on the top deck of the vessel.

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“Here in northwest Florida, we really lack those natural reefs that other parts of the state and country may have, so we rely on these artificial reefs to create habitats for those commercially and recreationally important species that the industry here in Destin is so dependent on,” said Alex Fogg, coastal resource manager for Destin/Fort Walton Beach. “You can deploy something as small as a five hundred pound piece of concrete that’s prefabricated to be an artificial reef, but deploying these large vessels provides not only a great habitat for the fish but also a really cool destination for people to go diving. Everybody wants to dive a shipwreck, and these large wrecks are really what people are after.”

A two-hour trek via boat each way, people as far as Texas and Mississippi boarded the American Spirit fishing vessel to witness the artificial reef’s deployment. The MANTA is the second largest vessel sunk off the coast of Destin-Fort Walton Beach to date.

“Depending on where you deploy an artificial reef, the size of the artificial reef and the water depth, this can influence what type of fish will be generated,” said Jason Klosterman, temporary captain of the American Spirit. “Something of this size not only holds a lot of fish but tends to regenerate a lot of fish as well.”

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Hunter Morrison
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WUWF Public Media
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Hunter Morrison
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WUWF Public Media
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Nick Tomecek
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Okaloosa County

Although a strong current made the deployment stressful for the divers assisting, the boat landed in an upright position. Upon its sinking, the vessel emitted unforgettable bowels and groans as air escaped.

“I thought it was really cool,” said Jillian Toppin of Niceville. “This is actually my second time seeing one of these sinkings, but the one I saw previously was much, much smaller, so seeing one at this big of a scale was really fascinating. With the sound of it going down and everything, it was really cool to see that happen.”

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Hunter Morrison
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WUWF Public Media
David Arciaga, Jillian Toppin, and Lori Burkhart (far right)
"I thought it was the most awesome thing in the world."
David Arciaga

"I thought it was the most awesome thing in the world," said David Arciaga of Shalimar. “I’m a fisherman, so if it creates more opportunities to catch fish, then I’m all for it.”

“I knew what to expect just because I had seen things like this on TV, but you don’t really get the full feel of it until you actually are there,” said Lori Burkhart of Destin. “When it starts to go down with only the bow sticking up, you can hear the water rushing through it. You go ‘what’s that noise?’ and realize that it sounds like the ship is screaming because the air is being pushed out of it.”

“Watching it go down, the groaning noise that it made as it was going down, it tip up and then eventually fall down, and listening to people cheer and the boats honking really culminates the whole event into a successful deployment,” said Nick Tomecek, an employee in Okaloosa County’s public information department.

“The site is pretty impressive,” said Fogg. “As the vessel started to sink, the air from all the hatches made all sorts of wild noises. It’s almost as if Old Faithful is in the Gulf of Mexico.”

The MANTA’s sister ship, a slightly larger research vessel named the DOLPHIN, will be deployed southeast of Sunday’s deployment site in about a month. For more information about Okaloosa County’s artificial reef system, click here.

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Hunter Morrison
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WUWF Public Media
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Hunter Morrison
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WUWF Public Media

No local tax dollars were used to fund these vessels or their deployment. Both vessels were paid for with tourism and development dollars.

Hunter joined WUWF in 2021 as a student reporter.