When Oceans Reclaim Industry: The RMS Rhone and Controversy of Artificial Reefs

CUT THE ANCHOR LINE! the captain roared, desperately trying to cut his voice through the scream of howling winds. Words that were often slow and slogged by rum were now sharp and urgent. The crew of the R.M.S. Rhone scrambled to the anchor line and cut it free, sending dozens of feet of heavy chain diving towards an unseen ocean floor. Above the surf winds bellowed, violently rocking the 300-foot UK Royal Mail steamer and slamming the ship’s 146 passengers against hard steel inner walls. Caught in a vicious hurricane in the British Virgin Islands, shipmaster Robert F. Wooley fiercely captained the Rhone towards Salt Island where safe, open ocean was just beyond. As the ship came closer and closer to safety Wooley took a relieved breath and grabbed a cup of tea. WHOOSH – the hurricane’s 120mph winds suddenly shifted to the opposite side of the ship. Within seconds the ship lurched, groaned and smashed into Salt Island’s Black Rock Point. The ship broke in two as her boilers exploded from salt-water intake and Wooley was thrown with his teaspoon into the ocean. As the steamer’s entrails were ripped and scattered across the seafloor only 23 of the ship’s 146 passengers escaped alive. Beneath the ocean tides Wooley went down with his ship, never to be seen again.

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An illustration of the ship before its sinking (image source: Wikipedia Commons)

The gruesome fate of the Rhone in 1867 is a mix of legend and stark reality in the British Virgin Islands. Legendary are the details of the ship’s final destruction and descent into the ocean – every captain has their own version of the tale. The reality of the incident lies just offshore of Salt Island, where 150 years later the Rhone is an internationally famous dive site. Snorkelers and divers can motor up and explore the Rhone themselves. In a dive ranging from 30 to 80 feet in depth, scuba enthusiasts can swim along the wreck’s eerie, gargantuan remains and conjure visions of what must have happened back in that stormy October night. The spot even made its way into Hollywood when used in the 1977 film The Deep.

While howling, untamed winds claimed the life of the ship, the Rhone’s ruins lie in calm blue waters beneath a dozen well-marked boat buoys. Once tied up and suited up a snorkeler or diver can see the remains of the ship right from the surface. Diving the ship is an unforgettable, awe-inspiring experience. At 30 feet the first site to behold is one of the most eerie – the Rhone‘s monstrous propeller, tall as five men standing on each other’s shoulders. Down a short length further one begins to see the open hull of the ship, torn and exposed like a broken, overgrown rib cage. In all directions walls of the ship rise thirty feet high, dotted with open doors and portholes. One section of the hull stands tall with thick metal columns that look like sunken, beaten Greek pillars. While some oceanic wreck dives are intact and easily recognizable the Rhone lays scarred and scattered – a grim testament to the ferocity of the vessel’s fate. There are few dive sites where someone can take such an authentic, unaltered journey into a historical event.

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The Rhone’s hull, which looks like a great rib-cage (image source: Catamaran Impi on Blogspot)

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The eerie pillars of the ship (image source: yachtpromenade.com)

While so much of the wreck speaks tales of destruction, there has been a reawakening of life within the Rhone‘s great cavities. Bustling around the ship are vibrant schools of fish Snappers, Jacks, Sergeant Majors and over 50 other species. In one corner of the wreck a black moray eel wiggles between beams and in another two 20 year-old resident barracudas named Fang and Fred float amongst the tides. This is the Rhone‘s new fate; not just a tourist attraction but also a healthy artificial reef. Along mangled wreckage lies new homes for plants, animals and other organisms; life abound where life was once lost.

There is nothing unusual about a wreck site becoming a bustling part of an underwater landscape. While some sites such as Rhone hold naturally sunken wrecks, over the past few decades organizations have purposely sunk hundreds of retired vessels, airplanes and other structures to create new habitats. Artificial reef creation has long been hailed as a method of bolstering marine life, growing new reef and upping tourism revenues. The wrecks also help people explore living history in a unique, engaging way that spawns the exploration of epic sea-born tales. Yet these sites are not without controversy. The creation of artificial reefs is a controversial enterprise, having both positive and negative effects on ocean environments.

On the positive side artificial reefs are most often successful in promoting growth and adding sturdy environments for sea life. Organizations like the Reef Ball Foundation have used artificial reef technology to plant sinkable reef structures in over 62 countries. There have also been decommissioned ships that were successfully inspected, cleaned and strategically sunk in areas most beneficial for the fostering of marine life. As with the Rhone, many artificial reefs provide new habitats for marine life in areas where bleaching and destruction of coral reef has weakened ecosystems. The growth of fish numbers also helps sustain impacts left by fishing. Financially speaking, governments can also save large sums of money by sinking retired vessels rather than deconstructing and scrapping them.

Artificial reef balls sit on the ocean floor (image source: reefball.org)

Unfortunately these artificial reefs can also come with great consequence. In the 1970’s a company called Broward Artificial Reef, Inc. famously sunk 2 million old tires in Broward County, Florida to create the Osborne Tire Reef. The project was universally deemed as a failure when tires began detaching from their bundles and smashing into fragile natural reefs. The rubber of the tires didn’t even allow for good coral growth, and thus a project was launched to remove as many of the tires as possible. In another project the aircraft carrier Ex-USS ORISKANY was sunken off the coast of Florida in 2004 after a diligent clean-up, preparation and EPA approval process. While everything was deemed safe the resulting reef ended up adding twice the anticipated amount of PCB toxins into the ocean. Even when sunk with the best preparation and intentions, artificial reefs are prone to toxins, breaking off and damaging surrounding natural reefs, and attracting clumsy tourists to fragile areas. It may be cheap and beneficial to sink a battleship rather than dissembling and recycling it, although it is important to understand the risks involved and reconsider future artificial reefs.

Divers explore the Osbourne Tire Reef (image source: Mikkel Pitzner, Project Baseline Gulfstream)

Should we continue to create artificial reefs?

When artificial reefs are created in a controlled, scientific manor there is major potential for the growth of oceanic environments. If these reefs are handled by government-approved organizations and properly cleaned, researched and placed, the practice of creating artificial reef has had success that outweighs its blunders. However while these sites are excellent ways to cheaply recycle machines and promote tourism, serious consideration needs to be placed into the motive of every reef sinking. The ocean is too fragile to risk toxins and natural reef destruction solely for the sake of pulling in snorkelers. Simply put, artificial reef should only be instituted in the best interests of the natural reef around it. In struggling oceans there is plenty need for portholes, cracked hulls and cavernous rooms for marine creatures to inhabit. Utilizing ruins is a mostly beneficial practice, although as trends continue and reefs wane it should never be forgotten there is a distinct reason why so much life flocks to these sunken manmade ruins. The skeletons of old vessels are a pleasure to marvel at but natural coral reefs – humble, slowly built marvels that existed long before the Neanderthals, birth of every major world religion and the glory days of the R.M.S. Rhone – are still fighting for life.

SOURCES/ADDITIONAL READING

Should We Create Artificial Reefs? – SCUBADIVING.COM

Artificial Reefs – NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Artificial Reefs on Ecosystems – FLORIDA KEYS NATIONAL MARINE SANCTUARY

Artificial Reefs, Sunken Ship, and Military Toxins – TOXIPEDIA

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