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The Sinking of the LuLu – Alabama’s New Artificial Reef

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Her cavernous births and sprawling cargo decks once clamored as merchant marines bustled about making wage managing the apportioned consignment. Heavy payloads pushed wake, taxing the giant diesels, who churned tirelessly across vast oceans to distant ports of call. Here, she’d deliver commerce for fee.

Today, the once mighty sailing ship, the M/V Yokamu, rests motionless in mute memoriam of her countless passages in 110-feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico just off Orange Beach, Alabama.

The reef realized. On Sunday, May 26, 2013 “The LuLu,” a newly re-christened 271-foot retired cargo ship, was sunk in about 110 feet of water, 17 nautical miles south of Perdido Pass in Orange Beach, Alabama. The navigation coordinates are latitude/longitude: +29° 59’ 50”/-87° 33’ 00”.

The 271-foot long, 39-foot wide Bernuth Dutch cargo ship spent its working years indentured as a heavy cargo hauler. Today, she offers solace, shelter and refuge to a precious cargo — that of burgeoning marine life.

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David Walter, owner of Walter Marine, also known as Reefmaker, the largest deployer of artificial reefs in the United States, had a vision. Walter envisioned purchasing the decommissioned ship and making it the first reefed ship off Alabama’s coast.

“Reefing” is popular marine biologist jargon for the process of sinking manmade products and off-cast items suitable for revitalizing and establishing new marine ecosystems. Since 1986, Walter and his sons have deployed more than 35,000 artificial reefs in waters around the U.S.

Photography by Lila Harris, Aquatic Soul Photography
Photography by Lila Harris, Aquatic Soul Photography

Alabama’s artificial reef program. Alabama’s artificial reef program is the largest of its kind in the United States. It is the product of a cooperative agreement between the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Marine Resources Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. To date, the program has deployed more than 50,000 reefs in its home waters.

Alabama’s artificial reef building program has a rich past, having started in 1953, when the Orange Beach Charter Boat Association asked for the authority to sink some 250 car bodies off Baldwin County, Alabama. The goal was to improve the sandy, flat offshore topography; revitalizing the marine habitats while inviting game species to set up residence there.

In 1987, a general permit was issued by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers creating specific areas immediately offshore of the Alabama coast for the creation of additional artificial reefs. The designated areas encompassed nearly 800 square miles.

Then, in 1997, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers authorized the expansion of the artificial reef construction areas to afford greater freedom in reef placement at a greater variety of depths. The reapportioned areas of permit zones currently encompasses approximately 1,260 square miles of offshore real estate.

At the same time, the protocol for reef construction was modified. This modification limited the types of materials that could be used to construct artificial reefs. Enforcement of the protocol and placement of reefs is a joint effort of the Marine Resources enforcement section, the Alabama Marine Police Division, and the U. S. Coast Guard.

Location, location, location. The LuLu is the first large cargo, full-ship artificial reef deployment in Alabama waters. Prior to the reefing of the LuLu, the closest recreational whole-ship dive to Alabama was the USS Oriskany in Pensacola, Florida, a 68-mile round trip from Gulf Shores, Alabama. While a fantastic marine resource, the Oriskany’s main deck rests some 145-feet below the water’s surface, considered by many to be too deep for recreational divers to reach.

Interestingly, the initial protocol for the LuLu called for the ship to rest 12 miles off the coast. However, maritime regulations require at least 60 feet of clearance to remove any chance of bow strikes (or groundings) by passing ships. This requirement would push the reefing location out another 12 miles. Walter, however, insisted on a near shore deployment, one accessible to recreational divers.

Walters, the quintessential demolition expert, decided to remove the LuLu’s tall smoke stack to get its profile short enough to sink it near shore. With cutting torch in hand, and other demo tools, Walter cut the stack down to the wheel house. The bold move worked, and today it lays in water shallow enough for divers to reach with conventional SCUBA equipment.

Focusing national attention. While the sinking of the LuLu drew plenty of local media attention, it also attracted camera crews from The Weather Channel, who documented the reefing for a new series, Reef Wranglers.

The series follows the Walter Marine group and their reef building operations. The Weather Channel recently aired four episodes on Walter’s business featuring him and three other locals. The cast consisted of Walter, his son Stewart Walter, his stepson Justin Stoufflet and Roger Strick of Reef Wranglers.

The project. As with any successful project, a great deal of coordination was required to bring the project to fruition. The total cost of nearly $500,000 included transport of the ship from Miami (where it was purchased), cleaning and decommissioning and the eventual sinking of the vessel.

A newly formed non-profit organization, the Alabama Gulf Coast Reef and Restoration Foundation, helped with funding and collecting funds for the undertaking. Approximately a fifth of the money came from the Marine Resources Division of the State of Alabama and other donations from local governments, private businesses and individuals.

Local Gulf Shores businessman Mac McAleer, owner of Homeport Marina, donated $250,000 for the honor of naming the rechristened ship and reef. The boat was named after the iconic Gulf Shores restaurant LuLu’s, founded more than a decade ago by McAleer’s wife Lucy Buffett, sister of famed musician Jimmy Buffett.

With the LuLu safely on the ocean’s floor, and in an effort to continue their conservation push of reefing large ships in the northern Gulf and off Alabama’s coast. The Alabama Gulf Coast Reef and Restoration Foundation (http://www.alabamagulfcoastreef.org/) currently has plans to reef three more ships by the end 2015.

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Todd Kuhn
Todd Kuhn
Dr. Todd Kuhn is considered a leading expert on inshore light tackle techniques – opting for fly-fishing and spinning equipment. The Gulfport, Miss., resident was awarded a doctorate in Environmental Engineering in 1996

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