The famous white sand of the Emerald Coast’s beaches expands hundreds of miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, but most of the underwater portions is barren of plants, said Air Force veteran Mike Sandler.
“It looks kind of like a desert,” he said. “There is not much protection for the animals, and nothing grows in the sand.”
Fortunately, artificial reef systems along the coasts of Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties are providing essential marine habitat while also attracting snorkelers, divers and fishermen, said Sandler, who is the treasurer of the Navarre Beach Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
The nonprofit foundation, and its Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary Committee, support and promote the Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary.
Sandler said he and his colleagues work in synergy, rather than competition, with officials from neighboring counties to advocate for the scores of public, local-area artificial reefs.
In areas of the Gulf that have only the white, sandy desert bottom, “You might see sand dollars and bait fish,” Sandler said. “But by creating these artificial reefs offshore, there will be more things to see, and our visitors will come back.”
The Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary at Navarre Beach Marine Park has two public reef sites in the Santa Rosa Sound and one in the Gulf. Each of these reefs is available for snorkelers and scuba divers, and a new reef system for divers and fishermen is in the works.
South Walton County has more than a dozen public artificial reef sites, and it recently became the home of North America’s first permanent underwater sculpture park.
Okaloosa County has about 230 public artificial reef sites available for scuba divers and fishermen, and it plans to deploy its first snorkeling reefs later this year.
Funding for the reefs in the tri-county area comes from bed-tax money, BP oil spill settlement money, donations and other sources.
The reefs provide millions of dollars worth of annual economic impact to the local area, can be explored by people of all ages from about sunup to sundown year-round and, other than state park fees, are free to visit.
The three reefs in Navarre were deployed in 2012, Sandler said. The main purpose for the sound-side reefs is oyster and other marine-life growth, he said.
The east sound-side reef consists of 28 reef structures, each of which includes three large concrete plates. It stands almost 200 feet northwest of the Sandpiper Pavilion at Navarre Beach Park and in about 12 feet of water, with the top of the reef about 7 feet below the surface.
“It’s closer to shore and is in shallower water compared to the larger sound-side reef,” Sandler said.
The larger, west sound-side reef stands just east of the Navarre Beach Causeway and encompasses an area about the size of a football field. It consists of 77 three-plate structures that stand in about 20 feet of water, with the top of the reef 14 feet below the surface.
Sandler said the structures look like round, concrete patio tables with an umbrella in the center. Each structure weighs about 3,000 pounds.
“When the concrete is still wet, our contractor puts limestone on the top, so it’s bumpy on top and smooth on the bottom,” he said. “The limestone is very conducive for plants to grow on them. Sheepshead and other fish are attracted to it because it’s protected habitat for them. Out in the open, they don’t have a place to hide.”
Sandler also noted that sea turtles love to feast on sponges that have grown on the reefs.
And he said that oyster growth on the reefs helps filter stormwater pollutants such as automobile oil and transmission fluid, which run off of U.S. Highway 98 into the Sound every time it rains.
Sandler said there is a much higher number and variety of marine life at the gulf-side artificial reef, which has been tripled in size since its initial deployment. This reef, which consists of 78 three- and four-plate structures, is 2,000 feet east of the Navarre Fishing Pier and about 340 feet south of the Sea Oat Pavilion.
The depth of water for this reef ranges from about 9-15 feet, and many areas of its top section are about 6-8 feet below the surface.
Sandler said significant plant growth appeared on the reef within 10 months of its initial deployment.
Dolphins, grey snapper, blennies, damselfish, butterfly fish, Atlantic spadefish, triggerfish, crabs, stingrays, octopi and green sea turtles are among the various creatures that visit this reef/food source, Sandler said.
“On some days we’ll see thousands of fish,” he said. “We see the turtles out there almost every day. On a good green-flag day with a flat surface, you can be on a paddle board or a float and you can see the reef from the surface.”
He said while some fishermen fish at each of the reefs, the structures are mostly visited by snorkelers and divers. Some swim out to the reef, while others paddle a kayak, paddle board or float, which can be tied up to one of the reef’s markers.
“If weather is not a factor, April into November is primarily really nice for diving and snorkeling,” Sandler said. “You don’t have to worry about tides, but you do about rip currents. Even though the weather might look really nice, it could be that there are rip currents. Check the beach warning flags.”
This summer, Sandler anticipates the deployment of pyramid-shaped diving and fishing reefs about 1 mile out in the Gulf from Navarre Beach. They will stand in about 60 feet of water and stretch about 2 miles long, extending from the Eglin Reservation line and continuing in front of the pier.
In a historic partnership with the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County, the South Walton Artificial Reef Association (SWARA) last Monday deployed seven art sculptures for divers to explore off the coast of Grayton Beach State Park.
The sculptures, including those in the shape of a pineapple, an octopus and a 10,000-pound concrete human skull, represent the Underwater Museum of Art. It’s located .71 nautical miles from the Grayton Beach State Park walkover. Each sculpture stands 15 to 20 feet apart and in about 57 feet of water.
Articles about the museum, the first of its kind in North America, have appeared in publications such as National Geographic Explorer and Newsweek, said Andy McAlexander, president of the non-profit SWARA.
“The exposure is extremely exciting,” he said. “We hope to deploy five to seven sculptures every year from now on, so the collection will continue to grow.”
The reef association also deployed 40 fishing/diving reef structures at a site off the coast of Blue Mountain Beach last Monday.
In addition to that new site, South Walton has a dozen other fishing/diving reef sites and four snorkel reef sites in the Gulf. McAlexander said the Walton County Tourist Development Council has been greatly supportive of the reef deployments, the first of which occurred in July 2016.
Nine of the fishing/diving reefs are more than half a mile off the coast from major public beach accesses and in a depth of 60 feet, and the other three are 3.5, 4 and 5.5 miles offshore, respectively, in 60-85 feet of water.
The four snorkel reefs are in the shape of a dolphin, fish, sea horse and turtle. They start about 200 yards off the coast and stand in about 12-25 feet of water, McAlexander said. The tops of these reefs are between 6-15 feet below the surface.
The turtle-shaped reef is off of the Grayton Beach State Park beach, the dolphin-shaped reef is off of Miramar Beach, the seahorse-shaped reef is by Topsail Hill Preserve State Park and the fish-shaped reef is south of Inlet Beach.
Snappers, groupers and other game fish are often seen at the diving/fishing reefs, while the snorkeling reefs attract a huge variety of juvenile fish, a well as octopi, stingrays, sharks and sunlight-loving soft and hard corrals, McAlexander said.
“It’s just amazing, the life that is growing on them and thriving on them,” he said. “The spores of invertebrate species are floating in the gulf. As soon as they find something to adhere to, they begin their growth. Ninety-five percent of the sea floor is a barren sand flat, so whenever you place a structure, you’re creating a place for life to grow and thrive.”
McAlexander said ecotourism is one of the fastest-growing types of tourism across the world today.
“We’re seeing more people coming to snorkel these reefs, and more businesses are assisting in tourism of these reefs,” he said. “Everybody’s benefiting.”
Materials used for Okaloosa County’s 230 or so public artificial reef sites include old tugboats, barges and military vessels, former drug-running boats that were seized by the U.S. Coast Guard, old tanks and tank turrets, military ordnance targets and hundreds of reef modules.
Before a vessel can become a reef, its wiring, fuel equipment, oil products and plastic and wood must be removed, said Alex Fogg, marine resource coordinator for the county TDC.
“It needs to just be a metal shell,” he said.
The first reef in Okaloosa County was deployed in 1976. It was made with old pier rubble and deployed in 75 feet of water, about 1.5 miles from shore and southeast of the Okaloosa Island Pier.
But, “I’m not sure it’s still there,” Fogg said. “The coordinates used at the time might have yielded an inaccurate location.”
All of the county’s existing reefs are diving/fishing reefs that are more than 9 miles offshore and in depths of 50 to more than 200 feet of gulf water.
By the end of this year, however, county officials anticipate the deployment of eight snorkeling reefs — the first ever in the county.
These reefs will stand in 15-25 feet of water about 400 feet from shore. Four of them will stand 3-6 miles west of the East Pass and four will stand east of the pass.
The four west of the pass will stand south of Beasley Park and beach accesses No. 2, 4 and 6 respectively, on Okaloosa Island. East of the pass, two reefs will stand south of Henderson Beach State Park and one each will be deployed south of Pompano Street in the Crystal Beach area and south of the Crab Trap restaurant farther to the east.
The tops of each reef will be about 10 feet below the surface. While the new reefs will be in the shape of a turtle, starburst, spirals and other designs, snorkelers won’t really be able to see those configurations, Fogg said.
But he said that people flying overhead, as well as those who parasail, will see the shapes and hopefully be intrigued enough to explore them.
“You have to be very much above” to see the shapes, Fogg said. “The fish don’t care if it’s in the shape of a turtle or a square.”
Currently, the East Jetty at the East Pass is pretty much the only public place in Okaloosa County where people can snorkel, he said.
“There are a lot of boats there, so hopefully (the upcoming reef projects) will alleviate that crowding,” Fogg said. “The more reef sites that you have, the more you can spread the people out, which is better for the fish.”
He said spring and fall offer the best times to dive and snorkel because the water is a lot clearer than during the summer, when algae often is present. The water is clear during the winter months, but it’s cold, he said.
Besides the public reefs, Fogg said the county has a “very active private reef program” in federal waters more than 9 miles from shore.
The private reefs, which include those made from old farm equipment and radio towers, far outnumber the public ones and mostly are used by fishermen. Many of the private reefs stand in depths of 100 to more than 300 feet of water, Fogg said.