Thursday, October 21, 2004


Hurricanes ripped apart Florida's shipwrecks, artificial reefs


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by Rachel Harris

MARTIN COUNTY, Florida -- Kerry Dillon had his suspicions. He had heard the rumors about the sport divers who found a sunken ship ripped in two after Hurricane Frances. Still, nothing prepared him for the shock he felt when he plunged into the ocean off Martin County this week.

The USS Rankin had been hit. Hard.

While Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne ripped apart roofs and mangled road signs on land, the torrential storms tore apart the retired World War II Navy ship, one of several artificial reefs created by the county to attract fish.

"It looks as if a bomb went off," said Dillon, a commercial diver. "I've been shipwreck-diving for about 29 years now, and I've never seen anything like this. It took my breath away."

Measuring 459 feet long, the ship was sunk on the Sirotkin reef, about 7 1/2 miles offshore in about 130 feet of water.
The bow, which used to be about 30 feet from the bottom, now lies about 8 feet above the ocean floor, Dillon said. The hull, made of inch-thick panels of steel, now are twisted like paper streamers. The deck that once covered the cargo holds now lies to the side of the ship.

"I dive the Rankin about six times a year, so I knew it like the back of my hand," Dillon said. "The entire forward half of the wreck is no longer recognizable."

Even the ocean floor where the Rankin rests has changed. Giant, jagged pieces of limestone form 12-foot cliffs where gentle sand slopes once cradled the ship.

Dillon saw similar changes Friday, when he explored an artificial reef created from the old Evans Crary bridge, which is about 300 feet by 80 feet. He said the storms caused the pile of metal and steel to sink about 10 feet, and a lot of sand and shells are gone.

"The whole thing has been changed," he said. "You can see where the metal I-beams were ripped up and dragged across the concrete."

It's unlikely the Rankin's damage will have a major effect on the underwater environment, said Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society.

Although the ship's movement may have covered some natural habitat, it likely has uncovered more.
Any disturbed plant life, like algae, will return within months, he said.

Hurricane damage could also be a boon to anglers, since the breakdown of the materials provides more open space for fish.

Dillon saw schools of trout, barracuda and Goliath grouper at the Rankin and found the old Evans Crary bridge teeming with snapper and snook.

But the new layout of the Rankin shipwreck could prove dangerous to divers.

"It will be so easy to get lost," Dillon said.

There's also the risk of getting cut on jagged edges of cracked steel or entangled in exposed cables, said Mike Marshall, manager of Scuba Quest in Stuart.

"It makes it more interesting," he said, "but it's definitely not something for amateurs."

The county has enlisted Dillon to assess the county's other artificial reef sites, but the dives have been stalled by the murky brown water close to shore.

"As it cleans up a bit, we'll be able to assess the other reefs," he said Friday. "We're almost certain they're all affected."

SOURCE - Palm Beach Post

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