Hurricane Irma wreaked devastation on the BVI. But Beyond The Reef is creating opportunity out of crisis, turning ships and planes into dive sites that will help tourism, local children and Mother Nature…
In August last year, BVI nonprofit Beyond The Reef sank the Willy T, the famous BVI floating bar and party barge that had been destroyed by Hurricane Irma. In the months before it was sunk, Willy was converted into an interactive pirate-themed underwater artwork, with masts and sails, a crow’s nest, a dozen pirates (made from recycled materials), a bar and card table for divers to sit at, a treasure chest and cannons strewn about the sea floor. We asked Kendyl Berna, Beyond The Reef co-founder: why?!
Q This project sounds brilliantly crazy – why are you doing it?
First, we want to recycle derelict vessels that would otherwise be discarded as waste (and would be costly to dispose of in landfill), creating artificial reefs in areas that are in need of additional habitat for fish species and coral growth. We also hope it creates positive tourism publicity for the BVI in a visually interesting way while increasing the number of dive sites. But the main goal is to generate revenue to benefit local children. We hope that a donation of US$5 will be collected from every diver on the site, which will go directly towards teaching BVI children how to swim. If an average of 30 people dive these sites each day, and each donates the suggested US$5, we will have generated almost US$55,000 in just one year.
Q Why is teaching kids to swim so important?
Not only is swimming a fun, social and confidence-boosting activity that all children should be comfortable doing (especially when you live next to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches), it’s also an important skill to ensure safety when living on an island chain. It’s thought that fewer than a third of children in the BVI know how to swim – it might even be closer to one in ten. This is unfortunate for recreational and safety reasons, and also narrows job opportunities in BVI. The ocean is the BVI’s greatest resource for tourism, and our hope is that, once local children become comfortable swimming, they can benefit from lucrative careers, becoming boat captains, scuba-diving instructors, sailing instructors, paddleboarding guides and surf instructors. Better yet, if kids learn from a young age that some of the most fun and lucrative jobs are in ocean ecotourism, they will be more likely to protect natural resources.
Q How did you choose where to sink the Willy T?
The boat was sunk in 65 feet of water in Key Bay, Peter Island. This is a beautiful, peaceful spot only a short ride away from Road Town, a sheltered bay with minimal current that can be dived any day of the year. It’s also a barren, sandy spot next to a reef that could use an ecosystem boost. Chris Juredin (co-founder of Beyond The Reef) is a ship-sinking mastermind and sank Willy T perfectly so that the end of the plank sits about five feet away from the coral wall. We also situated cannons on the seabed between the coral heads in a gully, pointing towards the wreck to bring the divers in, so the experience can start before they even see the boat. Key Bay is also ideal as we want to expand the project and create a sort of underwater artificial reef theme park, and we can continue to build on it here.
Q How did you do it?
It took eight months to get all the necessary approvals to sink four vessels in total (Willy T plus three planes that we are converting into sharks). The government and the local community are on board. Everyone is so enthusiastic.
After Irma, the boat had been stranded on the beach at Norman Island for nearly two years, during which time it had got really stuck – the entire keel was buried deep, and the bow was dry on the sand. Once commercial divers had welded the boat back together so that it would float, it took three attempts to pull the boat off the rocks. We had an excavator on land digging the sand from under it while a crane on a barge lifted the ship and a tug pulled it. Eventually it came off!
After that the Willy T was stripped of all hazardous materials, then there was an intensive period of adding pirate-themed artwork. We also cut holes in the boat – this time purposefully! We used underwater metal-cutting gear to create ports to provide diver access, and capped them so that, on the day of the sink, we could easily unscrew all of the caps and flood the boat evenly.
Before towing Willy T to its final resting place, divers installed lift-bags filled with air throughout the boat that essentially acted as giant balloons to set the boat upright if it began to keel over. The final precautionary measure for ensuring the boat sank upright in the right location was to install a four-point mooring system using large ship anchors and chains. During the sinking process these moorings were constantly adjusted to align the vessel with the reef and stop it drifting or favouring one side. Luckily all of this worked and the boat sank perfectly upright exactly where we wanted it!
Q What has been the reaction so far?
Divers keep coming back, raving about the attention to detail and the ‘underwater theme-park’ experience. The BVI has some of the most amazing pirate history in the Caribbean, and we hope that building awareness through the wreck site will bring further attention to this rich and somewhat forgotten history. Involving the local community has also generated excitement, as well as awareness about our marine environment.
Q How does this help the ocean?
We aim to enhance ocean life by creating artificial reef systems for aquatic species to inhabit and thrive where the seafloor is desolate or damaged by storms or human activity. We are using steel and concrete only as materials for the wreck. We’ve added rebar (steel) structures onto the boat, which is itself steel, and we believe that, with the amount of welding we did prior to sinking, the boat will hold enough of a low-voltage charge of electricity that electrolysis will immediately begin and increase calcification. The other material we use is concrete, which is one of the best materials for creating an artificial reef because its composition is close to natural coral limestone. It’s hard to gauge exactly, but we may start seeing some calcification within the first year; it will then increase year by year after that. In, say, 150 years’ time, the Willy T will start to blend in with the natural environment, but you will still be able to see that it’s there.
Q It sounds like a huge project. Did you have a lot of help?
There’s a huge amount of expertise in the Beyond The Reef team. We are guided by an underwater engineer, an oceanographer and an environmental filmmaker, and were lucky to be able to employ numerous welders, commercial divers, and barge and crane operators who all brought together unique knowledge to get the project done successfully. Our co-founder, Chris Juredin, also owns the local companies Commercial Dive Services and We Be Divin, which donated time, experience, heavy machinery and materials, without which it would have been nearly impossible to get this project done.
Chris and Commercial Dive Services were also heavily involved in the 2017 sinking of the Kodiak Queen ship to create an artificial reef, and we were able to bring back and collaborate with several of the brilliant minds from that project, including lead welders and artists Drew Shook and Josh Wilson, as well as Aydika James from Secret Samurai Productions for fundraising help and art direction.
We also had help from EarthEcho International, Philippe Cousteau’s US-based nonprofit, which has a similar mission to empower youth in marine science. Philippe had visited the BVI while filming a show called Caribbean Pirate Treasure in 2017 (a few months before the hurricane), and loved the Willy T and the diving here. When I told him about the good that could come from recycling it and converting it into an artificial reef to increase dive tourism and fund teaching children how to swim, he wanted to be involved.
Q What’s next?
We have further expanded the art-reef with the three planes-come-sharks. The planes are going back into an already amazing dive spot called the Coral Gardens off Great Dog Island. They will sit about 40-45 feet deep in beautiful, gin-clear water with scattered coral heads and a good amount of marine life – a perfect spot for new or highly experienced divers alike.
Before the storm, there were already airplanes there. We wanted to replace them so that people could continue to enjoy this awesome dive spot, but when given the opportunity to start from scratch with new (hurricane-damaged) airplanes, we had the crazy thought that they have a similar shape to sharks, so could be easily converted to become half-shark half-airplanes! They are already being referred to as ‘sharkplaneos’. Beyond The Reef’s mission also includes raising awareness of threatened species across the globe, and we hope that creating something fun and silly like the shark airplanes can communicate a message encouraging people to be enthusiastic about sharks and their conservation.
We have spent several months working to prepare the airplanes, which has included removing and relocating them from the airport, stripping them of all environmental hazards and finally working to complete the shark conversion. We hope to sink all three in the first week of December [after this magazine went to press] during the BVI’s Wreck Week, a week-long annual event remembering the old and celebrating the new shipwrecks of the BVI.