Diving a shipwreck is the ultimate adventure — even a lifelong dream — for many a scuba enthusiast. The State of Alabama and local tourism officials are banking on that passion to create a strong new addition to the regional adventure-travel economy.
The most eagerly anticipated addition to the nation's largest artificial reef building program will be a sunken freighter, expected to attract a far flung crowd of those passionate underwater explorers. Led by the Alabama Gulf Coast Reef & Restoration Foundation, the sinking of The LuLu will provide the state's first artificial "reef" of its type, and size, specific to the scuba market.
An Industry With Regional Reach
The sunken Navy aircraft carrier USS Oriskany is the nearest major dive destination in this class, off of Florida's shores 22.5 miles southeast of Pensacola Pass. The vessel is 888 feet in length, some 500 feet longer than the LuLu's size. However, the Oriskany rests at a depth of 212 feet, versus the 109 foot depth where The LuLu will be sunk on Memorial Day weekend. The top of the sunken LuLu will measure a depth of just 50 feet beneath the Gulf's surface at mean low tide. That means the new Alabama dive reef will be a safer dive than the popular Florida shipwreck, and more accessible to less experienced divers.
Oriskany divers must be Advanced Openwater-certified, having logged at least 20 dives, and they must supply their own dive computers.
Gulf Shores dive shop owner Mitchell Craft, also a board member of the Reef Foundation, is already fielding client interest and booking trips to dive the LuLu. "This reef is just perfect for the industry", he says, "accessible to any diver, novice to very experienced, at its fifty foot clearance. The addition is going to be huge, build industry interest and show people just what our water is like here."
Craft's Down Under Dive Shop already offers excursions to more than a dozen popular reef system dive destinations off the Alabama Coast. Local divers are very familiar with the likes of the "Tug Boats", "Three Coal Barges", the five "Liberty Ships" and the "Whiskey Wreck". The shop also takes many customer trips the short distance over to the Oriskany site. Craft and the Reef Foundation, along with local tourism officials, expect the new LuLu offering to divert some of the volume of Florida dive tours to the Alabama side of the state border, and out to the new LuLu site.
The volume of Oriskany dive business alone is substantial. According to industry research by University of West Florida, the site draws 4,200 annual trips to dive that artificial reef. The same study estimates 2.2 million dollars in Oriskany dive business expenditures a year originating just out of Baldwin (AL) and Escambia (FL) Counties. The potential business from farther away is most exciting for local leaders.
"Have Tanks, Will Travel"
Recreational scuba diving in the U.S. is an 11 billion dollar annual business, according to the Diving Equipment & Marketing Association (DEMA). A billion dollars of that figure is generated in Florida alone, which obviously has "dive" reach far beyond the panhandle, from the keys to Crystal River to Rainbow Springs. Only Florida and Texas trail California in the total number of open-water dive certifications, by state. A lot of that Texas/Louisiana/Mississippi dive crowd has previously been keeping to the interstate to bypass Alabama's coast on their way to Florida destinations.
"We'll now capture a lot of that 'bypass' market here on the Alabama Gulf Coast," said Craft. "Divers plan everything to the 'T'. They plan far in advance, down to the slightest detail of every trip. They're already making plans to come dive with us, and to dive the LuLu reef."
In addition to earning a larger share of the huge dive industry pie, the market is growing. According to DEMA, 152,000 new divers are certified yearly, spending $330 million on course materials and equipment. That of course does not include any expenditures for travel, tours or dive charters.
Nationally, there are up to 3.5 million active scuba divers and 11 million snorkelers.
One of Craft's counterparts on the Reef Foundation board is the region's new Nature Tourism Specialist, Chandra Wright. Wright actually works for the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, and represents the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, working out of their Gulf Shores headquarters. As well as her role leading the region's eco-tourism initiative, Wright is also an avid diver herself:
"I've been diving since 1998, and have been an enthusiastic wreck diver for years, mostly over in Panama City (FL) waters. What we're most excited about with this new reef project is having our first fully intact shipwreck of this size here, something divers have had to travel away from here to find. I certainly share the view that it will bring us a new market we haven't captured previously. We haven't targeted the dive market. CVB and our industry partners will now be doing dive-specific marketing and p.r. for the first time."
Sinking & 'Clearing' the Reef
The resting spot for the LuLu reef was to depend on final surveys of ocean bottom by the state, with input and recommendations of the Reef Foundation. That location has now been finalized, and the geo-coordinates announced for the first time. Reef Foundation President Vince Lucido on April 24 confirmed that general location at +29° 59' 50" / -87° 33' 00" . . . about 17.5 miles south of Perdido Pass and Orange Beach. The Reef Foundation President is himself a diver and former dive shop owner.
Once sunken, the vessel will need to be meticulously inspected for loose debris and any potential snag hazards, and officially "cleared" for diving trips. Down Under owner Craft and his shop manager Bryan Eslava, both experienced cave divers, will appropriately get the job of the LuLu inspection and clearing dive, which they say may take hours to complete on a vessel of its size.
The ship will be prepped and sunk by Walter Marine's ReefMaker firm, the longtime reef builder with a new national following after the airing of Weather Channel's debut reality show Reef Wranglers. The show's producers are aware of the LuLu sinking schedule, set for May 26th over the Memorial Day holiday weekend — a traditionally busy tourism week at the Alabama gulf beaches. It's not know if producers will tape the event for another possible future Reef Wranglers episode. Lucido did confirm that, regardless, the Foundation has booked its own private filming of the event to have on record, and share with the public.
The 1,200 square mile artificial reef general permit area off the Alabama coast makes it the largest artificial reef program in the U.S. The charter fishing industry is of course a major supporter, and recipient, of Alabama's reef building program. Alabama's marinas are home to the largest charter fishing fleet anywhere around the Gulf Coast. The reef zone provides world-class sportfishing waters, attracting and supporting the marine species which make the region a rich fishery. The goal of the local nature tourism leaders is to make the Alabama gulf waters as well know as a dive destination as it is for charter fishing.
You can learn more about the state's artificial reef program here on the Alabama Dept. of Conservation & Natural Resources website