Category Archives: Scuba Diving

Huge New Artificial Reef at Pompano Beach

17th vessel being sunk today off Florida coast.

ShipwreckPark-logo.jpgEven as I write this, “Lady Luck,” the 324-foot sludge tanker from New York City formerly known as “The Newtown Creek,” is being sunk to become one of the biggest components of South Florida’s artificial reef system and an easily accessible major dive site. Now redone with an underwater casino theme and known as “Lady Luck,” promoters are billing it as “the world’s only underwater faux diving casino, complete with interactive art exhibits.”

In anticipation of the sinking 1½ miles off Pompano Beach’s shore,  the ship was, of course, cleaned of oil, sludge remnants and other substances harmful to the marine environment. A live auction earlier this month featured such unique memorabilia as the engine order telegraph, passageway lights, portholes and ship’s horn.

I imagine that locals, visitors and area officials are gathering on shore and on surrounding boats to watch the sinking of “Lady Luck” in 120 feet of water to become the centerpiece of Shipwreck Park, a unique underwater arts park. It will be the 17th  wreck there. The Fort Lauderdale Marriott Pompano Beach Resort & Spa (whose name is almost as long as the ship) promoted itself as a great place from which to watch. A lifetime ago, I attended the sinking of the first, a much smaller vessel once a floating restaurant called “The Ancient Mariner” off the Fort Lauderdale shore.

Diving that new, unadorned wreck was a trip, and now, with interactive features and underwater sculptures, has got to be that much more interesting. Fish are quick to investigate a newly sunken ship, and it doesn’t take long for algae and soft coral to cover the vessel.

Michigan Dunes Now Under National Wilderness Designation

Nearly half of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore protection upped. 

NatlParkServiceLogoSome 32,557 acres of the 71,199-acre Sleeping Bear Dunes Lakeshore in the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula are now protected as a National Wilderness area, thanks to a bill sponsored by Democratic Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and signed into law by President Barack Obama last Thursday. In an all-too-rare acknowledgment by a politician from one party of the accomplishments of the other, Representative Dan Benishek, a Republican who represents the Upper Peninsula and northern Michigan, issued a statement that said. “Today is a huge win for Sleeping Bear Dunes, our economy, and for the citizens of Northern Michigan.” And it is an accomplishment —  the first wilderness protection bill to pass both chambers since 2009.

The Dunes boast 35 miles of miles of sand beach on the mainland, bluffs that tower as high as 450 feet above Lake Michigan, off-shore islands, lush forests, two rivers (the Platte and the Crystal), 21 clear inland lakes, unique flora and fauna. The Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in the town of Empire is open year-round, plus seasonal attractions that include an island lighthouse, US Life Saving Service stations, the historic Glen Haven General Store, Glen Haven Blacksmith Shop and three museums (te Empire Historical Museum, the Cannery Boat Museum and the Sleeping Bear Maritime Museum). The whole area’s sweet coastal villages and picturesque farmsteads reflect a rich maritime, agricultural and recreational history.

Sleeping Bear Dunes, now largely on Wilderness Act protection. Photo: National Park Service
Sleeping Bear Dunes, now largely under Wilderness Act protection. Photo: National Park Service

The Dunes remain under National Park Service jurisdiction with additional wilderness parameters. The NPS stated that will not limit public access, which understandably peaks in spring, summer and fall. Roads, highways, boat launches and other structures are excluded from the wilderness designation. Park visitors will continue to be able to hunt, fish, hike and camp in designated areas.

Arguably the most distinctive activity in the park is the Dune Climb, a windblown ascent that can be strenuous, especially for out-of-shape adults, though the run back down to the picnic area is a blast. Hiking through the dunes all the way to Lake Michigan can take as long as 3 to 4 hours. Sightseers take the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a 7.4-mile loop road with 12 numbered interpretive signs at spectacular overlooks of Lake Michigan, Glen Lake and the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Other things to do in the warm months include various ranger programs, kayaking, hiking (100 miles of trails), road cycling on paved roads, fishing, swimming, kayaking, snorkeling and scuba diving and snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in winter. Such motorized activities as ATVing and snowmobiling are no-go in the wilderness.

Some years ago, when on a winter assignment in nearby Traverse City, my ski-writer friend Michael Terrell urged me to borrow some skis or  snowshoes and explore the Dunes. I went there on a quiet, sunny weekday. I can’t begin to remember which route I followed, but I do recall that it more or less paralleled the lakeshore. I also remember enjoying the undulating terrain, the water views and breeze that differed from a sea breeze only in that it wasn’t salty.

The park spans Benzie and Leelanau counties in northwest lower Michigan, and  in 2011, even before it received wilderness designation, it was named the “Most Beautiful Place in America” by “Good Morning America.” Following recognition on national television, visitation grew nearly 14 percent to a record 1.5 million in 2012. It fell 12.5 percent in 2013, due in part to the federal government shutdown, which I’m guessing Senators Levin and Stabenow did not support. I don’t know about Representative Benishek.

Seven Undersea Wonders of the World

The newest “wonders” list spotlights the magical underwater world

Sometime ago, I posted about a spate of  new”seven wonders” lists that popped up within a few months of each other. Now, after what seems to have been a hiatus, the Seven Underwater Wonders of the World list has been released — or at least I just learned about it. As something of a lapsed suba diver, this is the visual equivalent of music to my ears. On the list: 

  • Palau (photo left)
  • Belize Barrier Reef
  • Galapagos Islands
  • Northern Red Sea
  • Lake Baikal
  • Great Barrier Reef
  • Deep Sea Vents

CEDAM International (Conservation, Education, Diving, Awareness and Marine International), which is dedicated to conservation, education, diving, and marine research, began the Seven Underwater Wonders project in 1989. The message was simple then: If underwater wonders are not protected, they will be lost forever. With the ensuing awareness of climate change, global warming, overfishing and relentless, massive dumping of chemical and organic wastes into the sea (and most recently, the horrific Gulf oil spill), this message is more imprortant than ever.

And if the underwater wonders list piqued your interest, you can check out the various terrestrial seven wonders lists by clicking here.

Great Barrier Reef Ship Grounding, Update

Efforts underway to contain reef damage

Travel Babel seems to have been the first travel blog to report on the Chinese-flagged coal carrier “Shen Neng 1” that went 9 miles off-course and plowed into the coral reefs of Keppler Island, part of the Great Barrier Reef. The resultant oil spill continues to threaten marine life in a maritime protection area that also happens to be one of the world’s great scuba diving destinations. Since then, the disaster has caught some world attention, with television news and wire service reports updating the situation and the Australian government response. The photo at right was released by Australian Maritime Safety Authority, and you can see a SkyNews report on YouTube.

The threat to the reef remains worrisome. According to an Associated Press report released on Tuesday evening, local time, “A stranded Chinese coal ship leaking oil onto Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is an environmental time bomb with the potential to devastate large protected areas of the reef, activists said on Monday.” Reuters quoted Llewellyn, director of conservation for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Australia, who called the “was a “ticking environmental time bomb.”
The reef, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, the ship carried some 300,000 gallons of heavy fuel to run its engines. Shipping companies like this (relatively) cheap, low-grade fuel, which is very viscous, and and must be heated before injected into engines. When it ends up in the ocean, this gooey, sludge-like oil coats birds, wildlife, corals, rocks and sandy beaches and is extremely difficult to clean up.

An Environmental Crisis Waiting to Happen — and It Did

“We’ve always said the vessel is up in an area it shouldn’t be in the first place,” Marine Safety Queensland general manager Patrick Quirk  told the media. “How it got to that to that position will be the subject of a detailed investigation by the Australian Transport Safety Board.” He added ships sometimes used a shortcut through the reef, a practice that will be reviewed by the federal government.  Six thousand ships a year travel the marine lanes between the east coast of Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. Numerous conservation groups have for years been concerned that bulk carriers are permitted to travel through the reef without a specialized marine pilot. The government has thus far said pilots are not necessary when ships pass protected areas because they are banned there — until they stray off-course, nine miles off-course, in the case of the “Shen Neng 1.” The government might now change its tune.

At last report, two powerful tugs were on the scene, attempting to stabilize the ship while salvage crews assessed the situation. A boom is in place around the stranded ship to contain the oil spill. Australian  officials say the “Shen Neng I” is owned by belongs to the Shenzhen Energy Group, a subsidiary of China’s state-owned China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company (acronym, COSCO) — the country’s largest shipping company. COSCO could be fined up to 1 million Australian dollars (US$920,000) — a pittance in view of the damage.

COSCO’s History of Oil Spills

This Australian incident is COSCO’s third major foul-up in less than three years. In November 2007, the “Cosco Busan” hit one of San Francisco Bay Bridge supports and spilled 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay, contaminating beaches, killing wildlife and floating into the Pacific Ocean. Skipper John Cota received a 10-month jail sentence for negligence. I don’t know whether COSCO was also fined, but cleanup reported cost $100 million.

On July 31, 2009,, “Full City,” a Panamanian-flagged ship owned by COSCO, suffered engine failure, ran aground during a storm and spilled some 200 tons of oil that eventually spread 100 miles in an area of wildlife sanctuaries and popular beaches. Pollution effects could linger for a decade. According to a British report on the fiasco, “In the days following the disaster, one of Norway’s worst, thousands of birds said to be part of the Lille Sastein bird sanctuary and which were covered in oil, were considered beyond saving and had to be shot. Hundreds more are being cleaned up by volunteers along the coastline.” The captain, whose name and ultimate fate I don’t know, was arrested for a failure to alert authorities that his ship was in trouble, but he was released without bail.

COSCO has been notably silent about this latest disaster, but on April 1, it issued the following press release, which seems to indicate that money and ROI and not responsbility are all that matter to this state-owned compay:

“COSCO Sustainable Development Report 2008, among the 44 sustainable reports, was praised as ‘Notable’ report, which was conveyed in the letter to Capt. Wei Jiafu, President and CEO of COSCO Group from Mr. Georg Kell, Executive Director of UN Global Compact Office on March 3rd, 2010. COSCO Group is the only selected Chinese company this year and only Asian company whose sustainability report is deemed ‘Notable’ for four years in a roll [stet]. The report analysis was conducted by a coalition of global investors from 13 countries managing over US$ 2.1 trillion of assets, and they are all signatories to the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment Initiative to help companies that under United Nations Global Compact better corporate reporting on environmental, social and corporate governance activities.”

Chinese Coal Ship Aground on Great Barrier Reef

Marine park and top diving destination at risk

If I ruled the world, China would stop mining coal. The cost is too great: frequent fatal mine accidents (the latest just a few days ago), filthy and unhealthy air over much of China from antiquated coal-fired plants and now the “Shen Neng 1,” a Chinese bulk-coal ship that strayed from designated shipping lanes on Saturday and slammed into Australia’s Great Barrier reef at full speed and ran aground on this world wonder.

The reef is a fanastic 1,800-mile barrier reef 60-odd miles off Australia’s northeast coast that is arguably the world’s finest scuba destinations. Great Keppel Island, where the ship ran aground, is a dive destination that boasts “pristine waters. I checked dive blogs and specific Great Keppel Island dive operators and resorts, and astonishingly, none mentioned this incident or its possible effects.

There has not yet been a really major spill of the ship’s 950 tons of oil, but oil patches several miles from the wreck have been spotted from the air. Chemical dispersants were sprayed on the oil on Sunday  The ship, which is about 800 feet long and carried about 65,000 tons of coal, will have to be towed into port.

The BBC reported: “Queensland officials say the ‘Shen Neng 1’ is badly damaged and the salvage operation could take weeks. Fears remain that it could break up, spilling hundreds of tonnes of oil.
Environmentalists are furious about the grounding on Douglas Shoals, well outside the authorised shipping channel. The Chinese-registered ship is balanced precariously off the east coast of Great Keppel Island.
A tug boat is at the scene to help prevent it from keeling over and to assist with any attempt at refloating the stricken vessel. Its Chinese crew have remained on board.” According to a statement in a video that is part of the BBC report, ships are permitted to sail the calmer waters between the Mainland and Queensland without a pilot. Blomberg more recently reported that a second tug is on its way.

Deja Vue All Over Again

On March 11, 2009, the Hong Kong-flagged container ship “Pacific Adventurer” was responsible for a large oil spill that Moreton Island and Sunshine Coast beaches, north of Brisbane The  ship lost 31 containers of ammonium nitrate that loose in Cyclose Hamish’s rough seas. Some of the containers pierced the ship’s hull, releasing some 270 tons of oil into the ocean. The captain was charged with violating marine-pollution laws but permitted to leave Australia.

In August 2009, the Australian and Queensland Governments and its owner, Swire Shipping, reached an  agreement, under which the transport company was to pay $25 million in damages. This far exceeds Swire’s legal obligation of $17.5 million for compensation. The overage was to go to a trust specially established to help improve marine protection and maritime safety. The “Shen Neng 1” accident might put it to use. Who knows what will happen to the captain — and whether China’s Cosco Group will pay a potential $921,500 fine — far too little, IMHO.

Ironically, Cosco’s website boasts that it is committed to the UN’s Global Compact, whose cornerstones are “aligning their operations and strategies with ten universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption.” Environment. Slamming a ship into a marine park is a serious misalignment.

The Great Barrier Reef is a world wonder, home to some 400 coral species (the most in the world), 1,500 species of tropical fish, 4,000 types of mollusks, 200 types of birds, 20 types of reptiles. It is also the habitat for a number of threatened species such as the dugong (“sea cow”) and large green turtle. Additionally, it is an important breeding area for humpback whales that migrate from Antarctica.

I have a special affection for the Great Barrier Reef. After snorkeling off Lady Musgrave Island, one of thousands of little land outcroppings, back in 1987, I decided to get my scuba certification, because I wanted to participate in underwater life, not simply to float on top as spectator. I’m now a certified diver but never managed to return to Australia. Since my visit, we’ve become aware that this reef, like all others on the planet, is under chronic assault from climate change, but a ship running aground and spilling oil or other harmless substances is acute trauma.

Calculating Enviro Impact of Dive Travel

When you get your scuba certification — or at least when I got mine — you had to learn to calculate your dive profile (how long you could stay underwater, at what depth and how long you had to stay on the surface before your next dive). Now, with the broad recognition of global warming, the first small strokes have been made to mitigate the impact of travel itself to dive destinations.

Sustainable Travel International (STI), a US-based non-profit, has introduced what is thought to be the world’s first custom carbon dive calculator that determines the carbon emission costs incurred from air travel and diving activities on a diving vacation. Beautiful Oceans, which runs what it calls “eco-dive trips,” compensates on behalf of each guest by funding carbon offset projects. Like melting glaciers and fracturing ice shelves, coral reefs are bellwethers of climate change. Recreational divers and dive operators have observed, and coral reef scientists have confirmed, reef damage from rising ocean temperatures.

Scientists predict that a 2-degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature will cause 8 percemt of the reefs globally to bleach. Ironically, divers who travel to see these reefs contribute significant carbon dioxide to the problem, due to air travel, dive boats, desalinated water and even air-conditioned hotels. In addition to being a progressive dive-tour operator, Beautiful Oceans is a coral reef education organization. Now, it is attempting to neutralize the impact of its eco-dive vacations through carbon offsetting. This is a first in the dive travel industry — and Beautiful Oceans is using the carbon calculator developed by STI and adapted by Ocean Frontiers.

It’s been several years since I have been underwater, but I am thrilled that someone is doing something to keep those reefs colorful for the next time I take the plunge.