How do you say good-bye to the love of your life? How do you say good-bye to someone who has been your mate, your best friend, and even your best fishing buddy? For Bonita Thompson, her husband John had been all these things and more. When cancer took John’s life, Bonita knew how she wanted to say good-bye; she would build John a reef.
It wouldn’t be just any reef; it would be a reef in John and Bonita’s favorite fishing area, the Bell Shoals site three miles off the shores of Mexico Beach, Florida. John and Bonita spent many happy days there, following their passion to hook a cobia, one of the largest, best fighting sport fish in the area.
The Bell Shoals site had just been re-opened for reef building after a 10-year hiatus. The John Thompson Memorial Reef was the first new reef planned for this area. Bonita initially planned to put down three modules, one with a plaque to honor John’s memory. It shortly became evident that family and friends wanted to build John a larger reef. With help from the Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association (MBARA), Bonita set up a memorial fund. Donations rolled in and the reef grew from three to 21 modules.
Building a reef this size takes time and planning. The Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association, a non-profit organization that builds reefs off the coast of Mexico Beach, was there to give Bonita all the support she needed. MBARA does a reef deployment one or two times a year. John had passed away in December, so his reef was planned for the scheduled deployment the following April. That allowed time to build all the reef structures, make a trip to build John’s reef, and plan a fitting Life Celebration to be held after the deployment.
On a beautiful day in March, Bonita and John’s sister travelled to Reefmaker’s yard in Orange Beach, AL, where John’s reef would be built. They were joined by MBARA board members Bob and Carol Cox. The Cox’s were there to support Bonita and build a reef for Bob’s grandparents.
Everyone watched as Reefmaker’s crew set about pouring wet concrete into a triangular-shaped mold. They carefully placed the heavy granite plaque lovingly designed by Bonita. The plaque had a poignant message along with John’s portrait. In a corner was a reminder of the happy life Bonita and John had together--a photo of John piloting his boat as Bonita stood on the bow searching out their favorite quarry, cobia.
With the plaque in place, Bonita placed John’s favorite cobia jig in the wet concrete. After time to reflect, Bonita and John’s sister helped the Reefmaker crew add limestone rocks to the panel. The limestone would allow quicker growth of marine organisms on the reef. Once the concrete panel dried, it would be combined with two more panels to form a three-sided pyramid.
In April 2012, the day came for John’s reef to be deployed in the Gulf of Mexico, three miles from the Mexico Beach Canal where John and Bonita made their home. The sun shimmered on calm seas as the Reefmaker boat, escorted by a school of dolphins, approached a small buoy marking the spot for John’s memorial reef. As Bonita and a few family and friends looked on from their boats, the reef containing John’s plaque was gently lowered to its resting place in 21 feet of water. The water was clear and the reef could be seen resting on the bottom. Soon, the other structures were put in place and the boats returned to the canal.
Three days later, a flotilla of more than 30 boats made its way out to John’s reef, with Bonita in the lead. This was John’s Life Celebration service. The weather was almost unnaturally calm; the surface was glassy, and there was no current or wind. With Bonita clutching an urn to her chest, the other boats surrounded her. The engines went silent and Bonita said good-bye as she spread John’s ashes over his reef. Then, as a procession of boats made their way over John’s reef, many friends tossed flowers as they said their own good-byes. Later that day, friends and family gathered outside Bonita’s home to celebrate John’s life.
The next day, Bob and Carol Cox paid a different kind of visit to John’s reef. They dived the reef and took underwater photos and video. Although it had been on the ocean floor for only three days, signs of life where already emerging. A large school of round scad, known by fishermen as cigar minnows, were already schooling around the reef. A few tomtates happily swam around inside their new home. A striped sea star slowly crawled across the sandy bottom. As they returned to their boat and motored away, Bob and Carol were joined by two bottle-nose dolphins.
The story doesn’t end there. John’s friends and family decided to keep building the reef. In April 2013, two more modules were added to the reef. Since then, MBARA has received more donations to add to the site during their next reef deployment.
When most of the reef had been in the water for just over a year, Bob and Carol did another dive. This time they were joined on their boat by Bonita. As they approached the reef, they were able to see how large this reef actually was; the modules were clearly visible from the surface. As the two divers descended to the bottom, they were surrounded by a large school of Atlantic spadefish. In the distance were elusive gag groupers, many of legal size. Gray triggerfish boldly swam straight to the cameras. The reefs had 1 to 3 inches of marine growth on them, such as barnacles and tunicates. It made it difficult to locate the pyramid with the plaque. After much searching, Carol saw a dime-sized spot that looked like black granite. With her dive knife, she was able to scrape off some of the growth and verify the location of the plaque. She and Bob worked 10 minutes to uncover John’s dedication, while small fish picked at the tidbits released during their labors. After taking pictures and video, they returned to the boat to tell Bonita about all the wonderful life that now surrounds John’s reef. For Bonita, she said this was her therapy, to be able to come out to John’s reef and remember the happy times they had together.
John’s story doesn’t end here. His reef will nurture marine life for many generations to enjoy. For those who knew John, going to the reef to fish for cobia is like visiting an old friend. For those not lucky enough to know John Thompson, they will admire him greatly for the living legacy he leaves behind.