Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association (MBARA) has one of the most active artificial reef programs in Florida. Since 1997, the organization has put down over 300 patch reefs off the sandy shores of Bay and Gulf counties.
These reefs consist of wrecks, secondary-use concrete, and pre-fabricated artificial reef structures.
MBARA doesn’t just build reefs, it also surveys reefs for durability, stability, and marine life. Surveys are used by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Division of Marine Fisheries Management Artificial Reef Program, along with other agencies, to determine what reef materials perform the best under all conditions.
In addition, they surveys are used to determine the best materials for the marine environment, providing habitat and forage areas for marine life while reducing the chance of entanglement.
On Oct. 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael handed MBARA both a challenge and a unique opportunity. This hurricane was the strongest storm on record to hit the Florida Panhandle with 155 mph sustained winds. Surge and waves reached a height of 22.5 feet in Mexico Beach and carried away buildings, vehicles, and the Mexico Beach Pier.
A storm of this velocity had never hit such a large and diverse area of artificial reefs before. Once the initial shock of Hurricane Michael began to wear off, thoughts turned to the artificial reefs off Mexico Beach.
A month after the storm, MBARA volunteers ventured out into the Gulf of Mexico by boat to check on some of the local reefs. They scanned several reef sites in the Bell Shoals area, which averages just over 20-feet deep, and some of the deeper sites off Crooked Island.
The water in Bell Shoals was too dark to see reef structures from the surface, but the side-scan sonar began to tell a story of pyramids that had toppled over or completely disappeared from their locations.
However, Bell Shoals also included 80 ecosystem reefs on pilings in 46 patch reefs.
An ecosystem reef consists of round concrete and limestone disks on a piling that is buried at least 15-feet deep in the sand. It appeared to the volunteers that Hurricane Michael was no match for this reef design. And in deeper water, the news was even better. Side-scan surveys in 60-feet of water showed reefs were unmoved and intact.
MBARA President Bob Cox reported the findings to the Florida FWC Artificial Reef personnel. Without asking, FWC scheduled time to bring their valuable side-scan sonar equipment down to Mexico Beach. Driving four hours round-trip from Tallahassee each day, they spent four days in windy and cold conditions mapping the bottom of Bell Shoals.
When they compared their bottom readings to scans they had done prior to Hurricane Michael, what they found was truly amazing.
As MBARA volunteers had suspected, the ecosystems on pilings had stayed in place receiving little to no damage from the storm.
Hybrid reefs, which consist of a layered ecosystem on top of a concrete box, were partially buried, but still effective reef material.
Secondary-use concrete, such as poles and culverts, had previously been partially submerged below the sand over time.
The force of the storm removed much of the sand, increasing the total square footage of these materials from 1,000 square feet to over 6,000 square feet.
And reef balls, prefabricated concrete structures that are 3-feet to 4-feet, increased in numbers from 70 to 83 as sand was blown off buried structures.
However, the pyramids are a different story.
Although the numbers of pyramids nearly stayed the same, many of these 6,000-pound structures had toppled on their sides and were dragged across the sand by the force of nature. The movement was verified when FWC personnel did some dives and located a statue of a bulldog on one of the toppled pyramids.
They contacted MBARA President Bob Cox who recognized the bulldog as part of the Billy Gillen Memorial Reef. To the amazement of everyone, the reef had moved 956 feet north during the hurricane.
FWC scanned Bell Shoals prior to Hurricane Michael, so the post-storm scan is providing valuable information on storm movements. The deeper a patch reef, the less the pyramids moved.
The patch reefs in the northern, shallower portion of Bell Shoals moved further. The data shows one pyramid may have moved as much as 2,887 feet; that’s over a half mile. FWC was not able to scan some of the shallower areas with their equipment due to fear of damaging it on the bottom, so there may be reefs that have moved even further.
However, they have given MBARA volunteers excellent data on where to look for more of the travelling pyramids.
All in all, Florida FWC Artificial Reef personnel found 500 various reef modules in Bell Shoals out of a total 524. The missing modules could be too close to another module to discern or in the shallow areas they were not able to scan.
The wreck of the Vamar did not move.
In the deeper waters of Crooked Island and Sherman Site, they found all 65 of 65 reef modules with no signs of movement or damage.
The Sherman Tug was found intact and in place. FWC was able to retrieve an acoustic device that had been placed in the Crooked Island site to monitor boat traffic.
The device had detached from the reef during the storm but was next to the reef rolling around when the divers found it. Prior to the storm, all was quiet except the usual sounds of snapping shrimp. During the storm, they heard a roaring that sounded like white noise. And after the storm, everything returned to normal except for the sound of the device rolling around and bumping into the reef.
FWC dived in the North Site on the Duke Energy Reef, also known as the Shady Lady shrimp boat. The boat used to be on its side, but now sits upright and is missing the wheel house.
The storm revealed another surprise for the divers - scouring in the sand around the boat revealed several large tree stumps – the remains of a long-gone forest that has been buried in the sand thousands of years ago.
MBARA volunteer divers will be busy this summer surveying Bell Shoals. One of their goals is to find the memorial reefs with plaques, many with cremains, so they can notify the families of the new locations of their loved one’s reefs.
“Without the data we’ve received from the Florida FWC Artificial Reef Program, finding the memorial reefs would be a near-impossible task. Now we know where to look,” Bob Cox said.
In addition to locating memorial reefs, MBARA volunteer divers will continue to survey marine life on these reefs.
FWC will be able to compare past surveys with new ones. They hope to learn if spreading the reefs out, instead of having them in tighter clusters, will change the fish populations. All the collected data will be used to improve reef designs in the future towards the goals of making them more durable and more supportive for marine life.
To see an FWC presentation on “Hurricane Michael Impacts on Artificial Reefs”, please visit www.MBARA.org.