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  1. Hernando

Sunken boat off Hernando Beach to provide fish habitat

HERNANDO BEACH — A sinking boat attracts rapt attention. Sinking one on purpose attracts a flotilla.

It happened as planned, "truly phenomenal," declared Mike Fulford, coordinator of the multi-agency, many-volunteer effort culminating April 23 in the Gulf of Mexico, 20 miles offshore, as they deep-sixed a concrete, two-masted schooner of post-World War II vintage.

Fulford, who was aboard the tow boat hauling the vessel to its grave, cast a look across the water and reported: "I counted 22 boats of onlookers."

The 48-foot derelict boat, with holes cut into its hold, will add a habitat and hidey-hole for sea life from bait fish to lunkers and green turtles on the flat, sand-based Gulf floor, Fulford said. He represents the project's lead agency, the Hernando Beach Port Authority.

"Divers will be excited," said Kim Poppke of the tourism agency Florida's Nature Coast. "They love to dive ship wrecks." At its depth of 25 feet, the water is clear, she said, with sea grasses filtering out the murkiness often encountered closer to shore. Anglers also are expected to target the site.

The decommissioned vessel joins the man-made Bendickson Reef, whose construction began as a seabed enhancement in the 1990s with the sinking of 10 U.S. Army M-60 tanks. Three piles of road construction debris have been added since, where previously there were few places for fish to hide, Fulford said.

The Army Corps of Engineers designated a less than quarter-acre sink site for the latest addition, which could have been problematic.

"A big shout out to Towboat US and Capt. Daimin Barth," said Fulford. "He did a wonderful job keeping the vessel in place while sinking (against) a strong tide and a slight wind." The firm, out of Hudson and Crystal River, donated its services, slow towing the hulk from the mouth of the Hernando Beach canal.

Maneuvering the boat from its slip at the Hernando Beach Marina to the mouth was provided free by Capt. Michael Senker's party fishing boat, Thunder.

The scuttling itself was accomplished in just 30 minutes. Holes in the boat's hull, plugged while in dockage, were opened, and two 3-inch pumps poured "thousands of gallons of seawater into the hull," Fulford said.

"Sitting on the bottom at 18 tons, we don't expect it to move," said Keith Kolasa. As aquatic services and waterways manager with the Hernando County Public Works Department and a representative of the Coastal Conservation Association, Kolasa will inspect and monitor the reef enhancement. The first post-dive check was in the first week.

Fish monitoring counts at the augmented reef will begin in late May by students of Scubanauts International in St. Petersburg.

Kolasa credited Port Authority monitors, community business donations and volunteers with bringing the project to fruition. It took 300 volunteer hours to prepare the vessel for sinking, he said. The upper deck was removed, the vessel stripped to its bare hull and holes cut in the below-deck.

"It would have been pretty pricey had we had to shell out for that," Kolasa said.

The project was accomplished with no tax money, Fulford said.

The boat itself has a murky history, according to Poppke. Seen around Hernando Beach for at least 15 years, it's been referred to locally as the "ghost ship," she said. Its construction as a pleasure boat appears to have been after the U.S. Concrete Fleet made history in World War II.

The reef enhancement project soon will include the settling of 25 "reef balls." The concrete pieces, 3 feet in diameter and 300 pounds each, are shaped like upside-down coffee cups with holes cut out for fish and turtle pass-throughs. Provided by the Coastal Conservation Association, they'll be towed by barge and sited closer to shore, providing yet another attraction to anglers and divers.

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