LEE COUNTY, Fla.- You may listen to the radio or talk on your cell phone everyday, but what happens when the towers transmitting those sound waves become obsolete? One option is to scrap the steel. Another is to create an underwater playground.
Fourteen miles from Sanibel, three 25 foot tall towers stand upright on the sea floor, part of a reef known as Chris Koepfer's ARC.
"It looks like someone put the Eiffel Tower in the Gulf of Mexico," expresses News-Press partner and dive buddy Kevin Lollar.
Much like the entrance arch to the 1889 World's Fair, think of the ARC Towers as a gateway to the Gulf in 60 feet of water. (That depth by the way makes this site diveable for SCUBA-enthusiasts of all levels.)
Lollar was one of the first divers on the new reef after its deployment in May 2002.
"When the contractor put the things down, the county guys and I jumped in right after, and by the time we got down there, there was a big school of amberjack and a bunch of barracuda on it," Lollar recalls.
The "towering" concept was developed by the late Natural Resources Supervisor, Chris Koepfer.
"He had been in other areas of the country and been seeing the amazing life that comes up around oil rigs and towers. And the thought was 'how can we get some of that biology without the oil rig part?'" says Steve Boutelle, Operations Manager for Lee County Natural Resources.
Boutelle explains that a federal grant from the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and boater registration fees made the creation of this artificial reef possible.
Soft corals, sponges and oysters now cover the steel towers. The reef's open structure beckons fish, large and small. "I'm not sure who's having more fun, the fish watching the divers or the divers watching the fish," says Boutelle.
If swimming with an 800 pound fish is on your bucket list, dive on down!
"I've made 11 dives on this reef at all times of year, summer, spring winter and fall. Every dive I've made has had goliath grouper, a dozen, two dozen. They love that site," says Lollar.
One of the benefits of diving the ARC Towers is that they are closer to shore than many dive sites in the Gulf. And while visibility on the site may not be as clear as if you were 40 miles offshore, visibility is still ample. On the day of our summer dive, visibility was about 40 feet. The only obstacle reducing visibility? Fish!
"I've been there on days where you literally could not see the tower, because it was completely covered in schools of bait fish, huddled in the middle, surrounded by larger fish, surrounded by larger fish," says Boutelle.