On Building Artificial Reefs (Just For fun)

The alarm in my Johnston Island[1] second floor apartment rang promptly and unceremoniously at 0300 hours but by then I was already on my second cup of coffee. Running to shut down the noisy

Johnston Atoll. The reef  was in the dark blue ocean in the foreground.

Johnston Atoll. The reef was in the dark blue ocean in the foreground.

alarm clock beside my bed, I crashed to the floor. So much for not waking the neighbors, thought I. Grace has never been one of my long suits. Only the power and water plant operators, the Master Sergeant, MSgt, and I were up at that unholy hour.  The operators were always present with coffee and food available. Abruptly, I decided to complete my work at the power plant. I smiled as I left the apartment and heard the MSgt urging the troops to formation in his ever gentle voice, the tone and texture of which would make a grizzly bear envious. Seated in my usual spot at the power plant work table, reassured by the regular rhythm of the fly wheels, fortified by a cup of hot, strong coffee and a plate of loco moco, I was finally ready to review the plans for the reef dump scheduled to begin at the turn of the tide.

Having no reef dump experience, I was determined not to overlook anything. This reef dump had been two years in the making. A dangerous series of dives to verify the location and inventory species had been conducted almost exactly two years ago to the day. Johnston Atoll is a series of natural and man-made coral islands growing from the top of an old volcano, which is outlined by a

protective reef. Inside the lagoon it is peaceful and beautiful. Outside the lagoon the story is quite different. The ocean’s bottom drops off smartly as soon as one exits the protected lagoon. In fact the tangent to any given point on the slope of that old volcano approaches one; it is very steep.

What we were attempting to do!

What we were attempting to do!

Although my staff boasted of having several divers with industrial certifications, this was a specialty dive that employed contracted personnel. The rapid change in depth, differing salinity levels and temperatures meant the currents were wild and unpredictable.

Completion of the proposed reef site studies marked the advent of the project’s age of paper. Reports, proposals, equipment excess lists, justifications, and study documents were prepared into tidy packages and sent to a range of approvers; the Department of Energy, the US Air Force, Federal Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Everybody got everything. Everyone who received the package sent it to their staffs and each staff person, so as not to be out-done, commented on their own material and everyone else’s material as well.

Suggestions, improvements and checklists flowed like water in the lagoon. Q: Had we looked at Tinian, Guam, and Florida’s lessons learned? A: Yes, but we would review them again. Q: Could we affix the forklifts and frontend loaders to the barge? A: Not really, if they were being used to push stuff over the edge but we would check into a restraining harness arrangement. S: More study was required. A: Okay what? We studied the sea animals, flora, temperatures, salinity, outcroppings, caves, and migrations. What else would you like studied? S: You are in operational control, you

Boobies watching people (photo courtesy Lindsey Hayes USFW)

Boobies watching people (photo courtesy Lindsey Hayes USFW)

determine the scope, we feel there is inadequate study. A: Okay, how about we look at whether or not the lagoon based flora and fauna use the area outside of the lagoon? S: Excellent! A: Done!  And so it went, iteration after iteration until the tide was stemmed and a checklist was agreed upon. The day was finally here.

For weeks the staff had been preparing the items to be dumped. Running a very active island on a shoestring budget means equipment comes from whoever wishes to give it to the program. Better funded programs give away perfectly good old stuff and, on Johnston Island, we were always grateful to receive it. Because we had older stuff, the stuff had a shorter life cycle and so we had lots and lots of goodies for the artificial reef dump.  Excessed equipment like cherry pickers and cranes were stripped and burned. Trucks and other vehicles also had to be denuded of anything harmful or hazardous and burned. Stuff that might float had to be cut so that it would not. The work had been time consuming and painstaking but it had been done well. Several hundred tons of excess was cleaned and loaded onto the barge along with the frontend loaders and forklifts to shove it overboard; firmly harnessed, of course. Everything was waiting.

Dawn on Johnston Atoll that day found a flotilla of small vessels and a big barge making good progress exiting the lagoon. Standing on the barge, I marveled at the thin columns of clouds that stood from sea surface to the sky circling the horizon. As the columns turned pick, then red in the light of the rising sun, I was reminded once again of feeling like I was living within an ancient Greek temple to some illusive water god. Back to the task at hand, we picked up some onlookers. A pod of Pacific Bottle Nose dolphins was curious about what we were doing. Since EPA as well as Fish and Wildlife official observers were on one of the smaller VIP boats, we refrained from feeding them from the fish buckets we brought for that purpose. We’d drop the fish offering off to the dolphins later. An offering to our sea brothers and sisters was a tradition of our team.

After two hours, all the officials were satisfied we were at the correct location. In spite of the buoy, measurements were taken and the location was ‘precisely’ determined so that all signatures could attest that their makers had witnessed the process. The frontend loaders and forklifts, in full harness, began the difficult and dangerous task of pushing the skeletal hulks of the excess over the side to begin a new life as a fish habitat. The work continued all morning as the equatorial sun beat down on us unmercifully.

The dolphins, however, thought we were having a party and jumped, skid and chirped with joy. They seemed particularly attached to a game of following each piece discarded over the edge to its final resting place on the sea floor. Then they were back for the next one. Work was suspended for about an hour when a pod of whales with young showed up to find out what was happening. We

View from the Waikiki Club

View from the Waikiki Club

were worried that the youngsters’ curiosity brought them too close to the edge of the barge. It took us a while but we all got organized so no one would get hurt. Shortly after lunch, the VIPs and other officials departed. For the next several hours, it was just us; the workers, the dolphins, the whales and a few other curious fish. It was quite a team. The job was finally over at dusk, we offered our buckets of fish to the delight of dolphins and whales alike, and we turned our tired tails home to the island. That night we laughed and relived the day at the Waikiki club soaking up the sea breeze close to the lagoon.

Johnston Atoll was a very busy little island and the artificial reef building experience quickly faded into the background noise. Eighteen months later, though, the contract to study the effectiveness of the artificial reef was executed. The divers returned, took their lives in their hands and re-visited the reef site. Nothing was there. Absolutely nothing! Apparently, the reef materials hit the side of the mountain and just kept rolling. Somewhere in the great depths of the Pacific at the base of a very old volcano is a big pile of stuff. Recently I’ve learned that deep reefs are also wondrously rich with marine life and I hope that the excess material we provided is a good home to many species of flora and fauna.



[1] Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge; Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is located in the central Pacific Ocean, 717 nautical miles west-southwest of Honolulu. The refuge is managed for 14 species of breeding sea birds and 5 species of wintering shorebirds, and for its coral reef and diverse marine organisms, including the threatened green turtle. http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=12515

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