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Rapa Nui Reef – Is “Moai Madness” real?

Initially promoted as a new and unique dive site coming to Deerfield Beach, Florida, USA in the summer of 2015. Combining the aspects of a man-made reef with the splendor of public art, the Rapa Nui Reef was planned to be an underwater sculptural environment for divers to explore and marine life to inhabit.

The hope was that the new artificial reef would quickly become an international dive destination. Rapa Nui is the Polynesian term for Easter Island where large iconic stone figures called Moai were erected.

As you probably know by now, there were some technical issues during the sinking and she is now affectionately known as “Rapa Nui Wreck”. Unfortunately, she now sits on the bottom of the ocean upside and virtually destroyed.

I have been involved with this project for a while and was given a unique opportunity to document the sinking of the Rapa Nui from the point of view of both a photo-journalist, master scuba diver, and avid underwater photographer.

What follows is the story of the project with my thoughts, feelings, observations, and photos of the sinking of this historic piece of artwork.

Easter Island – The Story

For those who don’t know the story of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) – we have to start here.

Easter Island is a small remote island sitting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is about 60 square miles in size (roughly the size as San Francisco), approximately 1000 miles from the nearest populated island and 3000 miles from the nearest continent. There are no running streams, terrible soil, occasional droughts, and a relatively barren ocean.

Easter Island Map

Around 800 A.D., a group of Polynesian explorers somehow found their way to this tiny island. They settled there and began to homestead. From what archeologists say, the island was originally completely covered with huge trees – over 15 million of them – some close to 120 feet high.

As you can imagine, the original inhabitants were fruitful and multiplied. Within just a few generations, the little island had become over populated and had virtually no trees left. The archeologists say that when the island was thriving years earlier, the estimate of the living population was over 30,000.

Easter Island Muai

The story continues and states that these settlers were opportunistic and had no understanding of life’s balance. They were land pillagers. They were settlers who needed open spaces to farm. So, in order to make space, they cut down and/or burned the vast majority of the trees. In fact, they continued to clear the trees until the whole island was bare.

Experts say that competing elites cut down the last trees to move hundreds of enormous statues. That after excesses of “moai madness” the elites descended into warfare and cannibalism. The ecology ultimately collapsed.

In 1774, Captain James Cook, a British explorer, navigator, cartographer, and captain in the Royal Navy, visited Easter Island. He documented that his crew counted about 750 impoverished and malnutritioned remaining locals.

Many experts say that this is be the perfect collapse of a society. It is obvious that Easter island destroyed itself. To put it simply I believe the lesson is simple – “Don’t take our natural resources for granted and don’t abuse the plants and wildlife surrounding us.” If we do, all of us will “go down together.”

Easter Island Statues

According to Wikipedia, The moai are monolithic statues. Their minimalist style are directly related to forms found throughout Polynesia. Easter Island statues are known for their large, broad noses and strong chins, along with rectangle-shaped ears and deep eye slits. Their bodies are normally squatting, with their arms resting in different positions and are without legs.

Row of Rapa Nui Moai
Row of Rapa Nui Moai

Many archaeologists suggest that the statues were symbols of authority and power, both religious and political. But they were not only symbols. To the people who erected and used them, they were actual repositories of sacred spirit. Carved stone and wooden objects in ancient Polynesian religions, when properly fashioned and ritually prepared, were believed to be charged by a magical spiritual essence called “mana”. Archaeologists believe that the statues were a representation of the ancient Polynesians` ancestors.

To date, there have been 887 original moai statues found on Easter Island. In almost all cases, the moai face away from the ocean and towards the villages as if to watch over the people. The exception is the seven Ahu Akivi which face out to sea to help travelers find the island. There is a legend that says there were seven men who waited for their king to arrive.

The Rapa Nui Reef – What is it?

Fast forward to present day.

Rapa Nui Reef's benefactress Margaret Blume poses just prior to the media event on the barge before it is sunk on Sunday.
Rapa Nui Reef’s benefactress Margaret Blume
Dennis MacDonald, Artist of Rapa Nui Reef.  Deefrield Beach, Florida, USA.
Dennis MacDonald, Artist of Rapa Nui Reef.

After 2 1/2 years and over $500,000 of private funding and donations, project Rapa Nui Reef came to life. The project is a collaboration of efforts which started with Benefactor Margaret Blume’s ideas and dreams. As Founder and Project Director, she initially discussed the possibilities with Arilton Pavan (owner of Dixie Divers, Deerfield Beach) and commissioned artist Dennis MacDonald of Zibitz Studios to create the sculpture.

“Creating Rapa Nui Reef made it possible for me to share with the public my lifelong love of art and the ocean. Developing what began as a somewhat crazy dream captivated and filled me with enthusiasm. It is my hope that this project will inspire people to create and appreciate art, learn about history, preserve our reefs, and discover the mysteries of the ocean,” said Margaret.

Margaret also said many times that she was “thrilled to combine her love of art and the conservation aspect of creating an underwater marine environment”. The Woman’s Club of Deerfield Beach was selected as the primary sponsors in the development of this project.

Artist's rendition of the Rapa Nui Reef
Artist’s rendition of the Rapa Nui Reef

The artistic reef was to serve as a tribute to the stone statues found on Easter Island. On the structure were 15 moai, ranging in height from six to 22 feet. They were displayed over concrete structures organized to facilitate the growth of marine life and welcome scuba divers to a peaceful setting underwater. The entire sculpture was affixed to a 150′ by 45′ by 9′ steel barge which allowed for stability, transportation and sinking. The whole structure, including the barge, weighed close to 600 tons.

Rapa Nui Reef’s Unveiling
The tug which brought the Rapa Nui Reef/Barge to Deerfield Beach from Stuart, where it was built.
The tug which brought the Rapa Nui Reef/Barge to Deerfield Beach from Stuart, where it was built.

On June 2, 2015, The Rapa Nui Reef started a multi-day barge tour from where it was constructed in Stuart to it’s viewing place in Deerfield Beach. It was put on display for two days at Two George’s restaurant to allow the public to view it first hand. And what a display it was! It was truly majestic. Everyone who saw it was in awe. The local dive community was particularly thrilled to have this be in their backyard. The business community was enthusiastic that it would ultimately bring world-wide attention to Deerfield Beach, and attract both scuba enthusiasts and tourists.

The Rapa Nui artificial reef before it is sunk on Sunday off Deerfield Beach, Florida, USA.
The Rapa Nui artificial reef before it is sunk on Sunday off Deerfield Beach, Florida, USA.

As expected, the local community came out in droves to the public viewing area Friday and Saturday. The buzz was electric. I learned on Friday afternoon that this was the largest public art piece ever built and sunk – anywhere in the world. I met several people who flew in from around the world to witness the events and wanted to dive it as soon as possible.

Over the last year, I’ve seen photos and have had discussions with the folks involved, but until I saw it for the first time in person on Friday afternoon, I had no idea of its magnitude. Knowing that I’d be there when she was sunk, and that I was given permission to be with the first group of divers to explore and document this historic event, thrilled me beyond words.

The Sinking of the Rapa Nui Reef

On this picture perfect day – with virtually flat seas, no wind and no rain in sight – it was all systems go. At 7:00 am on Sunday, June 7, 2015, at slack tide, the barge departed from Two George’s and took the journey of about 4 miles to the moai’s final resting place. She arrived with no incidents to the planned GPS coordinates. The location is between the second and third reef directly off of the Deerfield Beach International Fishing Pier. Approximately 1 mile from the beach where the depth to the sand is about 70 feet.

Beautiful morning - Rapa Nui just prior to being sunk.
Beautiful morning – Rapa Nui just prior to being sunk.

I arrived to the site on the “Lady Go Diver”, Dixie Diver’s newest 46 foot Newton “Dive Special” boat, at approximately 9:00 am. We motored around and had opportunities to take photos and video of the project and support staff preparing for her final journey.

At about 10:00 am, one of the divers suggested we take a pool to see how long it would take to completely submerge the Reef. There were about 25 people on the boat. Each of us were to give $2.00 into a pool, and the one who picked the closest time won the whole kitty. Guesses ranged from 2 minutes to 45 minutes. I had no idea and nothing to base it on, so I thought it might take 4 minutes and 22 seconds. The captain was instructed to sound his horn when the first scuttle hole was opened by the support team. He did exactly that.

Mitch and Billy C from ScubaNation filming opening sequence for one of their shows.
Mitch and Billy from ScubaNation filming opening sequence for one of their shows.

My friends Billy and Mitch from ScubaNation were on board to create special footage for an upcoming TV show. They were incredibly excited to have hired a world class “drone” pilot to tag along to capture the whole event from above. As expected, the resulting footage from the drone is spectacular. They took the time to film an intro for their show with the barge behind them. Their idea was to have a complete show dedicated to the Rapa Nui Reef – the making of it, the sinking it and of course, diving the newly sunk reef. I’ve done a lot with them over the years and it was tremendous fun to spend the day with them.

Attaching cameras for the trip down
Attaching cameras for the trip down

We motored over to the barge to drop off Pavan for one final inspection. Dennis and Margaret were on the Broward County boat. We picked up Margaret and she came aboard the “Lady” for the festivities. One of the things that the prep team did was install 5 underwater cameras to different places around the new reef, including one on the tallest moai. I was thinking, that video should be pretty interesting. Can’t wait to see it.

Shortly before the drain plugs were pulled, a Coast Guard vessel approached and the captain told us we need to be at least 300 yards away from the structure as she goes down. Pavan (already back on the “Lady”) explained to them that we are the “media boat” and part of the project. That we hold the permits and have permission to stay closer. He explained that we were “on the list.” After a few moments, the Coast Guard captain agreed and allowed us to get closer.

We drifted approximately 75 yards from the barge when our horn sounded promptly at 10:35 am. I spent time talking to the other media folks on the boat and took photos and video of the “sinking” events. It took just under 12 minutes for the Rapa Nui Reef to completely disappear from the surface.

Sinking of Rapa Nui
Sinking of Rapa Nui

Unfortunately, It did not go as planned. Instead of a controlled sink which would allow the Rapa Nui Reef to peacefully rest on the sandy sea bottom, the Polynesian gods seem to have stepped in with some ideas of their own. In fact, the barge, and everything on it rolled forward to the port side after the scuttle holes were opened and she spun a full 180 degrees. She sank to the bottom and is now resting completely upside down on the sea floor.

I wonder if the gods became angry for some reason. Did the sacred spirit of the Polynesians` ancestors get confused? Was it the ocean itself which caused the problem? After all, of the 887 original moai statues all but 7 face away from the ocean and towards the villages as if to watch over the people. Did the magical spiritual essence (mana) and the combination of the ocean’s energy cause modern day “moai madness”?

I don’t know. What seemed to happen was that the ocean “pulled” the moai forward to “kiss” the ocean hello… of course, the momentum of this kissing action continued to spin the barge until she was completely upside down.

Rapa Nui Reef tips forward and the moai kiss the water
Rapa Nui Reef tips forward and the moai kiss the water

OK, artistic license, but this is as plausible a reason as other guesses. We may never really know the real reason why one side of the barge took on water faster than the other.  Speculation says she was top heavy. Other theories suggest that the tugboat next to her caused an eddy and forced more water to the port side scuttle holes. We’ll never really know the cause.  Why not blame the mana.

Rapa Nui Reef almost completely flipped - heading to the bottom upside down.
Rapa Nui Reef almost completely flipped – heading to the bottom upside down.

We all gasped – many screamed and wailed out loud. From our vantage point on the surface, we all knew this was not good. Pavan suggested that she would “right herself” on the way down and sit correctly. I turned and looked at Margaret. She appeared to be in shock for a moment.

As the barge overturned, from our vantage point, all of the proud moai’s heads appeared to shatter and break apart. It happened quickly, so we didn’t know what we were to see below. A moment or two after she submerged, a moai head, hat and several other pieces continued to bob on the surface. I asked Pavan why the concrete didn’t sink. He explained that the porous concrete still had air in it, and these pieces would eventually sink. At that point, I heard Margaret mutter out loud “go back to your brothers!” It took a while, but all pieces finally sank.

A very stubborn concrete moai head - he didn't sink right away
A very stubborn concrete moai head – he didn’t sink right away

It got eerily quiet as the reality of the situation sunk in. No one spoke for a few moments. Finally, someone broke the tension and asked, who won the pool? How long did it take? The somber consensus was the pool is null and void. But the time of 11 minutes and 38 seconds was said out loud. She didn’t go down as planned so no one wins.

The First Dive

To learn about the dive details, please go to the accompanying article: Rapa Nui Reef - First Investigation Dive

 

Post Dive – Topside

After everyone surfaced and we did our recap, I rinsed myself and my gear, grabbed a bottle of water and decided to look at my photos to see what I got. I sat next to Margaret so my raw images were the first she saw of her project.  I asked her how she was doing. Her answer was “It’s not quite the way we expected it to go.” She continued to say that she is “very disappointed and a bit numb.” I showed her my images and when she saw the one moai upside down, I heard her gasp. Otherwise, she was amazingly self composed. We looked at the rest of the images. Afterwards, she looked at me and simply said “from here we have to move forward”.  Knowing how much she has invested (not just money, but 2 1/2 years of her life), I was truly blown away at her optimism.  Not much was said, but to ease tension, we joked about how things sometimes don’t go as planned. I told her that I thought that this is just the beginning of the story… and as of now, it is a “fine wreck” – and that the fish would LOVE it.  She smiled back. I could feel her anguish.

Margaret Blume

Pavan was on the first dive as well – after we surfaced, he held a quick press conference/interview with the news media to share what he saw. “This didn’t come out the way we wanted. This is not what we had in mind, what we were working hard for,” said Pavan. “But there is an artificial reef there.” He shared what he saw and described the barge sitting upside down on top of the artwork.  He was asked if this could be repaired. He answered by saying he was “not sure.” and “Maybe…. Perhaps some holes could be cut in the barge to allow safe passage to the artwork below, or an effort could be made to turn her back over. ” He indicated that it was a little too early to tell what will happen. Finally, he said “we knew there was some risk involved.”

Pavan is interviewed

Later that afternoon, I met Mitch and Billy from Scuba Nation, Jim “Chiefy” Mathie and Nick Bostic at Ocean’s 234. We chatted about possibilities to make this right and what we saw. We talked a lot about the rebar and making it safer for future divers. We spit-balled ideas about how many tugboats it might take and how much effort it might be to flip her back over. We estimate 3 good sized ones and some really big chains. We speculated on what we might find below after she is flipped. How much damage there really is to the artwork. Again, the consensus is that although this is upside down and didn’t go as planned, we are all 100% positive this is just the beginning of the story.

Drinks are served - to the future!
Drinks are served – to the future!

As all of us are adventurous divers, one future vision discussed after a couple of beers was this – assuming that we could effectively flip the barge back over, what is left is a pile of rubble on the sea floor. BUT, it is all made of concrete, and with lift bags, some creativity, ingenuity and planning, we could put the puzzle pieces back together. In my mind’s eye, I can imagine coordinated “Restore the Rapa Nui” coordinated dives. It may never look like Dennis’ original art, but how cool would it be to make something out of the rubble. It could be a great way to get the diving community together. I don’t honestly know what the future will bring, but it is definitely now an underwater artificial reef. It has plenty of protected places for fish and bugs to hide.  I know that the sea-life will love it – even if we do nothing.  I can already imagine Goliath Groupers using this as an aggregation site.  I’m sure the coral adhere to it nicely.

Like any dive site, this one has its share of hazards.   At least it is not a bunch of tires or something which will have long term detrimental effects to the ocean and the environment as a whole.  Concrete and steel in the ocean is benign.  History has shown that Mother Nature will do what she needs to do to make what is there work.

The Day After

Much to my delight, there was a press conference with city officials, benefactress Margaret Blume and artist Dennis MacDonald today. They said they are going to sink even more time and money into the project. And that they might add intact sculptures to what is now a pile of wreckage. The certainly want to make it safe.

Artist Dennis MacDonald being interviewed.
Artist Dennis MacDonald being interviewed.

Margaret shared her feelings and said “We are still very proud of the project and we don’t look at it as a complete tragedy.” She continued to say “It is there, it was built, and it is actually a reef.” She added “Nobody can take away how beautiful those statues were.” and “We’ve got to turn it around in some fashion to make it positive.” She finished with “This is not the end of the story.”

I think this is the moai which I found under the barge.  Dennis still has the mold.
I think this is the moai which I found under the barge. Dennis still has the mold.

“I don’t know where funds will come from, but have faith we will be able to pull it together,” said MacDonald. ”  I saw what this means to the community. We’re going to make lemonade out of this lemon.” Dennis continued to explain that he still has the molds to make more cast concrete moai’s and can imagine new figures being placed next to the overturned barge. He even shared that when the original moai’s were found on Easter Island, most were toppled or buried. He is optimistic.

Today, the following public statements were made by the representatives of the city of Deerfield Beach:

On behalf of the privately funded Rapa Nui Team, the City of Deerfield Beach is saddened and disappointed with yesterday’s events surrounding the sinking of the barge. The Rapa Nui team used common industry standards and practices in the sinking of this barge in order to ensure the safety of the sinking crew. However, sinking an artificial reef is not an exact science. There are many variables involved that make for numerous uncertainties.

It is important to note that the City of Deerfield Beach did not use any public tax dollars on this project. The City had no governmental oversight or responsibility over this project. This was a privately funded venture that partnered with local business and non-profit organizations.

At this time the Rapa Nui Team has informed the City of Deerfield Beach that they are committed to making the site a marine habitat and dive destination with the beauty and splendor of public art. Benefactor Margaret Blume and her team have already begun the planning process to reform the site. The Rapa Nui team is working with the necessary regulatory oversight agencies in order to ensure the artificial reef, in its current condition, meets all permitting criteria. The Rapa Nui Team has been informed that it does meet such criteria.

Deerfield Beach considered this venture a wonderful gift that brought our community together in a very special way. We are pleased with the Rapa Nui Team’s efforts to move the project forward.

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Len Rapoport Administrator
IPA Editor-In-Chief, ID: 1000 • I am an internationally published photographer and the founder of International Press Association. As president and editor-in-chief, my duties at IPA are extensive. For over 50 years I have written articles, had my photos published in millions of publications, record album covers, books, and in the digital media. I was senior marketing and sales executive for major corporations, including my own and as a corporate communications consultant. I have taught photography and formed IPA 20 years ago. I currently work from my home office and continue to actively cover media events in addition to all of my other IPA and IMPress responsibilities.
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Len Rapoport Administrator
IPA Editor-In-Chief, ID: 1000 • I am an internationally published photographer and the founder of International Press Association. As president and editor-in-chief, my duties at IPA are extensive. For over 50 years I have written articles, had my photos published in millions of publications, record album covers, books, and in the digital media. I was senior marketing and sales executive for major corporations, including my own and as a corporate communications consultant. I have taught photography and formed IPA 20 years ago. I currently work from my home office and continue to actively cover media events in addition to all of my other IPA and IMPress responsibilities.
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