The Rapa Nui Reef was promoted as a new and unique dive site coming to Deerfield Beach, Florida, USA in the summer of 2015. It combines the aspects of a man-made reef with the splendor of public art. It was designed to serve as a tribute to the stone statues (moai) found on Easter Island. It was planned to be an underwater sculptural environment for divers to explore and marine life to inhabit.
I have been involved with this project for a while and was given a unique opportunity to document the building and sinking of the Rapa Nui from the point of view of both a photo-journalist, master scuba diver, and avid underwater photographer. I was a part of the first dive team with the project coordinators to document the event and capture the first underwater photos. The first dive was 20 minutes after she hit the bottom.
What follows are my observations from the first investigation dive.
At 7:00 am on Sunday, June 7, 2015, at slack tide, the barge departed from the Cove Marina 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. The whole structure, including the barge, weighed close to 600 tons.
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.
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.
What follows below are my log entries which I want to share. First is my technical dive details, then my observations.
Howie’s Logbook – Dive Date: 2015.06.07:
Dive Name: Rapa Nui Reef – first investigation dive
Dive Location: Deerfield Beach, Florida, USA – Between the second and third reef directly off of the Deerfield Beach International Fishing Pier
Dive Purpose: Investigate and photograph Rapa Nui Reef just after sinking
Boat: Dixie Diver’s Lady Go Diver
Air Conditions: 88 degrees, mostly sunny
Water Conditions: 82 degrees, salt water, 1 to 2 foot seas, very light chop
Exposure Protection: Full wetsuit (3/2 mm), gloves, booties
Camera Gear: Nikon D7100, Tokina 10-17mm, Nauticam Housing, 2 x YSD1 strobes, Sola 500 focus light
Max Depth: 70 feet
Current: Slight, from the south
Visibility: 80 ft
5 m/15ft safety stop: yes
Surface Interval: Not Relevant
Computer: Aeris A300XT
Air Type: Nitrox – 35.4%
Tank Type: 120 cfm / steel
Start PSI: 3400
End PSI: 1650
Pony Bottle: 30cfm, Nitrox 36%
Weights: 2 x 3 lbs (one in each drop pocket)
Time In / out: 12:17 pm / 1:12 pm
Total time in water: 55 Minutes
Dive Observations – Dive Date: 2015.06.07:
The other support staff, media personnel, engineers, and I prepped to dive and investigate. 12 of us in total dropped in 25 minutes after Rapa Nui laid to rest at the bottom of the ocean. As an experienced wreck diver, I was in no rush to get down there as I fully expected a lot of silt and sand to cloud the views. I like to plan my dive and then dive my plan. I initially had researched and prepared a dive plan as if she was right side up. I knew I would have to devise a new plan as I reached the wreckage.
I didn’t know if I would be able to photograph or see anything at all. To my surprise, as I descended, I discovered that the visibility was close to 80 feet with only some silt coming out of the holes in the barge. The current was slight and it was pushing the sand out of the south side of the structure. Much more visibility than I expected.
As I descended, I could see that the barge was completely upside down. There was obvious debris around it but nothing incredibly large. No intact moai or any recognizable pieces of them. I wondered where the head and hat we saw floating earlier disappeared to. I didn’t want to venture too far away from the structure during this dive to find it – I thought maybe I’d come across those pieces as I swam around.
I quickly assessed the wreck from the highest portion of the barge. The structure is slanted with the starboard side significantly higher. The barge is sitting mostly east to west, with the starboard side to the south. The sand is at 70 feet. The highest part of the barge was at 51 feet. My revised plan was to circle it from the outside, taking photos of whatever I could find.
As I swam around the wreck the first time, I started along the port side, as the current was pushing the sand to the south and visibility down current wasn’t all that great. I took mental notes of where potential hazards were. My first observation was that the port side had only about 1 foot of clearance between the structure and the sand for the whole length. I took wide angle shots of the length with other divers as a size reference.
I noticed that on the starboard side, there were many open areas and possible penetration points. Some were very small and there is no way I could fit through, but a few were fairly large. The largest of which is over 12 feet from the sand to the overhang.
As I peeked into the holes and underneath the barge, I very clearly saw that it was filled with broken concrete and contained many very obvious hazards. I chose not to penetrate anywhere during my first pass around. I didn’t know how stable the barge was, and as expected, the visibility was very low. Even with a strong spot light, I could not see very far as silt and sand was still billowing out. I took a few photos of the silt coming out of the holes.
Now that I’ve gone completely around the whole structure and taken note of where the obvious hazards were, I formulated more of a dive plan in my head for my second pass.
This time around, I went quite a bit slower. I paused to take photos of all the holes and the debris around the outside. I took some additional reference photos of the structure. I took this time to focus on the area around the outside of the wreckage. I discovered several items on the sand. There were a few metal pieces of the barge laying about on the north side, but most of the debris was concrete and from the artwork itself on the south side.
I documented several piles of concrete, and a couple of mounting plates with large screws sticking straight up from them. The screws measured close to a foot long. I also discovered a few pieces of shorter rebar scattered about in the sand and a one large plate of twisted metal (as if it came from the scuttle hole). I don’t know exactly where it came from, but it is curiously twisted.
I found the banner which was originally hanging on the starboard railing about 10 feet south on the sand right about the middle of the starboard side. It was crumpled up and still had the ropes attached to it. About 3 feet away from it to the south was another large square metal plate with a similarly large screw in the middle of it. I have no idea where that was from.
One curious find was a small angel nestled safely between two concrete blocks about 10 feet west of the banner. She was about 15 feet away from the barge on the sand by herself. It was just about in the center of the barge. She had the words Camilla on her leg and Sonia on her seat. She was playing a violin. She was small, perhaps 10 inches tall. I don’t remember seeing that on the structure over the weekend. When I found her, she was facing out to sea, I turned her so she could keep an eye on the newly sunk artificial reef. I was thinking, someone has to look at and protect the barge and those visiting it — especially now. Why not this angel? I took photos of her before and after I moved her. I discovered later that this was Pavan’s daughter’s angel which he placed inside the barge for her.
When I turned from the angel, I was delighted that I could see further into the barge. Visibility has increased dramatically. The current had gotten a bit stronger and the silt plumes have subsided. The sand has mostly settled.
Another very surprising discovery was a dead gecko. I saw it on sand between the angel and the barge. I expect that he took residence on the the artificial reef as it was being built, and like any captain, was proud and went down with his ship. I don’t know why but I laughed out loud … I had a hard time keeping my regulator in my mouth for a moment. I have never seen a gecko at the bottom of the ocean before. He will certainly will be a tasty treat for some wildlife very soon.
My third and final pass was calculated and I started to focus on diver hazards. I reminded myself that this is a barge upside down – that it is unstable and that there is 600 tons of concrete sitting with very small spaces below. I was trying to decide if I should penetrate. My thought was that this site will be visited by a lot of divers, so I should at least document what I can.
Once again, I started on the north side where the visibility was best (but there were no entry points). I went up the side and over the top to the south. I took photos of the barge bottom (now the top) showing air holes … and lots of air escaping. I circled back and came around the west side and started to focus on the south side.
I stayed on the south side of the barge for the remaining portion of the dive.
The visibility continued to clear, and I observed others from the dive party already underneath and exploring. I decided that I would penetrate as well if I could. As I leaned into the smaller crevasses, I counted dozens of pieces of twisted rebar still attached to concrete. They seemed sharp and were pointing in every possible direction. Very very dangerous. I took photos of all of them.
At the center of the barge was a vary large entry way. The overhead was at least 12 feet high. I was cautious, moved very very slowly – and not very far in. I saw Mitch from ScubaNation further in picking up what looked like a camera. Later, he told me he was on a mission to find all 5. He discovered 2 of them. I wonder what happened to the rest of them. I’d love to see the footage.
I could see what looked like a moai’s back about 10 feet in. I laughed when I saw another diver sitting there just looking around. It made for an interesting photo and helped with size reference. There wasn’t much head room here – perhaps 5 feet at the opening, and we couldn’t penetrate very deeply (maybe 10 feet). I took a few more photos of potential hazards and moai pieces. I decided to go in for a closer look and try to see his face. He was mostly intact and fairly large – perhaps 6 feet of him showing. His hat was broken off and over to the side, and the top of his head was buried int he sand to his eyeballs. The concrete ring which would have been around his waist was above his head on the sand. He had a rope around his neck.
All around him were several very sharp objects. I made note and took a few more photos of those. I moved about slowly and carefully. The visibility was very good but there wasn’t much room to squeeze much deeper, so I didn’t push it. I took as many wide angle shots as I could.
I looked for another entry point and found one about 15 feet to the east. It was wide horizontally – 8 to 10 feet, but not very tall. From that crevasse, I could see the whole distance under the barge, and could see light coming through from the other side, but the head room was only about 18 inches or so at the widest point. I chose not to even try to get through.
I took one more pass along the south side as I had plenty of air left. I took a look at my compass and gauges to make sure I had my bearings correct. I swam back to the middle and I sat on the sand next to the angel to observe for a while and collect my thoughts.
I thought to myself this is not too horrible as far as wrecks and artificial reefs go. It saddened me greatly to think that this huge work of art is virtually inaccessible and destroyed. However, assuming it doesn’t shift in time and crush everything, there will be lots to see and discover. There are plenty of nice hiding places for fish to be protected and thrive. Lobsters will absolutely love it. Over time, coral will grow and sea-life would take residence. I think it will be a fine place to visit, but not for a while.
As I sat there and looked at the enormity of this disaster, I reminded myself of how unstable it probably is – and how much it weighs. If it does decide to break loose or shift in any way, and someone is under it – good bye Charlie. I don’t think it is a good idea to penetrate this at all. I don’t recommend it for even the most experienced diver.
I remembered that I didn’t find the pieces which were floating earlier. I turned and scanned the horizon behind me, but saw nothing but sand. I suspect that the stubborn moai’s head is now quite a distance from the barge. I checked depths once again and took note. I swam to the drop line, ascended slowly and did my safety stops at 50 feet and another at 15.
How long did the artificial reef take to be built? 2.5 years
How much did it cost? $500,000 USD
How big was the artificial reef going to be? 150 feet by 45 feet by 9 feet with statues sitting over 20 feet tall
How many Moai figures were on the reef? 15
How many divers visited the artificial reef to investigate and document? 12
Where is it located? Deerfield Beach, Florida, USA
What was the sinking date? June 7, 2015
How hazardous is this dive site? Very hazardous. Penetration not recommended.
Here are the photos from the trip. Click on image to see larger version.