Thanks to vision, volunteers, sponsors and agency partners, a derelict vessel was transformed into a marine habitat, scuba and fishing destination. Referred to as the “Ghost Ship,” remains of an old two-masted schooner joined the ten M-60 tanks that comprise Hernando County’s Bendickson Reef on April 23.
(Above) An example of what this schooner may have once looked like
The 16-ton, 46-foot decommissioned vessel was deployed between Bendickson sites one and three. The Ghost Ship is the first Adventure Coast wreck dive site increasing the structural complexity of this underwater habitat. The ship also serves as a connecting trail between structures, adding to diver experiences.
“The Ghost Ship provides a most unusual dive opportunity,” said Frank Santo, Hernando County Port Authority Chairman. “It will likely recruit pelagic fish as they migrate north and south during their annual trek to and from the Panhandle. This will give anglers a chance to hook some large and exciting fighters such as king fish and Spanish mackerel.
“The Ghost Ship will provide a different kind of substrate than what we have used in the past.” Santo explained. “Because the open body of the ship provides for more extensive hiding places and swim throughs than the normal materials we typically use in artificial reef projects, we expect it to attract large fish as well as schooling bait fish. Various smaller fish will soon show up to feast. A wreck module like this will give sea turtles a protected resting place, as well as recruiting algae, soft and hard corals and invertebrates, which will quickly call it home.”
Affirming a growing partnership and shared commitment to protecting Florida’s marine resources, the Coastal Conservation Association donated 25 reef balls for this reef expansion. Deployed around the Ghost Ship, they help stabilize the wreck and provide habitat and protective cover for baitfish.
Underwater life from coral to crabs and fish to turtles are well-established among the Bendickson Reef sunken tanks, in place since the 1990s. This growing deep cover habitat benefits fish through all development stages and is a popular spot for anglers.
An early adopter of artificial reef development, Hernando County Aquatic Services added significantly to the Bendickson Reef in 2017 and deployed over 100 shallow water reef balls at three sites last year. Plans call for placement of numerous additional artificial reefs in the future.
Regarding the shallow water reef balls, Keith Kolasa, Hernando County Aquatic Services Manager, said, “All of the sites are located within two to three miles of the Bayport and Hernando Beach channel lighted entrances and are surrounded by seagrass meadows where scalloping takes place during the summer. The great thing about this area is water clarity is usually very good, making the reef ball reefs great places to snorkel to view all types of marine life.”
Thanks to its unique Gulf of Mexico underwater landscape, Florida’s Adventure Coast is prime artificial reef territory. Mainly seagrass interspersed with rocky bottoms and occasional holes, there are few natural reefs. Adding well-placed structures with interesting spaces ensures thriving ecosystems and other environmental benefits.
An active artificial reef development program is key to Hernando County’s long-range coastal management plan. A leader in coastal management, Hernando County is the first in Florida to bring the entire coastal zone into its published Comprehensive Plan. Adopted in 2018, the Coastal Management Element addresses the goals of Coastal Resource Preservation, Coastal Zone Development, Coastal Community Character and Protection of Marine Resources.
The Florida’s Adventure Coast artificial reef program is yielding results. Checks by scuba divers and scientists reveal that many fish species have taken up residence in the newer materials. Fish observed include gag grouper, mangrove snapper, sheepshead, Spanish mackerel, king fish, amberjack and more. Divers can enjoy watching the drama of massive bait fish schools being pursued by predator fish.
“The intent of the artificial reef program is to provide fishing, snorkeling and diving opportunities for those that visit Hernando County and Florida’s Adventure Coast.” Santo said, “Anytime you can provide something that is good for the environment, anglers, divers and tourists all in one project, well, I’d call that a home run for sure.”
While volunteer teams did the hard work of readying the sailboat for sinking, conversation often turned to speculation about this cement boat’s history.
The Ghost Ship’s history and provenance are shrouded in mystery. Locals claim the boat’s owner died, leaving it abandoned. There is evidence that it was once owned briefly by the Clearwater Aquarium. It may have even been used to haul some questionable cargo during its cloudy past. No one really knows how it came to be here, but it has been berthed around Hernando Beach for at least 15 years.
Long unseaworthy, the Ghost Ship’s cement design makes it optimal artificial reef material. A cement boat may sound like a bad idea, but ferrocement is a type of boat and ship construction first patented by the French in the mid-1800’s.
Long before Hernando Beach’s Ghost Ship, cement played a role in American wartime shipbuilding. Thanks to timber and steel scarcity, concrete ships were commissioned during both World War I and II. During the 1940’s, the United States Maritime Commission contracted construction of 24 concrete ships in Tampa, Florida. Built at a speedy rate of approximately one per month, they were known as The Concrete Fleet of WWII.
Boat building with ferrocement declined sharply after the war, partly due to problems of steel corroding and swelling within the cement, resulting in cracking and other shell damage.
Sinking the Ghost Ship was a thrilling finale to a lengthy, but worthy, endeavor. Permits, clearances and consensus from many agencies and stakeholders were finally locked down. Fully decommissioned in compliance with The United States Army Corps of Engineers means that the former sailboat is stripped of all metal and anything else unsuitable for the sea floor. With holes properly placed in the deck and engine and hardware removed, its end as a derelict schooner marks its birth as a seafloor habitat sure to attract both fishermen and divers for years to come.
As expressed by Governor Ron DeSantis in his inaugural address: “For Florida, the quality of our water and environmental surroundings are foundational to our prosperity as a state – it doesn’t just drive tourism, it affects property values, anchors many local economies and is central to our quality of life.”
In keeping with the Hernando County Coastal Management Plan, Florida’s Adventure Coast also leads the way in balancing conservation with recreation. An ambitious artificial reef program featuring unique structures in deep and shallow waters increases marine habitats, as well as diver and angler adventures for future generations.
From idea to ready-to-go artificial reef was a long journey, completed thanks to the hard work, community generosity and support of official agency partners and corporate sponsors. No Hernando County tax funds were spent on the Ghost Ship artificial reef initiative. Cash and gift certificates to cover boat fuel and incidentals were donated to the non-profit organization, Hernando Environmental Land Protectors (HELP).
The CCA’s generous donation of 25 reef balls, valued at $3,650, marks the organization’s first such contribution to an artificial reef project.
Over 600 hours of labor, boat storage and administrative work was courtesy of volunteers. Captain Tim Mullane, an artificial reef expert with Coleen Marine, will travel from Virginia to assist with deployment free of charge. Captain Mullane participated in 2017’s Bendickson Reef expansion. The two-part tow out to the channel and then to the sinking site will be donated by Tow Boat US and Captain Michael Senker.
Speaking on behalf of the Hernando County Port Authority and all involved in this initiative, Mike Fulford says, “Thank you to all the volunteers that have spent endless hours preparing this vessel for deployment. Thank you also to all the businesses who have contributed toward the financial success of the project and the generous support by the Coastal Conservation Association for donating 25 reef balls to be placed at the Bendickson reef.”