Alaska is renowned for its wild and scenic parks, and Juneau's expanding underwater park is adding to the diversity and wonder of the state's recreation opportunities.
The recently incorporated nonprofit Alaska Artificial Reef Society is in the final stages of preparations for sinkink another derelict, the Arctic Tern, on the 40-acre park beneath the waters off Auke Village Recreation Area. The 48-foot motorsailor Rikki Tikki was sunk at the location in October 2003, becoming the state's first artificial reef.
"What's going to be interesting with Arctic Tern, because she is going to be deeper, are things going to grow on her as quickly? Is as much stuff going to grow on her?" said Su Lachelt, co-president of AARS. "I'm sure we'll get a better variety on Rikki Tikki because she is more shallow, but we may get other stuff on Arctic Tern because she's going to be deeper."
The Rikki Tikki is about 50 feet underwater and the Arctic Tern will rest approximately 70 feet underwater.
Lachelt said the Rikki Tikki has experienced a tremendous amount of marine growth since its sinking and is attracting life to an otherwise barren underwater landscape. Divers have reported seeing sculpins, decorator crabs, flounders, small halibut, cod, shrimp and needle fish take a liking to the artificial reef.
AARS co-president Larry Musarra said the underwater park was conceived to "encourage diving and enhance the diving community. Just to get more divers in the water and to have more exploration."
Musarra said the hard work of the group of cleaning and preparing both vessels as well as the preparation of the permits has been paying off.
"We're getting a lot more interest, I mean you get people who see this stuff and they say, 'Hey what's this diving all about, I might have to try that,'" he said.
Lachelt said the most recent phase of the underwater park began this past December when she saw the Arctic Tern anchored out past the breakwater in Auke Bay.
"It's sleeting and there's big waves, and I'm thinking 'There's no way she's going to make it through the winter, there's no way,'" she said. "I thought, 'That has to be our boat, because if she sinks right there, we're going to have to go down and get her and bring her up and make her our boat."
She said it took her about a month to convince the owners of Arctic Tern that the boat would be better off as a new addition to the underwater park. Volunteers have since stripped and cleaned the boat to Coast Guard specifications and towed it to Auke Rec., where it is now anchored up waiting for the permits to be processed and approved. The AARS wants to sink the approximately 70-foot ferrocement sailing vessel near the end of the summer, depending on the permitting process.
"We definitely need to have her underwater before all the boats get put up," said Lachelt. "Last year was a photo finish. We got Rikki underwater and I swear everybody pulled their boats the next day. It was too close for comfort."
Being a nonprofit organization has helped the networking process and has strengthened the relationship between the divers and the City and Borough of Juneau, which has assumed risk management responsibility of the boats in state water. AARS provides quarterly reports to CBJ Parks and Recreation Department on positioning, safety and marine growth.
"They have that expertise to make sure it's safe and it's safe for the divers," said Kimberly Kiefer, director of Parks and Rec. "And they have the interest to make sure it's safe."
"It's something that is close and people know it is a safe place to dive because it's being monitored," she said. Other popular Southeast dive locations, such as historic ship wrecks in the area like the Princess Sophia, aren't monitored for safety.
AARS has created a long-term plan for the underwater park, which includes possible additions to enhance the aquatic atmosphere off Auke Rec. Possible future additions to the park include a large barge, "Reef Balls," which are honey-combed concrete balls that form reef-like areas, large and small piles of clean rock, concrete sewer pipes and a possible underwater rope navigation trail.
"I just kind of threw it all out there to see what would stick and what was offensive to people or what they didn't think would work," said Lachelt.
"There's many different facets of putting this together," said Kiefer.
Lachelt said that although the underwater project is a grueling process, it is well worth the effort.
"This whole thing is just fun," she said. "It's brought divers together who didn't know each other. Nobody's getting paid for this. In fact, we're paying money out of our pockets."
Lachelt said volunteers have put in hundreds of hours and have spent hundreds of dollars on tools, cleaning materials, fuel for boats and more, since the park's inception.
"But that's what I think a volunteer organization is, no matter if you're freeing eagles or sinking boats, that's what it's all about. That's what Juneau's all about," she said.
Eric Morrison can be reached at email@example.com.