Artificial reef is first in Alaska

Boat sunk off Auke Rec will make habitat for fish and divers

Posted: Monday, October 27, 2003

People usually don't cheer while watching a boat sink, but Juneau's scuba diving community had reason to celebrate Sunday as they watched the 48-foot motorsailor "Rikki Tikki" slip beneath the waters off Auke Village Recreation Area.

Two hundred yards off the main shelter of Auke Rec, and 60 feet below the water's surface, the boat is Alaksa's first artificial reef.

"Boy, it was a real thrill to see her slide under the waves," said Channel Dive owner John Lachelt, who helped start the project 14 months ago. "Once she started going, boy she went real fast."

A crowd of divers and local dignitaries watched from the main shelter of Auke Rec. as the cement-bottomed vessel sank to its final resting spot. After opening several seacocks to flood the boat, it took about two hours for the craft to sink. When it was safe to enter the water, several divers went down to see the new underwater playground.

"I think it's exciting to have the first park of this kind in the state and to have the city be such an instrumental part of it," said Mayor Sally Smith, who watched with representatives from federal, state and local government agencies that helped in the permitting process.

The boat, donated by Trucano Construction, was supposed to be sunk Sept., 22, 2002, but it was delayed due to problems in the permitting process. The permit was denied last year, but after the City and Borough of Juneau assumed risk management responsibility of the boat in state waters, the process got back on track this past summer.

"It's been a long time coming," said Stu Robards, local divemaster and project volunteer. "The process has been long and arduous, but I think it's well worth the effort."

Volunteers have spent hundreds of hours in the past 14 months, including preparing the permit applications, cleaning and sanitizing the vessel, removing engines and fuel and towing it to Auke Bay from Douglas.

"This was a filthy job, this was hard work," said Su Lachelt, who helped organize the project with her husband. "We did a lot of real heavy work, girls and boys alike."

She said the volunteers never gave up, even after all the obstacles of acquiring the proper permits.

"Juneau's diving community is really strong. I think this is just a fine example of the strength of the community and the fact that a whole bunch of people from all different walks of life can get together and do a real complicated project like this to fruition," said Su Lachelt.

She said that the project would have cost tens of thousands of dollars if it weren't for all the volunteers and the help from local businesses and government officials.

"I think one of the jobs a representative should do is help get constituents' needs met and work with the government to secure permits in this case," said Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, who helped facilitate between the divers and government agencies.

"I just think there are a lot of opportunities for creating artificial reefs in town. You could make it incredible for diving, you could make it great for the tourist industry, you could perform training," he said.

John Lachelt said Auke Rec. was chosen because it provides access for divers and because it is an area that is rather barren of marine life.

"That seemed like about the best place to augment the marine life that will inhabit the area. Kind of centralize it a little bit, give some structure to the bottom here to allow for critters to grow and flourish," he said.

Robards said that the area will be useful for recreational diving as well as training.

"This is where a lot of new divers will learn how to approach a wreck and safely learn their skills, and then of course we can move on to some of the more advanced wrecks and some of the hazards associated with diving in wrecks in the Juneau area," he said. "It not only becomes a training device for new divers, but secondly, and most importantly, it will form ... an ecological underwater community which will improve fishing as well as the diversity of the things that one can see if they go diving."

Su Lachelt said she hopes the University of Alaska and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be interested in doing research projects in the immediate future.

"This isn't just for the Juneau recreational divers to go down and just poke around, it's open to everybody," she said. "The opportunities are absolutely limitless."

Su Lachelt said the divers' volunteer work isn't done yet.

"We've taken the responsibility to start it and to finish it, and we'll take the responsibility to monitor it for growth, positioning and all the compliance issues that we have to deal with. We've taken that responsibility just as volunteers," she said.

• Eric Morrison can be reached at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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