Building a snorkeler’s sanctuary
Group installing reefs to draw tourists, sea life
By: Louis Cooper • firstname.lastname@example.org • June 15, 2009 PNJ.COM
When Hurricane Opal shut down the Navarre Pier in 1995, fishermen were put off, but snorkelers rejoiced.
Navarre resident Brenda Stokes called the underwater environs around the quieted pier “a wonderland.”
“Because the pier is there with the shade, it’s phenomenal what comes there,” Stokes said. “I think we documented over 50 different kinds of fish, and there’s the sponges and sea grasses that grow on the pilings. Each piling is like a little ecosystem. There’s even juvenile octopus.”
Once the pier was repaired and fishing resumed, the snorkeling had to stop. But Stokes and others birthed the idea of building reefs and platforms to create an underwater recreation area that would welcome sea life for snorkelers to appreciate. Thus was born the idea behind the Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary.
Although the project has been discussed for years, it recently has received starter money from the Santa Rosa County Tourist Development Council and the blessing of the Santa Rosa County Commission. The project could be completed by July 2013.
“This is not common in the state of Florida,” Stokes said. “One on the east coast of Florida was so popular, you couldn’t get into the park on the weekend. The ones that are in shallow waters are really popular. This is completely geared toward the beginner snorkeler — anyone who can put on a mask.”
Tourism and education
The sanctuary will consist of three components — Gulf Side Snorkeling/Diving Reef, Sound Side Snorkeling Reef and Gulf Side Observation Pier, said Mark Griffith, chairman of the Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary Committee. That committee operates under the Navarre Beach Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
“Environmentally, the reefs will improve water quality in the Sound, increase marine biodiversity and provide essential marine habitat for juvenile fish species,” said Griffith, a Navarre technology consultant and recreational fisherman. “Educationally the reefs will encourage more marine research, study, and grant activity by providing a centerpiece amenity complementing the (new Navarre Beach Marine Science Station) at the park.”
The sanctuary could pump as much as $1.17 million annually into the local economy, the committee predicts. That’s based on two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration studies of the impact of near-shore reef facilities and the study of the impact of the sinking of the Oriskany south of Pensacola as an artificial reef.
The committee believes the sanctuary will generate at least a 3 percent increase in Santa Rosa tourism.
Kate Wilkes, executive director of the Santa Rosa County Tourist Development Council, called near-shore diving and snorkeling an “up-and-coming” area of tourist activity.
“It’s not like you have to go way, way out, like the Oriskany. It’s close by,” Wilkes said. “It’s another thing to offer, enjoying our natural resources, getting in the water, whether it’s in the Sound or in the Gulf.”
Charlene Mauro Fearon, a marine science teacher at Navarre High School who has been active in the project, looks forward to using the sanctuary in the coursework at the Navarre Beach Marine Science Station.
“We will do a study of habitat and type of fish that want to call it home,” Fearon said. “I hope to run a partnership with the marine sanctuary and include my students on surveys on the biodiversity that occurs. It’s real research that we can do over years.”
Aquatic life that Fearon expects will call the sanctuary home include yellow tail, sheep’s head, gobies, blennies, sea anemones, jellyfish, squid, sea turtles and nurse sharks.
Project seeking money
The sanctuary carries an estimated cost of about $2.3 million. The Tourist Development Council has allocated $6,000 to be used for permit applications for Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The project has collected about $400 in private donations, but Griffith has high hopes for more.
“Our goal is to fund the bulk of the project using private and corporate donations and grants,” he said. “We are very interested in partnering with local corporations for both monetary support and in kind contributions for things like meeting space, printing, advertisement” and more.
The committee plans to raise money through its Web site, www.navarrebeachmarinesanctuary.com, as well as events like the Run for the Reef 5K, scheduled for Oct. 10. The committee also is applying for an IMPACT 100 Pensacola Bay Area grant.
The Santa Rosa County Commission approved a resolution giving the sanctuary its blessing in May, smoothing the application process for project.
“It will be a unique attraction in Santa Rosa County and Northwest Florida,” said County Commissioner Gordon Goodin. “In an area surrounded by water, the facility will be a natural and appropriate part of life in Northwest Florida.”
But Goodin doesn’t see the project getting significant money from the county.
“I haven’t seen a budget or scope of the project that details costs,” he said. “I’m certain the county may have some costs that it will bear (like in kind donations and administrative expense), but I would expect most of the funding to come from grants and legislative appropriations.”
Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary Details
The Phase I: Gulf Side Reef
– Planned as 22 clusters of seven concrete pilings, sunk about 30 to 35 feet below the surface in 10 to 25 feet of water. The reef area encompasses a 263-foot-by-71-foot area about 300 feet south of the shoreline at the near the center point of the Navarre Beach Park. The top of each piling cluster will be about 6 feet below the water’s surface and lighted marker buoys 100 feet from the southernmost cluster will mark south east and south west corners closed to watercraft.
– Estimated cost: $300,000 to $400,000.
– Completion: Between June 2011 and February 2012
The Phase II: Sound Side Reef
– Planned off the northern shore of the park in 7 to 10 feet of water in Santa Rosa Sound. There will be 105, three-tier, ecosystem-type reefs in clusters of five, providing 93,360 square feet of reef surface. Four marker buoys on the corners of the area will indicate the area closed to watercraft.
– Estimated cost: $133,000.
– Completion: Between August 2011 and February 2012
The Phase III: Observation Pier
– Planned to extend into the Gulf and partially over the northern end of the Gulf Side Reef to allow pedestrian access to view the reef and the snorkeling/diving activity.
– Estimated cost: $1.8 million to $1.9 million
– Completion: Between November 2012 and July 2013
For More Information See http://www.navarrebeachmarinesanctuary.com