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Dispatch from Kimberly's Reef: The Artificial reef finally becomes reality

Tom James

Weather dictates much of what people are able to do outside in Florida. Storm events, like Hurricane Ian, obviously halt business as usual. But even an off-shore breeze can prevent a job on the water from getting done. That was the next hurdle when it came to deploying FGCU’s newest artificial reef complex in the Gulf of Mexico.

Watch the latest dispatch

In January, 2023, the FGCU artificial reef project was on pause due to Hurricane Ian. Debris was still being collected throughout storm-ravaged Southwest Florida both in and out of the local waters. Dr. Mike Parsons, with the FGCU Water School and lead on the reef project, said the storm not only effected university assets by the water (namely the Florida Gulf Coast University Vester Marine and Environmental Science Research Field Station), but it also affected the marine construction company hired to deploy the reef.

"It really did a lot of damage to Fort Myers Beach, the backside of Fort Myers Beach, San Carlos Island, where Kelly Brothers is based and where we keep one of our boats," said Parsons. "There was just a lot of damage, a lot of debris that really impeded the movement of materials, barges, boats in the area as we prepared for this deployment."

Even with this major disruption to all facets of living in Southwest Florida, there was a renewed rush to get the 18 concrete culverts into the Gulf of Mexico. While the US Army Corps of Engineers permit was good until September 2023, the new concern, according to Dane Kelly with Kelly Brothers Marine Construction, was the approaching spring weather.

"As far as timing, the weather, that becomes the biggest deal for this type of project," said Kelly. "We go out into the Gulf water exposed, where nine miles out we need to be on point timing the weather."

March weather in Southwest Florida can be variable and windy. A dangerous situation for a wide barge and a tall crane out in the shallow Gulf. A situation the Kelly Brothers work to avoid.

"So my brother Travis, he will schedule everything around a weather window and everybody has to be ready," said Kelly. "'Okay, There's a gap.' You shoot the gap, do all the work and get back in safe."

To prepare for the weather gap, the culverts were loaded onto a semi flatbed trailer, and transported two at a time from the cement yard at Oldcastle Infrastructure in Cape Coral to the Kelly Brothers beach yard on San Carlos Island. Then, the entire reef team waited for the call from Travis Kelly.

Wednesday, March 1. The weather gap is a go.

Standing outside the still-damaged FGCU's Vester Field Station off of Bonita Beach Road, Parsons spoke to local news crews before heading out to the reef site.

"Today, is our first deployment of culverts that we'll be making Kimberly's Reef, FGCU's Research Reef," he told the reporters. "It's an exciting day, 18 culverts going in, six today. And then the other 12 at a later date."

Then, Dr. Parsons, his team, and the news crews piled into several boats to travel the 8 miles from shore to witness the first two or three culverts being deployed into the Gulf of Mexico.

"It's taken a long time to get it off the ground. But here we are," Parsons said with a smile.

12 miles north, the 140-foot barge with six cement culverts turned the corner at Bowditch Park Point on Fort Myers Beach and motored out into the Gulf at a measured speed of 5 miles per hour. GPS coordinates were set for the future site of Kimberly’s Reef.

Dane Kelly made short work describing the marine construction process, " There will be buoys marked ahead of time, (we) get into position, check the GPS coordinates, drop down the template, then drop three box culverts, move to the next location, do it all over again."

Dr. Parsons provided a little more detail as a culvert was prepped to become the first to establish the artificial reef complex.

"Right now, they're positioning the barge and they have pilings on the barge. (Those two long poles.) They'll be sticking those in the ground to stabilize their position. You'll see there are white buoys around in the water, that will be the center point of where they'll be putting each of three culverts."

Workers on the barge connected cables from the crane to metal hooks on each 20-thousand-pound culvert. Once secured, the crane slowly swung it’s arm over the side of the barge, lowering the culvert to scuba divers waiting in the water. The culvert silently slips beneath the surface – without a splash and without much fanfare. The divers then gently guided the culvert to its precise GPS-coordinated resting site below. The process was repeated five more times that day creating two reef modules for Parsons and his team.

Tom James

"Each one of those white buoys marks what we call the module. So three of them will be placed at module one, the other three will be placed at module 4," Parsons said. " Then, the Kelly Brothers will go back to the dock, get more culverts, and come back out at a later date. They can only do 6 in one day, so we'll see when the next set of modules go out."

In fact, the other twelve culverts went out May 2023. Helen Nobel, Outreach Coordinator for Vester Marine & Environmental Science Research Field Station and Eric Rieseberg, whose daughter was the inspiration for the reef’s name, took a boat out to to see the completion of the reef modules.

"It was it was great to see," said Nobel, "It was certainly a a dream come true."

"I was actually at peace. I think that was the the best term," said Rieseberg, "We had finally done it."

With the Kimberly’s Reef complex finally in place, the FGCU scientific research was about to begin. As they say in SCUBA parlance, the pool was open.

Major support for the production of the Kimberly's Reef documentary and dispatches is provided by Bodil and George Gellman, who believe the human spirit is behind every scientific discovery.

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