SAVANNAH - A hopper barge laden with chicken cages became Georgia's newest artificial reef when the Department of Natural Resources sank it about 10 miles off Tybee Nov. 18.
"It's going to make great habitat," said January Murray, who manages the DNR reef program. "It's a long and tall piece of metal material. That is what fish love. Encrusting organisms will attach to the barge and coat it. Fish will flock to it, where they can shelter, feed and reproduce. Now they have a home; it's like if you build it they will come, and they do."
The 254-foot-long barge, donated by Georgia Recyclers, was stacked with 330 steel chicken cages donated by Claxton Chicken. The East Coast Terminal Co. in Savannah allowed the use of its land as a staging area where the cages were stored and donated the use of its equipment.
The vessel had previously been docked on the back river, sitting there long enough about a decade that several full-grown Chinese tallow trees sprouted from its bow. As scrap, the combined barge and cages donation was worth about $225,000. It cost almost $20,000 to clean the vessel to environmental standards and tow it to place, according to Murray.
That's "worth every penny," she said, because the material becomes an oasis on the otherwise sandy and barren bottom off Georgia's coast.
Murray listed the expected residents: "Angel fish, trigger fish, black sea bass, snapper, groupers, grunts tomtates, basically the reef fish community,'' she said. ``Also damsel fish, sting rays, sharks, jellyfish. By building the habitat, everything flocks to it."
Georgia's Offshore Artificial Reef Program covers 52 square miles and consists of 20 offshore reefs, two "beach reefs" and eight Navy Tactical Air Crew Training System Towers. The barge joins a host of other underwater material at these reefs, including New York City subway cars, M60 battle tanks and other steel-hulled vessels. There's also a natural live bottom reef off Georgia, Gray's Reef, which is a national marine sanctuary.
Reefs are a boon to fishermen, divers and conservationists alike, said Kevin Quinn, who captained an observation boat at the site of the sinking.
"Within a week there will be stuff growing on it," said Quinn, an officer with the Coastal Conservation Association, whose Sapelo chapter facilitated the donation of the chicken cages. "Within a month it'll be covered."
Biblia Inc., a marine towing and transportation company, prepped the 580-ton vessel and tugboated it into place. On arrival the crew opened a 6-inch valve they had created in the hull. But after more than an hour, the barge remained stubbornly afloat.
Something seemed to be clogging the valve, said Biblia owner and operator William Van Puffelen, who has experience sinking more than 30 vessels. To persuade the vessel on its journey downward, he climbed back aboard with an acetylene torch and cut out a rectangular hole at the waterline near the back of the barge.
More than an hour later, at 5:20 p.m., the barge sank. But not before Van Puffelen and his crew spotted the vessel's last sailor, a raccoon inadvertently trapped aboard. It had likely been attracted by the odor of the chicken cages, he said. The raccoon made a panicked lap around the deck and jumped off the boat as the stern went down.
"We were gonna let him get on the tug," Van Puffelen said. "But we couldn't find him."
By then it was also too dark for the DNR diver to assess the barge's landing on the sea floor. But a future dive is being planned for that purpose, and experience indicates it won't be long before the barge is bustling with sea life.
Murray recalled once inspecting an underwater site where 274 concrete pallet balls had been delivered to create a reef.
"I dove in two hours after, and there was immediately a great barricuda on the reef," Murray said. "There was no prey, but he was waiting. Once you build it, they use it as habitat and they stay."