No, you haven’t read that title wrong. And no, it’s not a typo either.
We’ve heard of Australia’s beautiful Great Barrier Reef, but one diver’s paradise we’ve not heard so much about is the Great Carrier Reef.
24 miles from the coast on Pensacola, sitting at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, is the USS Oriskany – an 888-foot former US Navy Aircraft Carrier.
The World’s Largest Recycled Man-Made Reef.
The Great Carrier Reef was “created” on the 17th of May, 2006, when the US Navy towed the retired carrier out to sea, filled it with 500 pounds of strategically placed explosives, then detonated them in a series of tactical bursts.
After only 37 minutes and decades of storied service at sea, the USS Oriskany was laid to rest forever below the waves she once strode upon.
Although this was the end of the USS Oriskany’s life, it was also the beginning of its second life. At the time, it was the world’s largest man-made reef, but that title has since gone to one in the Mexican Caribbean.
However, the one built there was purposefully built for the occasion, and as such the USS Oriskany – or Great Carrier Reef as it’s now become known by the divers who frequent the spot – is the world’s largest man-made reef made out of recycled materials.
A Storied and Colorful History.
Commissioned in 1950, not long after the close of World War II, the USS Oriskany was a revolutionary ship of her era.
Originally designed as a “long-hulled” carrier, the USS Oriskany was renowned for her gargantuan size, huge payload of aircraft, and ability to travel at speeds far greater than that of her contemporaries.
She was so strong and fierce that her crew nicknamed her Mighty O.
A ship renowned for its “firsts,” the USS Oriskany hosted an iconic ballet performance on her deck whilst she was docked in Manhattan during 1952. She also cameoed in several different movies over her time.
Seeing deployment mainly in the Pacific, the USS Oriskany saw heavy action in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War – earning two service stars for her service in the former and five for her service in the latter.
In 1966, the USS Oriskany suffered one of the world’s biggest naval fires when a deposit of magnesium on board caught ablaze, killing four sailors. But she recovered from this and was able to return to active service.
After an extensive service history, the USS Oriskany was decommissioned in 1976 and sold for scrap in 1995. Although she was repossessed by the Navy in 1997 due to the lack of scrapping works taking place.
In 2004, it was decided she would be sunk and turned into an artificial reef.
Both an Economic And Natural Boom.
Although the USS Oriskany once cut through the waves like a hot knife through butter, nowadays, underwater, she sits still as the waves break over her.
When the underwater currents smash against the superstructure of the sunken carrier, they form stationary waves and trap tiny plankton to it that would otherwise be swept along with the flow.
The Great Carrier Reef features its very own ecosystem, with small fish following the plankton, bigger fish like scamp groupers and red snappers following the small fish, and hammerhead and tiger sharks following the bigger fish.
Within the ship’s interior live the ocean crustaceans. Only one short week after her sinking, divers reported that the USS Oriskany had already been colonized by tiny new-born baby crabs.
The ship’s tower is covered in sea urchins and barnacles, with barracuda patrolling the empty windows, and rays dipping in and out of holes in the eroded flight deck.
The artificial reef is a great booster to the local economy too. The fishermen who sail these waters have a steady supply of congregating seafood to fish.
It also attracts many divers to the region; after all it offers divers an ideal exploration scenario – a sunken ship.
From time to time, those who once served and lived on the USS Oriskany dive to visit her. Some former veterans of the USS Oriskany have also had their ashes interred there, eternally resting with her beneath the waves.
A Unique Ecosystem.
The USS Oriskany is the largest ship that has ever been made into an artificial reef, although it isn’t exactly the only one.
Many ships, naval and civilian, have been sunk to create artificial reefs, including other former Navy vessels such as the minesweeper USS Scrimmage off the coast of Hawaii.
Housing sea life from urchins to sharks, crabs to rays, these artificial reefs help give nature a helping hand, having ecosystems develop around them and slowly becoming part of their surroundings.
Not only this but they bolster the economies of towns local to them, and draw divers in with their juxtapositional beauty.
Once a mighty weapon of war as the USS Oriskany, the now-Great Carrier Reef has become a catalyst and an anchor for nature in its second life.