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TENNECO OIL RIGS:

ANOTHER UNIQUE MIAMI 'WRECK'

Miami is one of America's most unusual cities. From rollerbladers in thongs along Ocean Drive to the neon-hot nightlife throughout the trendy Art Deco District, South Beach and the rest of Miami sizzle with unusual people, buildings, and sightseeing.

Divers in search of something unusual just need to head past the colorful lifeguard stands and right off Miami Beach's wide sands to some very unusual wreck diving. Thanks to an active artificial reef program, Miami Beach has been dubbed the 'Wreckreational Dive Capital of the Americas.'

In many ways, the Miami area was a natural to become an artificial reef mecca. The colorful city's weather and diving conditions made them a natural fit in the colorful underwater world, as the large structures quickly attracted a wide array of marine life.

In 1981, when Dade County initiated the Artificial Reef Program, there was just one dive boat operating in the Greater Miami area. Today, the program is recognized as one of the most successful artificial reef programs in the world. The number of dive boats has increased to more than a dozen, providing everything from shallow water snorkeling on natural reefs to diving on boats, tanks, towers, and much more.

The 'founding father' of Miami diving has to be Ben Mostkoff. As former coordinator of the active program, he was responsible for obtaining and coordinating the sinking of most of the wrecks. Without Ben, Miami probably wouldn't be the wreckreational dive mecca it has become.

There are ten designated offshore artificial reef sites, with five lying between the Dade/Broward county line and Key Biscayne and another five situated between Key Biscayne and Monroe County. Most of the best diving is in less than 130 feet of water and less than two miles east of Sunny Isles, Miami Beach, and the Key Biscayne shoreline.

BLACK GOLD

In keeping with unusual dives in the Miami area, the Tenneco Oil Rigs provide a unique and popular dive site. These old oil rigs are the only oil platform structures along the entire U.S. east coast and they have become one of South Florida's most popular dive destinations for good reason.

Though they are located off of Hallandale to the north, these former Gulf of Mexico oil platforms are very popular with Miami dive operators. They are situated just 1 1/2 miles offshore, near the Dade/Broward county line.

Donated by Tenneco Oil Exploration and Production, five platform sections were sunk in 95-190 feet of water on October 3, 1985. The three within safe diving limits make lively and mature artificial reefs. These former monuments to the search for black gold are now monuments to great Miami diving.

The new reef was the second established by Tenneco Oil off the Florida coast. The first, also a complete platform, is 22 miles southeast of Pensacola. "We have shown with our initial reef that these platforms not only concentrate existing fish, but attract additional species and increase the overall production of the marine ecosystem," said Philip Oxley, president of Tenneco Oil Exploration and Production. That was (and is) good news for divers.

Oxley said that creation of the new reef was part of the company's program to convert retired production structures to reefs when it was economically feasible. "We feel it is much more useful and environmentally desirable to give a platform a second life as an artificial reef, which benefits society in many ways, rather than removing it to the shore and scrapping it," he added. The additional cost of relocating the platform, however, limits the number of these projects, he added.

The reef consists of two complete production platforms previously situated 75 miles southwest of Morgan City, Louisiana, as well as the drilling deck of another platform located 90 miles southwest of the city. Tenneco brought the towers 920 miles by barge around the Florida Keys at great expense (reportedly several million dollars), committing more than three million dollars to the entire project. The structures weigh more than 912 tons and have a total surface area of 100,000 square feet.

The three sections that are visited by local dive shops lie at 95, 105, and 115 feet. They range in size from 25 to 40 feet and provide around 50 feet of relief. Because the Tenneco Oil Rigs have had more than a decade to mature as a dive site, the abundant marine life and coral growth is evident as soon as you descend on the reef. This is a seriously mature and busy reef.

Highlights of a Tenneco dive include: the sheer quantity of fish (especially underneath the platforms); large schools of different species of grunts; pelagics like cobia, barracudas, amberjacks; huge gorgonians and tube sponges; and lots of wrasses and colorful angelfish. It's also a great night dive, thanks to lots of marine life and bright orange cup coral. Bull sharks are consistently seen and especially during the winter.

OTHER MIAMI DIVES

Besides diving the Tenneco Oil Rigs, the 120-foot Orion provides another perfect introduction to the vice of Miami artificial reef diving. Sunk in 1981, it was the first ship sunk by the Dade County Environmental Resources Management Artificial Reef Program and is still one of the best and most popular dives. It's a mature wreck with lots of marine life and coral growth.

Perhaps the most fanciful dive of all is the Spirit of Miami, a Boeing 727 jet aircraft. On the perfectly calm morning of September 8, 1993, before a live audience of NBC's Today Show, the jet was lowered intact to the bottom and anchored in place at a depth of about 85 feet.

The much more recently sunk Doc DeMilly has already become similarly popular with divers and fish. Situated just east of the Pacific Reef Lighthouse, the 287-foot steel freighter was built in 1949 as the Nuevo Rio. It was renamed to honor a legendary area veterinarian and pioneer.

Another popular dive destination (especially for new divers) is a trio of sites just off Miami Beach that has been dubbed the 'Wreck Trek' by local operators and divers. An underwater trail connects the sites with steel stakes anchored to the sea bottom as markers. The trek includes the 85-foot tug Patricia; the 100-foot steel fishing vessel Miss Karline; the unusual Radio Antenna, old Radio Mambi antennas that were welded into 19 pyramids to make an unusual dive site; and several other smaller wrecks that make for many interesting dives.

In 1994, just two miles east of the Eden Roc Resort & Spa, two U.S. Army tanks (complete with their huge gun turrets) were sunk in just 50 feet of water. As you can guess, this created the ultimate Miami 'two tank dive.' The tanks can be included in a Wreck Trek dive.

Local dive shops are also fond of the Tarpoon, which was sunk in 1988 in memory of local diving pioneer Mike Kevorkian, the founder of Hialeah-based Tarpoon Dive Center (his daughter, Valerie, still runs the shop). The 175-foot grain carrier was seriously damaged by Hurricane Andrew, but it's still an interesting dive in 70 feet of water just south of Key Biscayne.

Nearby, the 1995 sinking of the 180-foot freighter Tortuga (renamed Fair Game) brought the artificial reef program even more publicity. Sunk as part of the Cindy Crawford/Billy Baldwin move by the same name, the huge ship is easily penetrated and has already attracted lots of barracuda and other marine inhabitants.

Another interesting dive in relatively shallow water is the Rio Miami, sunk by Hugh Downs, an avid diver, during a 20/20 television segment on artificial reefs in 1989. The 105-foot tug is in just 80 feet of water.

In addition, Artificial Reef Program personnel were responsible for placing more than 650 concrete and limestone structures in barren habitats offshore in 1996, with another 400 coming in 1997. The specifically designed structures used in Miami are 6 feet wide, 9 feet long, and weigh about 17,000 pounds. They were designed by Mostkoff to be a cost-effective and functional replica of a small patch reef, with emphasis given to creating a habitat catering to the needs of post-larveal recruits and juvenile fish.

Other interesting dive sites in the Miami area include (from north to south): the Narwal (steel freighter); the Andro (originally a private yacht); the C-One (a Navy tug boat) and nearby Concepcion (a 165-foot freighter); the Crane Wreck (an old steel crane that apparently fell off a barge or ship); the Biscayne (a great shallow ship dive and night dive); the Proteus (a huge and shallow steel freighter); the Sheri Lyn (another huge steel freighter); the Sarah Jane (actually a combination of seven different boats); Belcher Barge #27 (a large barge and more than 500 tons of concrete pipe); the Belzona Triangle (a trio of tugs); the Ultrafreeze (a long steel freighter); Emerald Reef, Flamingo Reef, and Fowey Light Reef off Key Biscayne; and, finally, the Almirante (another huge steel freighter).

TOPSIDE

All of these varied sites may make you think you won't have much time to explore the area. But most of the sites are conveniently close, as are the operators and their boats. Once you try the Tenneco Oil Rigs, you probably want to stay in the area longer than first planned. Dive shops offer some excellent accommodations packages. The land is (almost) as fun as the sea.

For more specific information about diving and dive packages, call (888) SCUBA MB. They can also help with other hotel and travel recommendations. For more information the Miami area in general call the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800) 283-2707. For more information about Miami Beach specifically, call the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce at (305) 672-1270. You should also get a copy of Joel Auerbach's Dive Miami through your local dive shop or at a Miami dive shop upon arrival.