The First Cargo Ship to Sail to Cuba in 50 Years Is About to Become an Artificial Reef

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The Ana Cecilia carried a lot of cargo in its day. In 2012, it delivered the first shipment of humanitarian goods to Cuba from Miami since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In 2015, border control agents seized the ship after it took $10 million in cocaine up the Miami River.

Soon, its decks will become the Palm Beaches’ newest coral reef.  County officials plan to sink the Ana Cecilia near the Lake Worth Inlet to add to an extensive network of artificial reefs. Since 1987, the county has sunk 45 ships, 82,000 tons of concrete, and 130,000 tons of limestone off its coast to promote coral growth, according to its website.

As Palm Beach County’s population, tourism industry, and coastal development have grown, its natural reefs have suffered under increased human use, says Daniel Bates, deputy director for Palm Beach County’s Department of Environmental Resource Management. "We can alleviate that somewhat with artificial reefs,” Bates said, “and that can only be beneficial for the natural reefs."

But Jim Abernathy, who owns a dive shop near the Lake Worth Inlet, said the Ana Cecilia will only help natural reefs if the county sinks it properly. He said some past wrecks, like the Princess Ann, the Runaway Barge, and the Eidsvag, missed their intended resting sites and landed on existing reefs. "If the ship lands in the sand, it will bring a thriving ecosystem to the area," Abernathy said. "If it lands on a natural reef that has been here for millions of years, it will destroy it at first, and then it will come back to life. But you can’t recreate Mother Nature."

Bates says the county is more careful now about scuttling ships than it once was. “We’ve learned from the Princess Ann,” he said. “Since then we’ve been better about ensuring that we have adequate anchoring, and we don’t put them down unless the weather is just right.”

Bates said the Ana Cecilia will go down far from any natural reef, alongside eight other ships the county has sunk under about 80 feet of water. The goal is to create a stretch of artificial reefs close to shore that will keep divers busy for as long as it takes them to go through a tank of air.

Katie Sandidge, who leads dive tours near the Lake Worth Inlet, said county wrecks help shelter sea turtles, spawning goliath groupers, and certain species of hard coral, which create skeletons from limestone. “We don’t get a lot of hard coral in our natural reefs,” Sandidge said, “so I think it’s awesome that artificial reefs give us some variety.”

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