MARCO ISLAND – Southwest Florida is about to have a whole lot more underwater terrain for outdoors enthusiasts to explore.

Friday marked the deployment of Naples Reef No.1, the first of 36 planned artificial reefs laid out over six underwater sites to be constructed using 18,000 tons of raw material such as concrete drainage pipes and electrical poles. Once completed, the project will comprise the largest artificial reef system in the entire Western Hemisphere.

The new underwater habitats, promise to be a boon for divers, anglers and those who depend on those industries for their livelihood.

"It's great for me. It's great for our divers and it is great for fishermen. I think it will be pretty amazing for everyone," said Capt. Bill Goulding, who founded Krakonoon Charters six months ago, in part, to take advantage of the new options provided for fish hunters both above and below the surface.

"The project is anticipated to generate an estimated $30 million dollars annually after two years and creates vital marine life habitats to an otherwise barren, sandy bottom," said Naples attorney Peter Flood, who has spearheaded the joint effort between the City of Naples, Marco Island and Collier County, which was funded by a $1.3 million settlement from the BP Oil Recovery Fund.

Divers and anglers alike will have more options in Southwest Florida for what was already considered a premier outdoors destination. The locations for the reef projects will also vary in depth and distance from shore, meaning that, along with existing dive sites such as the Blue Hole and the numerous ship wrecks located offshore, there will be underwater options available to virtually every skill level.

Diving, along with its companion activities of spearfishing and underwater photography, could open up local tourism opportunities based on the available variety alone.

"It will definitely improve the desirability (for out-of-town divers) to dive here," Naples Spearfishing League president Bill D'Antuono said. "Local people will have another in their GPS to go to as well. It will be a new spot to check out when we are offshore."

Although artificial reefs may not have the same visual aesthetic as natural ledges or the fascinating intrigue of historic shipwrecks, artificial reefs are just as effective in attracting a wide variety of marine life, from sponges and corals to Goliath grouper and sharks.

"You think of the Keys for some of these tropical fishes, but we see them out in our water all the time, too," Goulding said.

"Artificials aren't pretty to look at, but they hold all the same species you find anywhere," D'Antuono said.

Beginning within just a few days from deployment, the new artificial reefs will begin to attract fish. Within six months, colonies of sponges and corals can begin to take hold of the structure. Within a year, the reef site can become a habitat for sustainable populations of grouper, snapper, and a variety of other gamefish.

"Artificial reefs can be just as productive as natural hard bottom," SCUBAdventure of Naples advanced dive instructor Dan Beauchemin said. "There is nothing artificial about the amount of living organisms that will make these reefs their home, and that is great news for our local dive industry."

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