Gibraltar Artificial Reef Project - A First in Europe

Today more than 30 vessels can be found within Gibraltar's area of special interest; they are made of wood or steel, are between six and 30 metres long and carry names such as 'Batty's Barge' or 'Seahawk'. Over 200 individuals, crew men, and divers have put their efforts and time towards this first European artificial reef, which has become a showcase for many similar projects.

The Artificial Reef has taken the interest of the international media and has been featured in articles, TV and radio programs. The reef's creator, Dr Eric Shaw, is meanwhile a renowned speaker on the subject in universities and at conferences - the first being at the Third Seminar of the Sea 'Aula del Mar Malaga' in 1994. The Artificial Reef continues to attract divers from all over the globe and inspires international scholars to base their academic theses on the Artificial Reef and its colourful inhabitants of all sizes and shapes.

Phase One: Food for Canny Fish

By the early 1970s the marine life in the Strait of Gibraltar had dramatically decreased, several species which had been plentiful in Gibraltar's Southern waters of the late 1960s had suddenly vanished. This was noticed not only by local fishermen but also by Eric, a diving instructor and founder of the Helping Hand Trust. By 1975 he had located some like-minded divers who shared his passion to repatriate the lost diversity. They went as far as to implement a fish feeding station at the location of the first version of the reef to attract life to this new seabed anomaly: Daily the divers would take down food for fish, octopus, eels and other kinds of sea life.

Beforehand - during spring and early summer of 1975 - the divers had collected large numbers of old tyres from local garages. Ferrying them to the seabed in 'Camp Bay' and weighting them down with benthic stones, the divers covered an area of 40 metres length by four metres width which seemed to prove a success in attracting species. But winter came, with the winter came the storms, the reef, alas, did not survive them.

Phase Two - Engines for the Sea

A more substantial approach was needed: The answer seemed to be lying on the seabed off Europa Point: Back then this most Southern location of Gibraltar - and Europe - was the official motorcar scrapyard. Entire cars were tossed into the sea for disposal via a cliff top chute.

In a novel approach Eric and the divers hauled down cars to Camp Bay. They attached them to boats with oil drums, floated them out and sank them. Once underwater, they wired the cars together with chains. Their enthusiasm was endless, despite the tiresome work - divers just love the fascinating world under water too much. They carried down cars of all sorts, Fiats, Fords, etc. - funnily enough a Mercedes Benz proved to be most resistant to decay in the sea. Its remains can still be found there.

Phase 3 - A Kingdom for a Vessel

While Eric attempted to build a reef, Gibunco was carrying out works at the water intake within the jetty in Camp Bay. The local company used two barges as temporary filters, on the termination of works these became redundant.

Similar as to the motorcars of the day, it was common practise in those days to dispose of waste such as barges in the sea far out in the strait, where they would not get into the way of sea traffic. After some research and enquiries Eric convinced Gibunco to scuttle the gravel filled barges closer to the shoreline at Camp Bay.

The then Captain of the Port, Jimmy Ferro, had no objections. The two barges were later named the 'Spanish Barges' by RAF divers and formed the first two pieces of what was to become the Artificial Reef.

Yet again: During the winter of 1976 and 1977 storms destroyed all the divers' efforts: After they had taken down a dozen cars, they realised that all efforts were wasted due to the forces of the sea. Over 700 diving hours had produced little or nothing, an alternative had to be found.

The Reef's Flag Ship of 30 Meters & 1,000 Tons: the 482

Soon the Royal Navy joined the efforts with fenders: Steel floating platforms of some 20 metres length, four metres width and two metres depth that were placed between jetty and ship. It was not an easy task to scuttle these platforms as they were airtight. Navy divers were brought in to cut holes in the tops and sides to let water in and air out; this was achieved with underwater cutting equipment.

The most valuable piece donated by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) was a cable-laying vessel called the '482': With some 30 metres length and a thousand tons weight, it was destined to form the centre piece of today's reef. It now rests on the seabed just off Camp Bay and is dived by thousands of divers every year.

It was a true challenge to scuttle the large and heavy 482. Moreover - before a vessel is fit to become part of the reef, major works need to be undertaken. This included cleaning the vessel of all oils, fuels and objects that may float or break away as the vessel goes down. Making it safe against possible airlocks, doors may need removing or welding open - all of which can pose a danger to divers. All of this exceeded Eric's resources by far. Hence, the MOD not only supplied the vessels but also the man power to prepare the 482 for its new role in retirement.

Other ex-vessel owners came to help as well: The first large wooden vessel 'Okeanus' was followed by other wooden ships such as 'The Ark of Jesus Christ' - the former located at Seven Sisters and the latter below Parsons Lodge. All of this showed the MOD, Port authorities and locals, that no vessel was too large or too small. More and more marine operators and small boat owners donated their vessels - to make the transaction of vessels a legal procedure Eric paid a symbolic price for them ranging between one and a hundred Pound Sterling. As a result, the reef now consists of vessels of all sizes, made of wood as well as steel. It even includes large work platforms supplied by Ship Chandlers and port shipping companies.

The Artificial Reef Today

Europe's first reef continues to grow; the sandy seabed has been replaced by an oasis of highly diverse marine life. You will find corals, gorgonians, lobsters and crabs. There are sponges, anemones, octopus and eels. There are shoals of fish, small and large, from anchovies and bream, to scorpion fish and bass. Over the years, private vessel owners, companies and officials have donated not only their vessels but also their time, thoughts and efforts in order to improve the marine habitat of Gibraltar.

The last vessel was scuttled in 2008. The extension of the Artificial Reef has come to an involuntary halt caused by both the aftermath of changes in the Barcelona Convention and the collusion of the cargo vessel 'New Flame'.

In 2007 this ship collided with an incoming ship off Europa point: she came to rest on what is known locally as 'Los Picos' within Gibraltar's EU registered area of special interest. The incident caused an international uproar. The cargo of scrap metal and most of the vessel were removed. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) established, that a removal of the remaining keel and double skinned bottom would cause great damage to what is a natural reef - within Gibraltar's declared area of special interest there are only two of those natural reefs, with 'Los Picos' being the one with the greatest of biodiversity.

After much lobbying, many meetings and negotiations with Government and the Port Authorities, it was decided that it would be far better to leave it where it is situated. It was only by the end of 2009, however, that we had it confirmed: The independent EIA by the US company Polaris Applied Sciences Inc. then verified that a removal would cause significant damage, whereas the remains could become part of the reef and enhance the marine habitat.

Estimations for the Future

It has yet to be decided, what will happen to the Helping Hand Trust's possibilities of further enhancing the reef with more vessels. Even if there are several groups - including the Port Authority - and individuals volunteering vessels and help, we have to be patient. In the meanwhile, the reef's ecosystem of course remains one of our areas of research. It will take decades until we are able to have at least a more concise overview of the life we have in these waters and the part that the Artificial Reef plays in it.

One thing though seems to be certain - the Artificial Reef will outlive many if not all of us: In 1888 a vessel named 'Excellent' sunk just by the Detached Mole. The wreck is still there, and so is the life upon it. It is only consequential to assume that even if we did not sink any more boats, the Artificial Reef would remain an individual spot of high diversity for the decades to come.

Explore Online

Have a look at Gibraltar's diversity underwater: Index of Species