You can fool Mother
By Cherie Jacobs Lane
Todd Barber is banking on something fishy happening.
Well, actually, many things fishy.
34, is president of Reef Ball Development, a young company that has
created an unusual object to be used under water as an artificial
reef. What started out as an environmental hobby has grown into a
business that has attracted customers from around the world.
Reef balls are dome-shaped concrete blobs, with Swiss cheese-like
The concrete's uneven surfaces encourage the growth of algae,
barnacles and coral. The holes allow fish to congregate and hide -
and escape bigger fish.
``What we want to do is mimic Mother Nature,'' Barber said.
1,000 of Barber's reef balls are in the waters off Manatee, Sarasota
and Charlotte counties. Another 1,000 will be added this year. About
40,000 reef balls are under eight oceans, seas or gulfs around the
Barber, an avid scuba diver since he was 15, came up with the
idea for reef balls several years ago because he wanted to dive near
something more realistic-looking than what was available. Often
artificial reefs are old train cars, sunken ships or crumbled
``You see these, basically, trash heaps that you're diving on,''
he said. ``We were tired of looking at square boxes or ships. We
just wanted to have real reefs.''
He and about 15 of his diving and college buddies spent a week
working on the first reef balls in 1992. Now, they have perfected
the design and created Reef Ball Development.
Barber moved the company from Atlanta, where most of the people
lived, to south Manatee County in August because of its access to
the Gulf of Mexico and because he preferred it to Florida's east
Most artificial reefs, as Barber says, are glorified garbage
heaps. If you put anything in the water, things will grow on it,
`` `What do we have and we want to get rid of that we can make a
reef out of?' '' said Jim Culter, a staff scientist with Mote Marine
Laboratories who specializes in the sea bottom.
Typically, reefs are formed from concrete drainage culverts, old
boats, junk cars, fiberglass boat molds, old ships, tires, even
But metal rusts. Wood dissolves. Fiberglass and tires float
around too much. For creating a long-term reef, none of those
materials is ideal.
About five years ago - just as Barber and his buddies were
forming Reef Ball Development - researchers began realizing that the
best reefs weren't made of junk tossed into the water, but objects
that were specifically intended to become reefs.
``Reef Ball got lucky to come up with an idea just as the
scientists were telling us this was a good idea,'' said Mike Solum,
an environmental specialist who runs Sarasota County's reef program.
Barber chuckles at the thought.
``Part of that was just good timing,'' Barber said. ``And part of
that was doing good market research. There's been people out there
with ideas like this, but you've got to have an economic reason to
balls vary in size, but the most common ones start at $80 for a
small one that is 3 feet wide and 2 feet tall, and go up to $300 for
a large one, that is 6 feet wide and 4 feet tall.
``They're more expensive than just having concrete rubble donated
to you,'' said John Stevely, Florida Sea Grant extension agent for
Sarasota and Tampa bays. ``(But) I am fairly well convinced that
they are a better reef material than simple concrete rubble. Reef
Balls do provide spaces and holes.''
Plus, with concrete rubble, a barge is needed to haul it into the
water, and officials have no control over the final height or shape
of the pile.
Reef balls are far more portable.
With inflatable buoys, reef balls can be towed by a small boat.
Deflate one of the buoys and the reef ball sinks to the bottom. Even
the large ones - at 4,000 pounds - can be towed with buoys by a
canoe or water scooter, Barber said.
Reef balls are good in shallow water, and concrete lasts longer
than old tires or rusting ships.
``If you're using taxpayer dollars, there's (got to be) a
guarantee that those materials are going to last for a minimum of 20
years,'' Solum said. ``Boxcars don't do that. Old boats don't do
that. Sunken ships don't do that. Concrete does.''
Barber said he's sure his reef balls will last a minimum of 500
Barber and his dad were vacationing in the Cayman Islands,
lamenting the decline of reefs in the late 1980s.
They came up with an idea for a new kind of reef. They wanted to
cover a beach ball with concrete, float it out to sea, and pop the
beach ball, sinking it to the bottom.
But would it work? Barber, then a business consultant, and his
dad, who owned an amusement park-ride company, worked with some
engineers and scientists they knew to perfect the idea. In July
1992, they conducted an experiment.
They spent a week in West Palm Beach trying to bring their idea
into reality, working with what is now the Florida Department of
Environmental Protection. Sixteen people spent the week drinking
beer and wrapping chicken wire around beach balls.
At that time, they didn't even know how to mix cement. A
stranger walked up and showed them how to do it. They used 27
different kinds of cement - whatever they could pick up at Home
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It took them all week, but they made three primitive reef balls.
The balls weren't stable enough - they were round and rolled a bit.
But they worked.
For the next six months, Barber attended artificial reef
coordinator meetings, which taught him the basics of reef-building.
For another two years, the men refined the design into the current
Now the reef ball is dome-shaped and heavy, stable enough to
survive a hurricane. It is patented and copyrighted. The company has
become skilled at handling the complicated permit process.
It also has streamlined production, using pH-balanced concrete,
though some scientists dispute whether that's really necessary.
Although they are uniform in shape, no two reef balls are
identical because the holes are made individually. The holes -
called vortex holes, which means they create tiny whirlpools - are
created by putting inflatable objects into the wet cement, such as
balls and rubber gloves.
company has 12 certified contractors, such as concrete or barge
companies, that pour the molds and ship the reef balls. Four of the
contractors are in Florida, the closest being Orlando.
Reef Ball Development gets 10 percent of the contractors' sales.
That money pays for running the office and for marketing.
The contractor arrangement works well for the company. For
example, Sarasota County opened a bid earlier this month for 200
reef balls to be placed six miles off New Pass. Five contractors bid
on the project, and no matter which company won - Coastal Reef
Builders in Pensacola was the lowest bidder - Reef Ball Development
``It was kind of a labor of love when we got into it,'' said Jay
Jorgensen, office manager. ``We never expected to make any money on
So far they haven't. Their original goal was to put as many
artificial reefs under water as they could. The company has broken
even for the past two years, Barber said.
The company has repaid the people who contributed money to its
startup - Barber spent $56,000, which he has gotten back.
Tecnically the company has no employees because none of the 25
people involved in it is paid. Most of them are in Atlanta. Three
people run the one-room office in south Manatee County, which fronts
Sarasota Bay about two miles from Sarasota-Bradenton International
Barber hopes this year will be the first that the company turns a
profit. He said it could also be the first that the firm's officers
pay themselves salaries, depending on finances.
They are counting on growth in international business, which
makes up 70 percent of their sales, Barber said. Many foreign
clients buy reef balls through the company's Web site and
communicate with it solely through electronic mail.
And as more governments in waterfront communities turn to
specially designed reefs, Barber is hoping for more grant-sponsored
projects such as the one awarded to Sarasota County earlier this
Sarasota will receive $25,000 this summer from the DEP to add 200
reef balls to the 450 already under water. The new reef balls will
be placed in the Gulf, where they will link a series of old military
tanks that were sunk several years ago.
The county and Mote have also applied for another $25,000 grant
from DEP to put 50 reef balls as part of a project to repair the
dredged bottom of Sarasota Bay.
With numerous projects nearby, Barber can visit reef balls that
have been under water for a while, to see the progress.
``It's absolutely awesome,'' Barber said. ``We see fish
everywhere, growth. It really makes you feel good.
``It's just sheer wonderment,'' Barber said. ``Remember when you
were a kid and you were in the woods, you're 5 years old and your
grandpa's holding you by the hand. `Oh, that's a butterfly.' There's
always something new around every turn. It's impossible to think
about 9-to-5, or anything else.''
Is your scout troop or non-profit group interested in starting a
reef? The Reef Ball Foundation provides molds at no cost. You
provide the concrete and the labor. To apply electronically, go to
the foundation's web site at www.reefball.org, or call (941)
Story Filed By The HERALD TRIBUNE, SARASOTA, FLORIDA