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CHRIS WEATHERLY staff photographer

Vero Beach High School senior Brandon Gibbons uses a hammer on March 11 to knock away excess debris from an opening in a concrete reef ball as a part of Sue DeBlois’ environmental science class. The class is making 25 reef balls for the Reef Ball Foundation. They will be submerged 1,000 feet south of South Beach and 200 yards offshore, at the location of the county’s new artificial reef.

Students form homes for fish

The cement balls will be placed in the ocean at the site of an artificial reef.

By Henry A. Stephens staff writer
March 19, 2004

VERO BEACH -- Cody Quinn gripped the sides of a cement-truck chute as his classmates stood recently by outside Vero Beach High School.

They all braced for the first rush of wet cement to slush down and fill a large dome-shaped mold, forming a 3,500-pound structure that will one day shelter fish.

"Tell me when you see it," Rinker Materials operator Vernon Webb told the 15-year-old sophomore as he started the mixer on his truck.

Quinn did so and within minutes, the mold was filled. Juniors Adam Snodgress and Kyle Juall, both 17, beat the mold with mallets to settle the cement and dislodge air pockets.

Junior Eric Nestor and senior James Yates, both 18, had their gloved hands in the gravel-filled cement, guiding it around an air-filled buoy and various knobs inside the mold.

And junior Chantale Seamons, 17, plugged up a few leaks between the mold's quarter sections.

"It's gooey. It's fun," she said.

And in a short while, Quinn signalled to Webb that they had enough cement to fill the mold.

"If you get too much, you get an overflow," Quinn said.

A concrete lesson

"This is better than doing bookwork in class," junior Heather Driscoll, 16, said as the class prepared a mold.

It was all part of VBHS environmental-science teacher Sue DeBlois' effort to make the class lessons on aquatic ecosystems more concrete.

"We've been studying coral reefs," she said. "But, of course, our reefs here aren't coral. They're wormrock."

Now, she said, students can build a marine habitat to help the fish, spiny lobsters and other marine life rebound from being displaced by last year's beach-restoration project south of the Sebastian Inlet.

DeBlois said her class has been making "reef balls" since Feb. 12, about two per week, and said she expects to have 25 completed by early April.

That would allow the class to piggyback aboard an artificial reef project that Indian River County is undertaking off South Beach Park.

The Bradenton-based Reef Ball Development Group invented the reef-ball design and has a foundation that approved of the students' plans as part of their education, DeBlois said.

So far, group Vice President Larry Beggs says, reef balls have been used in Lake Okeechobee, offshore in Palm Beach County and even in nations as far away as New Zealand.

"These are supposed to last 500 years," DeBlois told her class. "We won't be around to know, but that's the idea."

Sophomore Chris Mayland, 15, of Yeehaw Junction, inflated the rubber buoys within the molds. Once the concrete hardens, he said, the buoys would be deflated and removed, leaving a hollow dome shape, pocked by holes for fish.

In addition, junior Dan Washburn, 17, showed where he had piled sand in the bottom of the molds. When the sand is removed, he said, that will leave behind an uneven bottom suitable for lobsters.

"It will be like a cave," he said.

And before the concrete hardens, junior Joey Robbins, 17, added, the sand prevents the wet cement from oozing out under the mold. Robbins' job was to assemble the molds with what looked like giant cotter pins.

Sinking a project

County Coastal Resource Manager Jonathan Gorham said he wants to see how the students' concrete balls succeed in imitating nature alongside the more expensive limestone the state requires in the county's South Beach artificial reef.

Wilkinson & Jenkins Construction Co. of St. Petersburg is expected to start in May on a $4.2 million task placing 50,000 tons of limestone boulders within a 5.2-acre site at a depth of 16 to 20 feet. The company is required to be finished by Sept. 30.

The state Department of Environmental Protection is requiring the county to build the artificial reef to offset sand from last year's beach-restoration project, where new sand covered 3.5 acres of natural "hardbottom" reefs in the Sebastian-Ambersand area.

County officials chose South Beach because the county's other beaches all have natural reefs close to shore.

Gorham and DeBlois said they hope Wilkinson & Jenkins can take the students' reef balls on a barge from Fort Pierce along with the limestone.

"(DeBlois') class was looking for a place to do a reef project and ran into a lot of problems with permitting," Gorham said. "As it happened, we had a permitted big reef site."



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