Reef Balls - a scientific approach to building

artificial reefs

by Mel Boden

(from All At Sea 22 jan 1997)

Cliff Lee-Juilleratt remembers diving the reefs in Grand Case, St. Martin thirty years ago. They were lush, bursting with marine life. "Now the area is a marine desert," he says, devoid of the fish and coral that once brought beauty and livelihood to locals and tourists. St. Martin is not alone. Worldwide, 109 countries have reef systems. Of them, 93 are now extremely damaged.

Destruction of the rain forests has grabbed public attention in recent years, with good reason. Valuable natural resources are destroyed forever; the food chain is interrupted.

Though it's harder to see, under the ocean nature and humans bring on the same destruction. Hurricanes are, of course, a major cause. Storms and on-shore construction drain silt into the once-clear waters. The sediment settles on coral, killing it by blocking light and food supplies. Since fish can no longer feed on the coral, the underwater food chain is interrupted. Careless anchor placement by yachties, divers gathering living coral and over-fishing are all to blame.

Throughout the Caribbean, Cliff has seen juvenile tropical fish for sale in local markets. And he notes, "The fish net size is getting smaller and smaller nothing escapes."

Coral is a vital link in the sea's food chain. Lack of awareness and regulation on fishing, coral-taking and mooring on reefs disrupts the interdependent ecosystem and disrupts the food chain, so fishermen must go further and further out to find fish.

Cliff is concerned about the underwater environment. He's been diving all his life, has degrees in Marine Science and Marine Biology and is currently working on a Masters in Oceanography. Since natural reefs take thousands of years to form, he has turned his interest to creating artificial reefs.

Many methods are used to reproduce the coral environment. Often ships, cars or limestone boulders are sunk, creating a place for coral to take hold. But ships and cars move with the tides, breaking up coral life and releasing toxins. They biodegrade in 20 to 30 years. Limestone has few pockets for small microorganisms to attach themselves. And all these methods are costly, requiring heavy equipment to deploy.

Seven years ago Todd Barber, an American businessman and avid diver, was also troubled by the damage to the world's reef systems. He discussed the issue with some diving buddies and they experimented with pouring concrete over a beach ball. "Because of the inflated center,... we could float it into the ocean by small boat and save the tremendous expense involved with renting a crane and barge to transport the object," Todd said. "Sinking the ball would be easy, just deflate the beach ball center." And so began an innovative company - Reef Ball Development - with a new approach to artificial reef formation. Two years of research and development followed the beach ball experiment. Five vears ago, patents were issued.

The beach balls are transformed to bottom-heavy concrete mounds with irregular Swiss cheese-like holes dotted over the surface. The holes create whirlpools within the ball, aiding in stability and simulating a natural habitat for marine life. Reef balls have maintained the same position after Category 3 hurricanes in less than 10 feet of water, and their life expectancy is estimated at 500 plus years. The concrete is pH balanced to the ocean in fact, fish move in as the balls are placed. Once the ball is in position, the rugged balloon inside is deflated slowly making pinpoint landings possible. In essence, reef balls are seed for a natural reef.

They are used worldwide for a variety of purposes - with custom additives to attract soft or hard coral, angelfish or lobster.

Disneyland used them to create an underwater habitat to be viewed from glass-bottom boats. In Cancun, Mexico, 300 reef balls were put in two years ago. Compared to other artificial reefs of the same size over the same time period, the fish population doubled, and there was three to four times the diversity in types of fish. Of special interest to sailors in hurricane season, reef balls have also been used to build a protective harbor for mangrove planting.

Reef balls range in size from 8 pounds to 8000 pounds - measuring from 8 inches to 8.5 feet in height. Costs run from $125 to $1000 US.

Cliff has become a champion for the artificial reef cause, giving talks to school children about the state of our oceans. He now operates "Ocean Trading" the Caribbean distributor for the Reef Ball Development Group.

And he's hoping to appeal to the Caribbean tourist market by developing a Reef Ball program for resorts and hotels. He envisions a two-day schedule - the first day will be educational The second day, participants will place their own reef ball in the ocean. They will register the GPS coordinates under their own name. Cliff sees the cultural activity as helping the participants, as well as the resort and island economy. Year after year, partcipants and their guests will enjoy the benefits of the reef life they've contributed. And islanders benefit by having reefs built with tourist dollars.

When asked how we can help, Cliff stressed placing anchors with care and mtaking only loose, non-living coral. Then he described fanning. "When you're diving, take a moment to fan off the reef, wash the sediment off the coral. Some divers take off one of their fins, but you can just do it with your hand. Don't actually touch the coral, that's harmful. Now just wave your hand dose to the coral, letting the water swish over the surface. You'll be amazed at how quickly the coral comes back to life - you can watch the color flood back. And the fish start feeding right away!" You can almost hear the reef saying thank you.

For more info, check out our full website at http://reefball.org/