JUNEAU The divers love it and the marine life seems to be enjoying it too. Since the October sinking of the 48-foot motorsailor Rikki Tikki off Auke Village Recreation Area, Alaska's first artificial reef has taken on a life of its own.
''The Rikki Tikki has been providing some nice habitat for lots of new critters,'' said Channel Dive Shop co-owner John Lachelt, who helped spearhead the project. ''It's providing a really neat habitat for marine life but it's also providing divers with something to see.''
About 100 yards off Auke Rec. shelter No. 4 on an average tide, at a depth of about 60 feet, the vessel is a major landmark in an otherwise barren underwater landscape.
''It's definitely an enhancement to that area out there because it's bringing in life that wasn't out there before,'' said Dave Mitchell, a local dive instructor and co-owner of The Scuba Tank. ''There's definitely more life. I've been diving here for 16 years and have dived Auke Rec. hundreds of times and there's more life by the Rikki Tikki than I've ever seen out there.''
Almost immediately after the sinking, large quantities of King crab took up residence in the once derelict boat donated by Trucano Construction, said Lachelt. In his 50-70 dives on the Rikki Tikki since October, Lachelt said he has seen sculpins, decorator crabs, flounders, small halibut, cod, shrimp, and needle fish take a liking to the artificial reef. He said he expects drastic changes and much more marine life in the months and years to come.
A project that was years in the making, including hundreds of hours of volunteer work to prepare the permit application, clean and sanitize the vessel, removing engines and fuel, and tow from Douglas to Auke Bay, local divers are now able to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
''Most people find it really fascinating because you're not used to seeing boats underwater,'' said Lachelt. ''I think it gives students and novice divers the sense that there's more to diving than just sitting underwater blowing bubbles. It gives us something to explore and something to experience.''
The vessel has been ''Swiss cheesed'' to provide easy access and safe passage for divers exploring the inside and out of the new reef.
''The thing about diving, you're buoyant, you're free from gravity,'' said Larry Musarra, who also helped kickstart the project. ''When you see this thing in the water you don't have to climb up ladders or climb through portholes, you just float through and drift along really easily.''
Musarra said the Rikki Tikki is a stepping stone to check out more advanced wrecks in the area, like the Princess Sophia and the Princess Catherine.
''With that comes the respect that you should leave nothing but bubbles and take nothing but pictures, that's the wreck etiquette,'' said Musarra. ''It's illegal to take anything off of a wreck in the state. The Sophia is a grave site so things should be left in respect for the people who perished on that ship, and so other divers can experience the thrill of seeing the artifacts that have been left there.''
Mitchell said the new reef provides training and educational opportunities that weren't available before the sinking.
''I mention (to students) that they might be able to take a dive on the Rikki Tikki at the end their course and they get really excited,'' he said. ''You can just see their faces, they're like 'cool, that's why I'm diving, to do stuff like this.'''
Because the city and borough of Juneau has assumed risk management responsibility of the boat in state waters, the volunteer team is required to monitor the vessel to make sure it does not shift or dislodge and become a navigational hazard. The Rikki Tikki volunteers have been providing a monthly report to Parks and Recreation.
With the success of the Rikki Tikki, the volunteers are now in the process of attempting to sink a 70-foot boat in the same area to add to the diversity and complexity of the underwater playground.
''We are going to try to build more habitat and draw more marine life in and make it more interesting for them to live there and more comfortable for them to live there, and of course have something for divers to visit,'' said Lachelt.
Eric Morrison is a reporter for the Juneau Empire.
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