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Dive In! Artificial Reefs Offer a Chance to Explore Underwater Habitat

Apr 03, 2022 10:40AM ● By ANN MARIE O’PHELAN

Off the coast of Southwest Florida lies a system of artificial reefs where saltwater sport fish, groupers, grunts, jacks, flounder, sharks, and other baitfish make their homes and neighborhoods. It’s the same place that divers, snorkelers, boaters, and anglers come for a visit. 

Indeed, the 20 artificial reefs, including School Bus, Edison, Dean Hicks, and ARC, are designed to be safe places to hide and find food for more than 250 different reef species. The Southwest Florida artificial reefs are in various locations from the shallow waters of Charlotte Harbor to more than 30 miles offshore. Unlike the natural coral reefs found in tropical waters, these are created from manmade materials such as steel towers, sunken ships, concrete slabs, limestone boulders, and railroad boxcars.  

One newer example is the USS Mohawk, which became an artificial reef in 2012. This retired 165-foot WWII Coast Guard cutter came from Key West. Its final resting place is 30 miles off the coast of Fort Myers, where it sits at a depth of 90 feet and serves as a Veteran’s Memorial Reef.  

“The reefs provide habitat and structural characteristics providing shelter, availability of prey resources, and improved reproductive opportunities,” says Keith Mille, biological administrator II at the Division of Marine Fisheries Management, Artificial Reef Program, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). “They also offer relief from strong currents, shelter from predators, forage opportunities for prey, and potential spawning opportunities,” says Mille. 

Compared with the Florida Keys, with their clear shallow water and easily accessible coral reefs, the artificial reefs off Southwest Florida are generally located farther off the coast. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to Lesli Haynes, marine environmental specialist with the Lee County Natural Resources Division. “Since it takes a longer boat ride and conditions need to be more favorable, the reefs do not experience the pressure that they might in a more easily accessible area. This creates refuge and contributes greatly to the diversity and abundance of fish species that inhabit our artificial reef complex,” explains Haynes. Experienced divers are quick to realize this.   

“Spring is a great time to experience the reefs as the water clarity is better during our dry season,” adds Haynes. If heading out in March or April, anglers and divers might find saltwater sport fish, snapper (gray, red), grouper (gag, red), grunts (white, tomtate), jacks (amberjack, bar jack), baitfish (sardine, scad, anchovy), flounder, shark, and other reef fish (butterflyfish, spadefish, damselfish, blenny)—all lurking in or around the reefs.  

Although the purpose of artificial reefs is to provide durable, stable, complex habitat for a highly diverse marine community, the local land community also benefits. Artificial reefs are an economic asset to Lee County, says Haynes. Local fishing and diving charters go to the reefs, and as tourists are drawn to the area, restaurants, lodging, and retail businesses all feel the effects. 

About half of all artificial reefs statewide have been funded through the FWC Artificial Reef Program, which provides coastal governments funding for reef construction and monitoring.  Since the 1940s, more than 3,800 planned public artificial reefs have been placed in state and federal waters off Florida’s coast. There are currently more than 2,500 documented artificial reefs in Florida’s coastal waters, including those in Lee County.  


Ann Marie O’Phelan is a Southwest Florida resident and a regular contributor to TOTI Media. 


Those who plan to visit the reefs for a dive or a snorkel are asked to follow rules of etiquette provided by the Southwest Florida Waterways of Lee County. 

Look, don’t touch: Avoid contact with the reef and marine life. 

Don’t rest or stand on coral: Even the slightest contact can damage delicate reef animals. 

Maintain buoyancy: Practice safe diving. Return to the boat to fix any equipment problems. 

Secure all equipment: Don’t allow your equipment to touch any part of the reef. 

Keep your distance: Maintain a comfortable distance from the reef and be sure to avoid shallow areas. 

Don’t bother marine life: Do not disrupt feeding or mating, and never provoke wildlife in its habitat. 

Don’t remove the reef: Do not collect “souvenirs” of the reef. 

Do not anchor on top of reefs! 



Lee County Artificial Reefs 

Lee County Division of Natural Resources 

SWFL Reefs