Divers plan to sink former Mexican naval vessel off the coast of Rosarito Beach
For three decades, the Uribe served as a patrol boat for the Mexican navy. Now, the 220-foot vessel has a new destiny, 90 feet under the sea, as Baja California’s first artificial reef.
After six years of knocking on doors, filling out permits, commissioning studies and raising funds, Francisco Ussel and fellow members of Baja California’s diving community are preparing a major step forward: sinking the ship off the coast of Rosarito Beach on the 21st November.
Scientists estimate it will take at least two years for a full-blown underwater habitat to develop on and around the vessel, with kelp, strawberry anemones, octopus, lobsters, and schools of fish.
“The sinking of the ship will be the beginning of a dream,” said Ussel, a 60-year-old architect and Tijuana restaurateur, who is president of Baja California Divers.
The long-term vision is the creation of an underwater park that would be the centerpiece of a new tourism sector for Baja California, bringing in visitors during off-peak months, fall through spring, when the conditions are best for diving. The natural market would be Southern California divers.
In planning the Uribe’s sinking, the Baja California diving community found a strong ally in San Diego’s scuba diving community: Dick Long, former president of the California Oceans Foundation, and founder of Diving Unlimited International. An early adviser to Baja California Divers, he continues to champion their efforts.
“People are going to see Mexico as a place other than to drink margaritas,” said Long, whose group was behind the sinking of the Canadian destroyer HMCS Yukon off Mission Beach in July 2000. “It’s going to bring tourism to Mexico.”
According to California Ships to Reefs, an organisation that promotes the creation of artificial reefs, the Yukon brings an estimated $4.5 million a year to the San Diego economy, as visiting divers book local hotel rooms, dine at restaurants, and rent boats and diving gear.
The Uribe was named for Virgilio Uribe, an 18-year-old Mexican sailor who died in 1914 while defending Veracruz against U.S. occupation. Built in Spain, the vessel suffered irreversible damage to its bridge and other areas during a fire in November 2011. Ussel, who also heads the Artificial Reef Foundation of Baja California, was able to secure the donation of the ship to Rosarito Beach, which is lending it at no cost to the foundation.
So far, the foundation has spent more than $600,000 toward the sinking of the Uribe. Just moving it from the mainland port of Manzanillo cost approximately $100,000. A good portion of the funds have paid for scientific studies of the area to determine the most suitable location for the ship’s sinking.
The Uribe’s steel hull will rest about two miles offshore in an area of fine sand and mud, in Bahia El Descanso off the community of Puerto Nuevo, said Luis Alvarez, an oceanographer with the Ensenada Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education, or CICESE. To determine its suitability, scientists studied a wide range of other factors, including depth, incline, turbidity, the strength of currents, and the direction of waves.
The project has also awakened the interest of CICESE researcher Victoria Diaz. A specialist in benthic zones, a term describing the lowest levels of bodies of water, Diaz plans to follow the development of the reef around the Uribe.
“It’s an interesting project, because it will attract tourism, and give us a chance to study how the reef is colonized,” Diaz said.
Support from all levels of government – federal, state and local – has been critical to the project’s progress, Ussel said.
Baja California Gov. Francisco Vega de Lamadrid, a certified open-water diver, was quick to back the ship’s sinking, and the state’s tourism, economic development and fishing secretaries all have lent support.
The city of Rosarito Beach, whose economy is heavily dependent on tourism, has been the strongest champion, Ussel said, as successive mayoral administrations have embraced the project. Under current Mayor Silvano Abarca, the city has contributed more than $300,000, said Juan Tintos, a former Baja California tourism secretary who is now an adviser to the city.
“It’s been a learning experience,” said Tintos. “We’ve never sunk a ship in Baja California before. We’ve never promoted scuba diving before.”
The vessel’s sinking would be only the first step. Ussel and his fellow divers are planning a 100-acre underwater park, with a ship graveyard in the deepest section that would feature the Uribe and three other vessels. A shallower section would be covered with pyramids, busts and statues to evoke a pre-Hispanic Atlantis. Another would pay homage to the Titanic, with chimneys, propellers and other pieces of wreckage. A museum on shore would allow non-divers to learn about the project.
Ussel said his love for the ocean dates to his Mexico City boyhood, when he read Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” He has lived in Baja California for 33 years, but it wasn’t until 18 years ago that he made his first dive and got hooked.
He recently celebrated his 60th birthday by scuba diving in Acapulco and traveled with his wife to dive in Florida’s Key West to celebrate their 40th anniversary.
“It’s a passion to see this growth, to see these fish, to see the colours, to see God’s hand here,” he said.
Ussel said the project has already sparked interest in promoting scuba diving. Hotels are offering packages that include trips to dive in the Coronado Islands. Rosarito Beach has seen the opening of its first dive shop, and a hotel owner is planning to build a marina to serve tourists who come to dive.
Photo: John Gibbins
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Boat images by Top Class Cruising
Underwater images by Nigel Wade for The Scuba Place
The Scuba Genies head to Bonaire! Part 1 of 2
In the first of this two-part blog, The Scuba Genies share their trip report from the Come Dive with Us hosted trip to Bonaire in September 2021…
Travelling during the Covid pandemic has been challenging for some, impossible for most, and missed by all. We have been scanning the rules and regulations daily, and as soon as the UK Government allowed us, we were off!
What was supposed to be a trip to Mexico for a gang of 12 of us, just like most trips over the last 18 months, we were forced to change as the travel rules changed – we have been trying to get to Bonaire for ages, and this became the perfect opportunity – at last!
With our bags packed, negative test results and completed Bonaire health forms in hand – we made an early start for Heathrow, prepared for an 0630 departure. A quick flight and we landed in Amsterdam. As a Dutch Caribbean territory, all flights from the UK to Bonaire on KLM go via Amsterdam. In the airport, we met up with the rest of the gang who had travelled from Birmingham. After a quick layover we took off for Bonaire, where we arrived about 9 hours later. Our health documents were checked at the airport, and we grabbed our bags. It seems odd to have to fly East to then go West, but as we stepped out of the minibus at Buddy Dive Resort, only 10 minutes after leaving the airport, the sunshine and blue sky told us it was worth it!
Our accommodation for the group was made up of two 3-bedroom apartments, a stone’s throw from the water, dive shop, dock and Blennies, the main restaurant and bar. Buddy Dive also has 1- and 2-bedroom apartments along with studios, all comfortably furnished with either a garden or ocean view.
Each 3-bedroom apartment is spread over two floors – but a floor up from ground level. The ‘ground’ floor of each apartment offers a double bedroom (beds can be configured as twins or double in all rooms), a bathroom, lounge with balcony, and a very well-equipped kitchenette. Microwave, toaster, hob, fridge/freezer with ice-maker and enough pots, pans and utensils to satisfy the avid cook! On the upper floor, there are two further double rooms with ensuite bathrooms, both with balconies of their own. Each bedroom is air-conditioned, and the lounge and kitchen have celling fans. All in all, quite perfect for a home away from home for a fortnight!
The rules of group travel say we must unpack (empty bags onto floor or bed), sort kit out (look at dive bag and save it for later), put cameras together (er….NO!) and hit the bar – so being rule-abiding people that we are, this is what we did. Picking up the rental van for our stay would have to wait!
The next morning after breakfast, served in the Ingridients restaurant and right on the water, we attended the Buddy Dive orientation. The staff gave us a quick tour of the dock and resort including the famous drive thru tank shed offering both air and nitrox tanks ready and waiting to be loaded into your vehicle. Check in at the dive centre was easy… we all completed our diver forms online before arrival so with a quick hello we were handed locker keys for our kit storage. Time to head back to the room and get ready for our first dive!! That is why we’re here after all!
As with all trips, the first dive was a check dive, so we climbed down the steps into the water off the dock to go an explore Buddy Dive Reef. Finning over the sandy bottom, past the coral restoration project ‘trees’ and following well laid lines with directional markers we hit the reef after just a minute or two where you can drop to 35+ metres over simply stunning corals. This reef, just like the rest of the sites we dived, is super-healthy and teeming with juvenile fish wherever you look. Moray eels, turtles, octopi and HUGE tarpon on our first dive! What a great start!
The following day we decided it was time to explore the island. We picked up our 6-person minibus from Reception, pulled up to the drive thru tank station and grabbed 12 well filled Nitrox 12l aluminium (A-Clamp – not DIN) cylinders. With our guidebook in hand, off we went driving on the right of course, in search of marine life.
There are over 50 dive sites scattered around the coast of the main island, and even more on the island of Klein Bonaire accessible by boat. We chose a comfortable start by picking dive sites to the South where the entry seems to be a little easier on old knees and hips. We packed up sandwiches we made after a quick shop at the supermarket the day before, along with waters and a few essentials – towels, sunnies and bug spray.
I won’t bore you with every dive site name and description – the guidebook is the tool for that – but it is more than safe to say that we dived, dived and dived again! Every dive gave us far more than we expected, and the marine park surrounding the whole island delivered the goods without fail. Super healthy corals, plentiful marine life, warm and very clear water at 30 degrees made life easy. Parking the van up at the marked dive sites wasn’t difficult, and a few strides across the sand was far simpler than we had expected.
I will say that some sites are a little more challenging to get into the water from – anything more than three or four steps doesn’t float my boat! We adapted our entries for the group – some kitting up in the water, some not, but the rule of thumb quickly became step in up to thigh-depth, inflate bcd, fall flat on your back and paddle out before putting your fins on. Simple! Getting out of the water was pretty much the reverse of the above – stand up when you can, remove fins, and then navigate the rocks and sand channels before you walk up the beach. Nothing that an over-weight, under-tall chap in his mid-50’s with dodgy knees and even dodgier hips couldn’t cope with! (That is me by the way…..no offense to anyone else intended and no animals were harmed in the writing of this either).
We saw stuff – lots of it! Huge tarpon, French and Grey Angelfish, forests of Christmas Tree worms, anemones with Peterson, sexy and cleaner shrimp, clinging crabs, nudibranchs – especially lettuce-leaf slugs, coral-banded shrimp, lobster and so much more. Turtles everywhere, trumpet-fish in unbelievable numbers, and that was generally the story – all in very good visibility too! The corals and huge sponges were stunning with fascinating reef-structures offering all sorts of hidey-holes for critters!
There were some really special sited that we loved, and Salt Pier was one. The Cargill solar salt facility is easily found with its distinctive line of white salt pyramids.Each pyramid, roughly 50-feet high, can contain up to 10,000 metric tons of 99.6 percent pure salt. Even more noteworthy, in addition to the acres of salt ponds, the facility is also home to largest pink flamingo sanctuary in North America. Our very own Chloe has written an in-depth blog about Bonaire and its pure salt so be sure and check it out!
Back to the diving! We were given a hint to drive just past the pier to park where we would find an easy sand entry to the site. We kitted up and finned out through the shallows where we encountered three juvenile hawksbill turtles along with a few smooth pufferfish fighting to feed on patch of sponges, and then made our way under the immense structure of the pier. There are several platforms supporting the conveyor belts that move salt to the container ships and there wasn’t much diver-traffic to contend with. We were amazed by all things weird and wonderful – big scorpion fish hiding under the metal work, angelfish battling for food, schooling fish up above you, and frogfish! Barracuda, Caribbean reef squid, spotted drums, octopus, oh! and more frogfish! Even a flying gurnard in the shallows! What a dive! And as it is shallow, it can be a very long dive too, especially with the 200-210 bar fills the drive-thru often gave us.
Check back for Part Two of this Blog tomorrow!
Find out more about the worldwide dive itineraries that The Scuba Place offers at www.thescubaplace.co.uk.
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Egypt | Simply the Best Itinerary | 04 – 11 November 2021 | Emperor Echo
Jump on board the latest addition to the Emperor fleet and enjoy diving the famous sites of the Red Sea with this fantastic special offer. Great value for money and perfect for small groups of buddies with a ‘Book 5 and 1 dives for FREE’ offer all year round.
Price NOW from just £1275 per person based on sharing a twin cabin/room including:
- Flights from Gatwick to Hurghada with 23kgs baggage
- 7 nights in shared cabin
- 3 meals a day, soft drinks, red wine with dinner
- 6 days’ diving, guide, 12ltr tank & weights, Marine Park fees and port departure fees
- Free Nitrox
Subject to availability.
Alternative departure airports available at supplement.
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