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
Searching for images to help Save Our Seas
The Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year competition, sponsored by The Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF) and organised by the Underwater Photographer of the Year opens for entries on 1st November and closes on 7th January 2023. The conservation contest is free to enter and offers cash prizes for the first, second and third placed photographs.
The Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year is open to both above-water and underwater photographs. Photographs must highlight a marine conservation story or theme, with both positive and negative stories encouraged. Freshwater themed conservation images are also accepted.
Chair of the judges, underwater photographer and marine ecologist Dr Alex Mustard MBE said: “Powerful photographs are able to change hearts, minds and attitudes. Conservation imagery is especially important from the oceans, which faces many threats from our activities. However, these issues mostly happen unwitnessed, out of sight of land or beneath the surface. This contest gives these valuable images a huge public platform.”
Dr James Lea, CEO of the Save Our Seas Foundation, said: “Images have a profound capacity to affect how people view the world, and at SOSF we are all about encouraging positive change in how people view and interact with the marine environment. As such we are delighted to partner with the Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year award, which is uniquely placed to highlight issues our oceans are facing and inspire change”.
Previous editions of the contest have attracted entries from photographers around the world, keen to draw attention to conservation issues, campaigns and success stories important to them. The award was most recently won by Thein Nguyen Ngoc from Vietnam, with his aerial photograph “Big Appetite”. The photo shows boats straining the waters for anchovies in the Phu Yen province of his country.
“Salted anchovy is the most important raw material in traditional Vietnamese fish sauce. But these little fish are also a keystone of a natural ecosystem. Despite increased fishing, the catches of anchovies have decreased by 20-30% in the past 10 years. When they are overfished, the whales, tunas, sea birds and other marine predators face starvation and critical population declines.”
The Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year, part of UPY is an annual competition, that traces its roots back to 1965. The Marine Conservation photographer of the Year is free to enter at www.underwaterphotographeroftheyear.com
The Save Our Seas Foundation has been dedicated to protecting life in our oceans, especially sharks and rays, for 19 years. They have funded around 425 projects in over 85 countries, supporting passionate and innovative researchers, conservationists and educators.
Each project strives for deeper understanding and more innovative solutions in marine research, conservation and education.
Header Image: Thein Nguyen Ngoc
Scubaverse UWP Winners Gallery: Sofia Tenggrono
Each month we give the winner of the Scubaverse Underwater Photography competition the opportunity to show off a little more of their work in a gallery. The September winner was Sofia Tenggrono.
What equipment do you use?
I work with Olympus TG-6 camera, Nauticam CMC-1, 2 Inon S-2000, minigear snoot dive torch
Where can our readers see more of your work?
To enter the latest Scubaverse Underwater Photography competition, with a chance to win some great prizes as well as have your own gallery published, head over to the competition page and upload up to 3 images.
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