You may have heard that South Walton, Florida, is home to a growing number of artificial reefs! Led by the South Walton Artificial Reef Association (SWARA) and backed by a number of local organizations, the artificial reef project is attracting a number of marine species — as well as creating an “entirely new form of tourism,” according to SWARA board member Andy McAlexander. This month we sat down with Andy to learn more about the history of the artificial reef project, receive an update on the current reef status and get a sneak peek at what’s to come for South Walton’s Gulf waters in the near future.
How It All Started:
Andy, a Santa Rosa Beach resident, has been a lifelong scuba diver and outdoor enthusiast. In 2012, he attended a seminar about maximizing the potential of Florida’s natural resources and became curious about how he could help.
“I asked myself, ‘What can I do in South Walton to make both an ecological and economic impact on our community?’ The more I thought about it, the more artificial reefs seemed like the right answer,” he says.
"Not only do artificial reefs provide habitats that help protect marine wildlife," says Andy, "but they also support the local economy."
“Ecotourism is a form of tourism that’s rapidly growing. Artificial reefs draw people in who want to snorkel, dive and paddle around the reefs — in turn creating income-generating opportunities for restaurants, new business opportunities and accommodations. The reefs give people a whole new reason to experience South Walton.”
SWARA spent months learning about artificial reef construction and reaching out to a number of organizations across the Gulf to ask about their experiences tackling similar projects.
“It was very much an educational process for us,” Andy explains, “but we had great resources to guide us. Although South Walton was the last coastal county in Florida to develop a coastal reef program, one benefit of starting this project late in the game is that we’ve been able to learn from others. Today, our reef program is one of the most ambitious programs in the state.”
To get the program started, Andy founded the South Walton Artificial Reef Association in 2013. By October 2015, the group had finished deploying the first artificial reef: Turtle Reef in Grayton Beach State Park.
A Real-Time Reef Update:
SWARA has planned for a total of 13 reef sites in South Walton — four reefs that can be used for snorkeling, and nine reefs that can be used for diving. The first snorkeling reef in Grayton Beach is complete, and with a new contract and additional funding coming through, 2017 promises to be an exciting year for the organization. SWARA plans to make progress on all 12 remaining reef sites, with a goal of completing the remaining 3 snorkel sites and installing nearly 20% of the 9 diving reefs’ structures by 2018.
“Even though we’re still in the initial phases of this project, the life we’ve seen flourish in and around the reef structures is incredible,” says Andy.
Some of the most common species spotted along the artificial reefs to date include juvenile red snappers, juvenile scamp groupers, spade fish, octopi and sea turtles.
Not only will these marine creatures enjoy the reefs — the South Walton community will, too!
“The reefs will be open for snorkeling, kayaking, fishing, scuba diving and swimming — no motor boat necessary,” says Andy. Because South Walton has such deep waters close to our shore, the reefs are located only a half-mile from the beach.
The reefs will also operate as valuable subjects for research. SWARA is carefully documenting the growth of the reefs and planning to launch an educational program in the future.
“We want the reefs to be a living educational resource,” Andy says. “We’ll use them to teach residents, visitors and kids about the variety of natural resources that exist right at their fingertips. Hopefully these types of efforts will go a long way in preserving South Walton for generations to come.”
SWARA is run entirely by volunteers who are always looking for help. Feel free to reach out to the SWARA team to ask how you can contribute, and be sure to visit the reefs yourself to help witness and document this exciting project in our beach neighborhoods!