Radical Reefs: A Photo Essay

Sunken tanks and subway cars make odd but inviting homes for endangered coral—and assorted reef fish.

Photography by David Doubilet from Reader's Digest Magazine | May 2012
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    In a marine sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico, steel pillars encrusted with sponges protect small fish and buffer the Texas shoreline against wild waves.

    Vivid coral wallpapers the interior corridors of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Duane. The ship was intentionally sunk in 1987 off Key Largo to create an artificial reef 120 feet below the surface. With the ideal temperature and currents, the reef will continue to flourish.

    It's not easy to sink a tank—or a subway car. Or a shopping cart. The National Artificial Reef Plan regulates the submersion of large objects, assuring that the hunks of junk are thoroughly cleaned before meeting their final resting places.

    Strict rules about artificial reefs were imposed in the years after bundles of sunken tires damaged natural reefs, broke apart, and washed ashore in the 1970s. This 50-ton M60 Army tank is one of a hundred sunk in 1994 to create an underwater fleet of artificial reefs off the coast of Alabama.

    The residents of the underwater cemetery Neptune Memorial Reef literally sleep with the fishes. Located on the ocean floor off the coast of Miami, columns and arches surround an eerie collection of sculptures made of cement and the cremated remains of about 200 people. Coral and algae will one day completely cover the structures.

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