Ten years ago a mighty warship was laid to rest in a watery grave. It was death for the USS Oriskany, an aircraft carrier with battle stars for service in the Korean and Vietnam wars, but it was also a rebirth. The ship’s destiny was to sit at the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Florida, where it became, by many accounts, the largest artificial reef in the world. Today, it’s full of life.
“It’s impressive,” local diver Bryan Clark tells Inverse. “It’s really on the scale of the Egyptian pyramids, as far as the size and this awesome experience that people have when they dive it.”
Clark is the president of Coast Watch Alliance, a local group committed to cleaning up and protecting the local environment. As a technical SCUBA diver, he’s frequently enlisted by government organizations to check up on the Oriskany and the marine life homesteading on its gunwales and in its bunks.
The ship is an impressive 900 feet long, and 130 feet wide. It sits in 215 feet of water. While the top bits of the tower are relatively accessible — only 85 feet below the surface — the flight deck, bowels, and hull of the ship sit below 145 feet, deeper than SCUBA divers can legally venture without technical training.
Clark has visited the wreck about 220 times in ten years, he says. The first time he went down, it was just a week after the sinking. “I didn’t really expect to see many fish or other wildlife on it, but much to my surprise — there must have been a crab hatch at that same time, because there were thousands and thousands of tiny little crabs covering the wreck, and that attracted a bunch of fish,” he says.
After the crab infestation, activity calmed, but then slowly came back as plants and shellfish attached themselves to the ship, attracting smaller fish and then larger fish. Today it’s home to an impressive array of marine life. Clark reports sightings of whale sharks, hammerhead sharks, tiger sharks, manta rays, octopus, and the occasional rare Warsaw grouper.
Clark won’t forget one encounter with a six-foot-long Mola mola, or ocean sunfish — the heaviest species of bony fish in the world. “They’re the craziest fish you’ve ever seen,” he says.
“It swam right up to me, and then turned up on its end, as they do when they’re in a cleaning station, where fish clean parasites off of them,” he remembers. “All I could think of is that it thought it was at a cleaning station, so it turned nose-up in the air, and I started scratching it, and it kind of stayed there for a little while as people were taking pictures of me interacting with this thing. And then after a minute or so, it kind of righted itself very slowly and then started to swim away. But the texture of it was just — it’s like the hardest living thing you’ve ever thought of. It’s like the hardest rubber kind of sensation when you’re touching it. But the thing looks prehistoric. It really looks like the head of a fish, rather than a whole fish itself.”
The ship underwent a fair deal of environmental remediation before the sinking, to minimize potential negative impacts. Still, the Oriskany sank with hundreds of pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls onboard, mostly in the insulation and wiring. Studies are underway to quantify if fish populations have been affected, and Clark says he expects results to show that the positive environmental impacts outweigh the negative. “On balance, it seems to have created a significant amount of habitat in an area that is basically just sandy bottom.”
But marine species aren’t alone in benefiting from the wreck. Humans have gained, too. “If the ship had been scrapped, it would have disappeared, it would have been broken up into pieces. But this is a way for the public to continue to enjoy and have access to an important American asset. It’s provided enjoyment to a lot of people, a lot of people have become interested in the history of the Oriskany, and done research and gotten involved with the Oriskany veterans’ organizations and so on. So I think it’s a way of continuing the legacy of the Oriskany and the sailors that served on her and worked on her.”
The ship has a way of getting folks who are interested in SCUBA diving interested in naval history, and getting folks interested in naval history into SCUBA diving. Many people, veterans in particular, have had their ashes scattered or entombed at the wreck site after death.
The Oriskany reef has changed significantly in a decade. In 2009 Hurricane Ida knocked a large hole in the ship’s tower, and caused her to settle 10 feet deeper into the sand. And the ocean water has eaten away at the ship’s aluminium hull, leaving holes in some places, including the flight deck. Most of the transformation has been for the better, says Clark, providing more access for both sea life and divers. “It’s making it a much more interesting place to dive. There’s a lot more surface area, there’s a lot more things to see, and it’s attracting more and more fish.”
Eventually, the whole thing will crumble to the bottom. But Clark expects it to be an excellent reef, and an excellent dive attraction, for a long time. “I’ve taken a close look at some of the metal areas on the ship, and some of them, because it was a warship, are very, very thick metal, and still completely intact. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s around for many, many decades. Certainly in some form it will be there through the end of this century.”
Next century? Surely parts of the wreck will remain, although they may all lay quite deep below the surface, where only the most brave and determined explorers will venture.