Artificial Reefs – From War to Life

Titanic is one of the most iconic movies of our time. Everyone remembers Jack holding Rose at the head of the ship as she spreads her arms to feel the breeze. Everyone will recall the teary moment when the ship snapped in half, sending most of its inhabitants to the bottom of the sea.

Shipwrecks are associated with loss of life because of war or natural disasters. Movies like “Titanic” and “Life of Pi” show heart-wrenching scenes of friends and family sinking below the waves. Few manage to live to tell the tale.

But while lost ships are indeed tragic, life returns to them. After many years, the ocean swallows this giant piece of metal and transforms it into a coral reef. Soon, sunken ships host a wide variety of corals along with vast schools of fish. 

Artificial Reefs

Artificial reefs form when man-made structures sink into the ocean and harbour fish and coral. Typically sunken ships provide a place for coral polyps to take hold and grow. 

Over the years, a colony of corals spring up, which in turn attracts fish. Fish are drawn to reefs because they provide food and spots to hide from predators. 

Photo by John Cahil Rom on

These reefs are located around the world. Take the Graveyard of the Atlantic, a section of the sea off the coast of North Carolina, USA. Hundreds of ships were sunk here by German U-boats during the world war. But now, several decades later, these have turned into thriving reefs, abounding with life. 

While many artificial reefs are created accidentally, people worldwide have begun forming them intentionally. They deliberately sink old ships and other structures (old bikes, boats, etc.) on an otherwise featureless sea floor. This boosts the local fish population, a massive help to fishermen. Furthermore, wrecks draw intrepid scuba divers. Wreck diving is famous across the world, thus promoting tourism. 

Who would have thought that sinking an enormous, useless object like a damaged ship to the bottom of the ocean could be beneficial?

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I have dove on artificial reefs, and I can say it is a bizarre experience. Swimming through ships that you’d typically walk through is mind-boggling. Each inch is covered with hydroids, sponges and coral, giving it an alien look.

How long does a ship take to become an Artificial Reef?

I wondered how much time under the ocean was required to transform a ship into a reef. Luckily, Jonathan Bird, host of the dive show BlueWorldTV (One of my absolute favourites), had the same question. He set out diving around the world in search of an answer

He found that 25 years is a good time for a ship to completely embrace its new role as a home for fish and coral. By this time, a good amount of coral would have accumulated to host a healthy fish populace. So think about the reefs on ships from the World Wars!

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on

Not all these ships are conducive to diving. Many are in deep water, beyond the depths of conventional scuba diving. Moreover, sunken warships may still hold live ammunition (yes, even after all these years). 

There is something poetic about warships turning into havens for life. Thousands of lifeforms live there amongst the sunken cannons and ammunition. These structures now fulfil a purpose that far surpasses that for which they were made. 

Watch this video of some exciting shark behaviour around old WW2 shipwrecks!

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Published by Ishan Shanavas

I am a young adult, interested in nature, photography, art and culture. An aspiring polymath, I share my learnings through my blog. I also include insights from my favourite books.

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