A band played as The LuLu, a 271-foot retired coastal freighter, sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. But this wasn't a Titanic moment. The May 2013 event taking place 17 miles offshore was just another workday for Orange Beach, Ala.-based Walter Marine, the country's largest maker of artificial reefs.
Walter Marine has installed more than 35,000 reefs in waters in the U.S., as well as in Saudi Arabia, Mexico and other countries. On coastlines that don't have natural protection from craggy coral and rocks, artificial reefs are a godsend for fisherman, marine biologists and tourism businesses such as snorkeling. The reefs provide habitat and sheltered breeding areas for fish and can also act as wave attenuators, reducing erosion to shorelines.
Back in 1986, David Walter owned an Alabama shipyard and scrap company. He didn't have much of a business plan--and even less cash. "I did not know where my next meal was going to come from," he says. Then he found out that Alabama allows private businesses to develop artificial reefs within an area of about 1,030 square miles--something only government entities could do in most states. With a deployment vessel purchased for $2,500, Walter started his business by sinking junk cars. Among the other items he has sunk: helicopters, airplanes, cotton pickers, semi trucks, grain bins, buses and, yes, even kitchen sinks.
In 1996 the federal government set new limits on what materials could be cast into waters, aiming to prevent seepage of asbestos, oil, gas and other materials. Walter started testing potential materials to see which offered the best shelter for fish and the most effective hurricane protection for coastlines.
"I had the freedom to experiment and develop artificial reefs on a level unheard of in the rest of the U.S.," Walter says.
Today Walter Marine's emphasis is on custom-designed artificial reefs made of limestone and concrete. The company, which Walter now runs with son Stewart, holds four reef patents, with another pending.
Private fishing charter operators and other local watermen give Walter constant feedback on his designs, allowing him to perfect them quickly. "David has tried more reef designs than anyone else I know in this business," marvels Robert Turpin, manager of the Marine Resources Division in Escambia County, Fla.
These efforts have helped build up the area's robust fishing industry. Around the time Walter started his reef business, Alabama's recreational anglers harvested less than 11 percent of the red snapper caught in the Gulf of Mexico; in 2012, it was 28 percent, according to the Southeast Fisheries Science Center.
The company has seen business grow now that funds from the settlement of the 2010 BP oil spill are giving Gulf Coast communities the cash to invest in tourism projects, including building reefs for snorkeling and scuba diving. Walter Marine has also gained attention from its appearance on The Weather Channel reality show Reef Wranglers, but most business comes from word-of-mouth. Revenue in 2013 topped $1 million; the Walters expect that number to double over the next few years.
A large freighter-sinking similar to The LuLu is now in the works. In the past, Alabama tourists have high-tailed it to Florida for scuba excursions, but as marine habitats grow around The LuLu, more tourism dollars are staying in-state, helping businesses that were harmed by the oil spill and recent hurricanes.
Additionally, Walter Marine is hoping to spur growth through privately commissioned reefs, citing the example of a project the company installed in Navarre Beach, Fla., that increased the snorkeling business there by 25 percent.
"Imagine if you owned a hotel and you had a free reef for hotel guests and marketed it as 'the only snorkeling reef along this coast,'" Walter says. "That'd really be a boost to their tourism. We are poised to go after that business."