Scuba Diving Photos
Trip Report: Diving Alabama's LuLu
Ever since reading about the sinking of the LuLu on May 26, 2013, I've wanted to dive her. And who wouldn't? It was a party as only divers can throw one — on the water! Surrounded by nearly 200 boats and the Wet Willie Band playing, Alabama’s first whole-ship diving reef, the former 271-foot retired coastal freighter Yokamu, was sunk early that Sunday afternoon in 112 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico.
ScubaLab Director Roger Roy and I had heard that the wreck was attracting a lot of snapper and sprouting a fuzzy coating of algae and marine organisms, so we wanted to see what she looked like 5 months after being put on the bottom. We made the 7-hour drive to spend a weekend diving LuLu and enjoying Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach is renowned for its sugar-white sand beaches that stretch for 32 miles and its inshore and offshore fishing. Suffice it to say, The Travel Channel named the 27,000-acre island to its list of Best Gulf Coast Beaches. The island boasts a host of family-friendly activities, accommodations and restaurants.
Alabama Gulf Coast Reef & Restoration Foundation successfully deployed the LuLu 17 nautical miles south of Perdido Pass off the coast of Orange Beach. According to Vince Lucido, president of the Foundation (and along for our dive), the LuLu is just the beginning — the group plans to sink two more ships by 2015 and establish more near-shore snorkeling opportunities.
The Yokamu was dubbed the “The LuLu” by Mac McAleer, the ship’s main sponsor. McAleer, a former Krispy Kreme executive who owns Homeport Marina, donated $250,000 toward the project. As the sponsor given naming rights, McAleer said “LuLu" is his ex-wife Lucy Buffett’s nickname and her restaurant’s namesake, but he said the name has a deeper meaning. “I looked up ‘lulu’ in the dictionary and it’s defined as a ‘remarkable person, place or thing,’” he said at the time.
The ship is a 271-foot coastal freighter, formerly used to carry cargo for relatively short trips to coastal areas and the Caribbean. She went down perfectly upright, and as you can see from the photo gallery above, she was very clean initially.
The day started a bit sprinkly and overcast, but the seas were fairly calm — maybe 1- to 2-foot waves — for our first dive. It's about a 90-minute boat ride from PADI 5 Star Dive Shop Down Under's marina, SanRoc Cay, on Perdido Beach Boulevard in Orange Beach. (Down Under also offers trips to the Oriskany, a plethora of other boat dives and beach diving — the two most popular sites are the Whiskey Wreck and the Perdido Pass Jetties aka Alabama Point.) The Down Under is a 46-foot Newton Dive Special. This custom dive boat has every amenity, with two large dive ladders, plenty of gear storage places, upper-deck seating, freshwater showers, a waterline platform, two camera tables, a roomy dive deck, and a very helpful and friendly crew, who were especially helpful to me when getting back on board proved challenging as the seas picked up — thanks, guys!
Despite the conditions at the surface, the water was remarkably warm — most computers were logging in the 79˚F to 80F range — and there was no noticeable current. Though the water was warm, the wind made our surface interval a bit chilly, so if you dive this time of year (fall), remember to pack a waterproof jacket and a nice warm sweatshirt.
The minute we reached the wreck, I knew Chandra Wright, the Nature Tourism Specialist at Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, hadn't been exaggerating when she told me the wreck was getting tons of snapper of all sorts, including red. LuLu was smothered in schools of fish and swimming through them was like parting curtains — just beautiful. The top of the wreck is about 60 feet from the surface, making it accessible for novice divers, but we're tied off on the bow, and we spend a good deal of the first dive exploring the bow and cargo deck in the 80- to 90-foot range.The vis is also great for the Gulf, probably in the 70-foot range. You can't depend on these conditions, but we're happy we have them. We watch a moon jellyfish getting gobbled up by a bunch of young snapper, and make our way to the wheelhouse and explore a bit before surfacing.
Our second dive is spent circumnavigating the wheelhouse, which hosts a village of arrow crabs. I missed the octopus, but several divers watched one disappear into its lair. The wheelhouse has many levels and places to explore, so even with a full boat, you can avoid bunching up. The fish schools really like to swirl around the structure, so it's a great place to practice your underwater photography. A lot of really small juvey tropicals are here, including some lovely fairy basslets.
The seas had picked up quite a bit after our second dive, but that was a small price to pay for such an awesome morning.
We packed a lot into a short weekend stay. The majority of accommodations are condos, which is a great option if you're spending any length of time, but we stayed in the Fairfield Inn & Suites. After checking in, we met Chandra for a two-hour dolphin cruise with Cetacean Cruises, which has the only Federally recognized Dolphin SMART boat in the area. In addition to slowly cruising Wolf Bay to watch the resident bottlenose dolphins in their natural habitat (Cetacean Cruises has identified and named 17 dolphins), we also motored into Ingram Inlet and found a pair of ospreys.
Dinner that night was at Nolan's Restaurant & Lounge on Gulf Shores Parkway in Gulf Shores. The restaurant is known for its steak and seafood, and take it from us, the recognition is well-deserved. And of course they serve a surf & turf entrée! You can also enjoy listening to or dancing to a band every night.
Lunch after the dive trip on Saturday was at the fun-loving marina bar and grill Tacky Jack's. You can't go wrong when you can get shrimp every which way (peel-'em-yourself, firecracker, pickled and in a salad) and not feel out of place in your slightly ocean-damp clothes and flip-flops.
Check out the Orange Beach Welcome Center on Perdido Beach Boulevard and pick up a vacation guide and other info. (You can see the LuLu logo flag that was on the LuLu after she was first sunk displayed on the wall.) You can also download the Gulf Beaches App and be kept abreast of the latest travel-related info.
That evening, we had another great dinner at Fisher's at Orange Beach Marina. Casual, open-air dining with a view of the water or gardens, and a very nice wine list and original craft cocktails, plus very nice fish tacos.
We can also recommend either ziplining, paddleboarding or kayaking with Gulf Adventure Center at Gulf State Park. The paddleboarding and kayaking is on Lake Shelby and the zipline tour takes you over the lake.
And for brunch on Sunday, definitely try the inventive Brick & Spoon restaurant on Canal Road. Enjoy Cajun and Creole-inspired dishes such as crab beignet and creole mustard aioli or corn crab and sweet pepper crepe. As long as you're indulging, you might as well build your own "Big Spoon Bloody Mary" — choose the vodka brand, veggies, herbs and spices.
All we can say is "we'll be back." Thanks, Gulf Shores & Orange Beach, Alabama, for such an awesome trip!