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What it Takes to Make a Shipwreck Playground

Hardworking volunteers help Florida’s growing Shipwreck Park continually offer new wreck adventures.
By David Volz | Updated On November 8, 2022
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What it Takes to Make a Shipwreck Playground

The statue of a mermaid holding a chrome ball sits on an algae wreck in front of a sign reading "Midnight Sun"

The drinks are a little watery, but the scenery can't be beat.

Courtesy the Shipwreck Park Foundation

The world’s ultimate dive bar is in Florida. That’s to be expected. What's less expected—it’s about 60 feet below the surface of the ocean, a wetsuit is a part of the dress code, and the bartender is a mermaid.

Welcome to the Midnight Sun aboard the Okinawa, a U.S. Army tug boat purpose-sunk in 2017. On the nearby tanker vessel Lady Luck, an octopus shoots craps, a shark deals cards, and a 500-pound treasure chest rests on the deck. Divers can tour 16 staterooms, the captain’s deck, engine room, galley and holding bays, and swim through the wheelhouse. These whimsical installations are among 18 wrecks that make up Pompano Beach’s Shipwreck Park.

Divers enjoying the spectacle can thank Jeff Torode, owner of South Florida Diving Headquarters and board member of the Shipwreck Park Foundation.

“Members of the dive community come together and work extremely hard” to make the park a reality, he says. “There are many wrecks there and you can dive shallow, or you can go to about 300 feet.”

Launched in 2015, the Shipwreck Park Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to cultivating the submerged playground. It works with the City of Pompano Beach, local businesses and divers to run the five-square-mile amusement park, which generates tourism dollars while providing local marine life with an artificial reef system.

Wrecks scuttled over the last several years rest among real ruins. Natural wrecks include a 170-foot-long German freighter Union Express, which carried food and supplies in the Caribbean before sinking in 1992, and The Copenhagen, which sank in 1900 and was partially dismantled after salvage efforts failed. Others, like the Lady Luck and Okinawa, are fresh jungle gyms crafted by divers for divers.

The statue of an octopus unfurls its tentacles across and around the edges of a craps table sitting on the deck of a shipwreck

An octopus crafted by local artist Dennis McDonald deals craps aboard the Lady Luck.

Courtesy the Shipwreck Park Foundation

The first step in creating this kind of playground is finding an appropriate ship. Members of the foundation scour the web, contacting cities and companies with older vessels that have been taken out of service. The Lady Luck, for example, was a decommissioned New York City sludge tanker known in a previous life as Newtown Creek.

Once a ship is procured, the outside needs to be cleansed before scuttling to ensure toxic chemicals cannot leach out and harm ocean life. The interiors must also be cleared so diving is safe, especially for amateurs. Professionals trained to safely address such toxic materials handle this phase, according to Shipwreck Park chairman Rob Wyre.

Preparing a vessel to become an artificial reef is costly. Especially with older military ships, it can be expensive and difficult to remove all the asbestos, chemicals and oil that accumulated over time. It took about $200,000 to prepare the Okinawa and roughly $1 million to get the 324-foot Lady Luck ready for showtime. The Shipwreck Park Foundation received $312,500 from the City of Pompano Beach and the Isle Casino toward the purchase, preparation and sinking of Lady Luck. On-site events—like an underwater poker tournament, Pompano Beach Lionfish Derby and Taste of Shipwreck Park—let divers contribute to generating additional funds.

Finally, it’s time to send the whole endeavor to the bottom of the ocean. Water was continually pumped into Lady Luck, who lived up to her name with a smooth trip to the seabed in 2016. The Okinawa’s travels were bumpier. It slipped shortly after it was sunk, and a hurricane later moved it even deeper.

Five divers holding playing cards hover around a table on a shipwreck

An underwater poker tournament helped generate funds for the Foundation's wreck work.

Courtesy the Shipwreck Park Foundation

Once a ship has settled, volunteer divers populate it with art installations, like Lady Luck's card shark. At times, the creations of local artist Dennis McDonald are attached before the sinking. Subsequent pieces are added annually; these new creations are deployed after a year of public display in an oceanside park thanks to funding from the Pompano Public Arts Foundation.

All the work pays off with that first splash into the quirky aquatic wonderland.

“Scuba divers and snorkelers love it,” says Brian Donovan, assistant city manager for Pompano Beach. “These wrecks create great artificial reefs and people love to dive them."

“It is amazing how fast the ships have populated with fish,” says Torode. “We have seen a tremendous amount of sea life growth since we sank two ships a few years ago.”

Shipwreck Park is in the process of procuring more vessels to add to the madcap collection. For Torode, the eclecticism is one of the best parts of the endeavor. “We have older wrecks in the park. There is an old guard boat and ships that sank in storms," he says. "We have added additional artwork to the ships. It's just fun.”