A Warship Is Reborn as an ‘Art Reef’ in the British Virgin Islands

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Sketch by Aydika James
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Sketch by Aydika James

Seventy-five years after surviving Pearl Harbor, a US Navy ship has been repurposed as the BVI Art Reef, an underwater gallery where art and science meet.

In 1941, the US Navy fuel barge YO-44 was one of just a handful of ships to survive the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Its crew managed to maneuver around the attack, leaving the ship intact to have a second career as a fishing boat, renamed Kodiak Queen.

Earlier this year, the ship was finally sunk, off the coast of Virgin Gorda, in the British Virgin Islands. But rather than a graveyard for this historic vessel, the site is giving the ship an unexpected new life, as an underwater cultural destination and marine life habitat.

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When photographer Owen Buggy encountered the Kodiak Queen in a maritime junkyard on Tortola, inspiration struck. He pitched the idea of sinking the ship and repurposing it as an artificial reef and dive site to a friend he thought may be able to help – an ardent entrepreneur named Richard Branson.

The Virgin founder was intrigued, even more so after the history of the ship was uncovered. He recognized the project as a perfect fit for his Unite BVI foundation, an initiative that encourages locals to learn to swim, snorkel and dive as a means to develop and promote advocacy for marine preservation. “It’s an exciting opportunity to capture people’s attention and then to refocus it on important issues facing our oceans,” says Branson of the project.

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Several other organizations were brought onboard, and a team of artists, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, educators, artists, governmental entities and non-profits was soon assembled to make the reef an appealing site for divers and for marine life.

Over a nine-month period, the vessel was stripped of its engines, loose debris and any environmental hazards, and also modified for the safety of divers. While the history of the vessel would already make it an interesting dive site, an added feature was developed to push the appeal over the top: a giant sea creature sculpture.

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The brainchild of art collective Secret Samurai Productions, the 24-metre long kraken dominates from the stern, reaching its tentacles across the deck. Formed with a rebar skeleton wrapped in a skin of steel mesh, the hollow structure provides an optimal habitat for Atlantic goliath grouper fish and an ideal opportunity to repopulate the endangered species that is essential to the local marine ecosystem.

“This project has sprouted many arms and new partnerships, and has become a beacon for collaboration, regrowth, and how we can create long-term solutions in truly epic ways that catalyze even greater things to exist than before,” says Aydika James, one of the project co-founders and owner/creative director at Secret Samurai. 

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Now underwater, the kraken and the ship’s deck will also serve as a platform for new coral growth, which will be helped along by an aggressive planting program before nature is left to take its course.

With the kraken’s head sitting just six metres below the surface of the crystal clear waters, snorkelers can easily view the ship, where schools of fish, baby squid, barracuda and even dolphins have already been spotted. The 17-metre depth of the seabed below puts the art reef at the ideal depth for even novice recreational divers.

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The BVI Art Reef will also function as a living laboratory, where the local flora and fauna will be monitored via cutting edge e-DNA technology. The non-invasive technique tracks the occurrence of species in the area through traces of biological matter left in the water. In addition to the scientists, the wreck is regularly visited by swim and marine stewardship programs for local kids.

In the future, more artworks will be added, and more life will grow on and around the site, making it an increasingly interesting and valuable addition to the ocean floor.

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