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Drug smuggler to fish condo: Voici Bernadette artificial reef is teeming with life

Ed Killer
Treasure Coast Newspapers

The snook, almaco jacks and goliath grouper didn't seem to mind. To them, the strange wetsuit-clad visitors were peaceful, and were probably going to be around for only a short time. 

At least that's the impression a team of volunteer divers took back to the surface with them Aug. 14. The divers were participating in a fish survey of two artificial reefs in the offshore waters off St. Lucie County. Monique Guertin of Fort Pierce, assisting St. Lucie County Artificial Reef program coordinator Jim Oppenborn, organized the dive by networking through Facebook to gather volunteer divers.    

Eight volunteers aboard three boats departed from Causeway Cove Marina in Fort Pierce and dove the hazy blue-green waters around the Curtis Bostick Reef and the recently deployed Paul Jacquin Reef in about 100 feet of water about 12 miles southeast of the Fort Pierce Inlet.

A diver swims off the bow of the former cargo ship turned artificial reef Voici Bernadette on Aug. 14, 2020.

The Curtis Bostick Reef, many anglers and divers will remember, was the U.S. Customs-seized Voici Bernadette, a 180-foot-long cargo ship homeported in La Paz, Bolivia. It was donated in 2018 to the St. Lucie County Artificial Reef program to be sunk as fish habitat.

For a year, volunteers working with Mark Music of MMPS Environmental Inc., and  Oppenborn, stripped the rusty ship of any pollutants to prepare it for its final resting place on the seafloor.

McCulley Marine Services of Fort Pierce cut holes in the hull, loaded the ship with concrete utility poles and railroad ties as ballast, and in 2019 towed the ship to its sinking spot. The event was attended by spectators aboard nearly 300 boats. 

Before departing, the group was addressed by Oppenborn, Music, Causeway Cove's Buzz Smyth and Fort Pierce Mayor Linda Hudson, a big supporter of the area's fishing, diving and boating community. 

Jacquin Reef

This summer, McCulley Marine helped St. Lucie County with 12 deployment trips of 2,000 tons of concrete rubble between July 29 and Aug. 4. The rubble was distributed in a pile about 100 yards north of the ship and is named the Paul Jacquin Reef. It's approximate GPS coordinates are north 27 degrees 23.909 and west 80 degrees 02.979.    

Oppenborn said the reef was named after the patriarch of the longtime Fort Pierce family contracting business. The materials came from a warehouse at the Port of Fort Pierce demolished last year. The warehouse was built by Jacquin and the contractors demolished it, donated it to the county and supplied funds to help in its deployment offshore, Oppenborn said.  

This was the first dive after deployment, to survey how the materials landed and whether any fish had found it.

"There is already a lot of life there," said Shelby Thomas of Tampa, chief operating officer of 1,000 Mermaids Artificial Reef Project and a volunteer diver Friday. "We had about 50 feet visibility, which is good, and we found a concrete slab, which led us to the rest of the rubble."

Thomas said her team of three divers observed a big school of bait fish swimming around the rubble, despite it having been there only about two weeks.

"There was good diversity of fish, including large snook, a large grouper and an Atlantic spadefish, which beforehand was not a species we expected to see here," Thomas said.

Thomas described the Jacquin Reef as having about 6-10 feet of relief off the seafloor and being more than 200 feet across. 

Phillipe Yersin of Vero Beach, an instructor and owner of Easedivepro.com, listed the following fish observed at Jacquin Reef:

  • Jacks — 50
  • Atlantic spade fish — 1
  • Porkfish — 15-20
  • Barracuda — 1
  • Ocean surgeonfish — 2
  • Snook — 15
  • Bait fish — tons of them 

Sunken ship

The highlight of the dive for those involved was certainly the ship. Divers were able to swim around it, over it, alongside it and explore the open cargo hold. A goliath grouper could be observed inside the ship's pilot house. Steven Wood of Port St. Lucie reported seeing about 15 goliath grouper in total.

Greg Musselwhite of Lake Park, a Republican candidate for U.S. House District 20, the seat presently held for the past 27 years by Democrat Alcee Hastings, also participated in the dive aboard his boat Reel Mussel. He logged these fish:

  • Goliath grouper
  • almaco jack
  • blue runner
  • rainbow runner
  • juvenile black grouper
  • porkfish
  • American red snapper
  • mangrove snapper
  • mutton snapper
  • a large stingray
  • snook
  • blue angelfish
  • damselfish
  • scorpionfish
  • octopus
  • a few unidentified small tropical fish
  • lots of baitfish (mostly Spanish sardines)

Josh Costas of Port St. Lucie, in a report filed to Guertin, the dive organizer, said the diving conditions were pretty good.

"Our second dive was one for the memories," he wrote in his report. "We noticed lots of bait fish, coupled with some amberjacks swimming in and out of the schools. The boat itself had surprisingly already been overtaken by coral and life! It was very beautiful. I noticed many goliath grouper, at least 15 in total, as well as a variety of lane snapper and mangrove snapper, and various tropical fish. We encountered various groupers, snappers and many lionfish."

Thomas agreed.

"The ship was great," she said. "I was very impressed to see benthic growth like algae, coral and sea urchins, and a lot of fish species. It was very diverse. There was biodiversity all over the ship."

Between dives, Steve Wood aboard his boat Low Viz Wiz, found a suspicious looking package floating in the water near the site of the former drug smuggling ship. When he picked it up and started to unwrap it, he realized it might be pure cocaine. 

More:Catch of the day for Treasure Coast divers: A 'square grouper'

The U.S. Coast Guard was called and picked it up from him. Even after all this time, the now sunken ship still can't shake it's reputation.

Ed Killer is TCPalm's outdoors writer. Become a valued customer by subscribing to TCPalm. To interact with Ed, friend him on Facebook at Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller or email him at ed.killer@tcpalm.com.