Sunday, May 13, 2007

Oriskany: One year below


Pensacola News Journal
By Carlton Proctor
May 13, 2007

Scuttled carrier living up to its billing

Australia may have its Great Barrier Reef, but for serious scuba divers around the world, Pensacola's great carrier reef is the new hot spot.

A year ago Thursday, the decommissioned aircraft carrier Oriskany became the world's largest artificial reef when it was sunk some 24 miles southeast of Pensacola in the Gulf of Mexico.

The goal was to turn the 888-foot ship into an irresistible magnet for divers across the globe.

So far, divers have given consistently glowing accounts.

"I've thought lots about words to describe our dives on the Oriskany," said Tommy Smedley, a scuba instructor from Montgomery, Ala. "The only word that consistently comes to mind is 'fantastic.' The sheer magnitude of the wreck visible in clear blue water brings awe to even the most seasoned diver. Her beauty and her mystique beckon us to come back over and over again."

Rance Sackrider, who resides in Topeka, Kan., has made three dives on the Oriskany, and he's coming back in a couple of months for more.

"I hear nothing but positive comments about the dive operations and the people of Pensacola," he said. "Pensacola, be proud of yourself and the work you did to get this done."

The Oriskany's economic impact is more difficult to gauge.

The University of West Florida's Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development is in the midst of a study on the economic effect and does not yet have firm numbers to report.

What's known for sure is that the Oriskany is bringing new visitors to Pensacola. As a result, most major dive shops say they're doing well financially.

Eileen Beard, co-owner of the Scuba Shack, describes the Oriskany success as "absolutely phenomenal, incredible." She said her shop has enjoyed three years worth of business in the year since the Oriskany sank into 212 feet of water.

"Sixty-eight percent of the people who said they came here to dive said they never would have come if not for the Oriskany," she said.

But some dive-shop owners say Pensacola still suffers from a lack of tourist-related activities to keep divers here once they're back on land.

"Here's the problem with Pensacola," said Tim Thorsen, owner of Pensacola-based Viking Diving. "It needs to be promoted and pushed more.

"I've got 135 dives sites out there in the Gulf, and they are some of the best dive sites in the world, but people don't think of Pensacola as a vacation destination."

Jim Phillips, who co-owns MBT Divers in Pensacola, said the Oriskany dive site has "tremendous potential," but too many people are coming in for day trips from neighboring beaches.

"The Oriskany has made a lot of money for some people, and we're very happy about that," he said. "The dive boats have seen a tremendous increase, but the only downside is that it seems Destin and Orange Beach (Ala.) have made more of it than Pensacola."

'Playing catch-up'

Word of the Oriskany's reefing last year spread with Internet speed within the global dive community, helped along by a wave of publicity from the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and a host of major international dive magazines.

Merrick Vanlandingham, manager of Dive Pros in Pensacola, said he spends a good part of his work day just answering e-mails from interested divers in dozens of foreign countries.

"This is the most famous dive site in the world," he said.

Beard said Scuba Shack has attracted divers from all over the world.

"We've had them from Thailand, Guam, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, England, France, and we've even had some from Iran," she said.

But Phillips said a majority of his Oriskany diving customers stay in Destin and drive over for the day.

"I think where Pensacola is lacking is that there's nothing else for families to do here, other than go to the beach," he said. "The type of stuff families are looking for are shallow water, putt-putt, water parks and things like the (Fort Walton Beach) Gulfarium."

That view is echoed by Douglas Hammock, owner of H2O Below, a dive boat he operates in conjunction with MBT Divers.

He said he doesn't believe the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce understands that Pensacola is "playing catch-up" with Destin, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

"We need to be promoting the area and providing other things for people to do," he said.

"We need a water park. The beach is great, but other than bars and a few restaurants, there's nothing on the beach for families to do."

Meeting expectations

Despite these concerns, Robert Turpin believes the Oriskany is living up to expectations, and then some.

Turpin, manager of Escambia County's Marine Resources, was a key player in the intense national competition to win rights to the Oriskany.

"It's been a wonderful economic investment for the county," Turpin said. "We needed something positive after (Hurricane) Ivan. And we deserved it."

Turpin believes the $900,000 in bed-tax revenue the county spent to snare the Oriskany was money well spent. In addition, $40,000 came from local private donations and $50,000 came from Okaloosa County.

Ed Schroeder, vice president of tourism development for the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, has seen firsthand the power of the Oriskany to attract a new, well-heeled element to Pensacola's tourism economy.

During an international convention of dive equipment manufacturers in Orlando last year, he and local dive shop exhibitors were practically mobbed by interested divers.

"We had more than 1,000 exhibitors there, and more than 10,000 people came through," Schroeder said. "The people who came were like sponges for information about the Oriskany. I've been going to these type of trade shows for 18 years, and it's the first time in my life where I felt like my product was one of the most sought after of the whole show."

Schroeder said the area's overall tourism marketing strategy is changing to incorporate the Oriskany and promote it as one of the many local attractions unique to Pensacola.

But those efforts take time and money to pay off, he said.

"We have a marketing strategy base that doesn't really change much year to year," he said. "There are some nuances that change each year, and the Oriskany is certainly one of those nuances that will affect our marketing strategy."

Fame spreading

As the Oriskany's fame spreads as a world-class dive site, it's also serving as an underwater memorial to the many thousands of sailors and Marines who served on the carrier over its lifetime.

Mike Hajek, a former Oriskany crew member and resident of Cape May, N.J., said he plans to fly to Pensacola this week to join a contingent of his crewmates for the Oriskany Association Reunion events.

Among those events are an open house on Wednesday at MBT Divers featuring underwater video of the ship and images and artifacts from the "Mighty O." A ceremonial ship's bell donated by the USS George Bush will be placed on the carrier, and there will be military fly-bys.

As a tribute to crew members, living and dead, Hajek plans to visit the Oriskany site on Thursday and drop an original set of his Navy dog tags down the ship's conning tower stack.

So strong is the bond with the ship, that some families even have asked for cremated remains of crew members to be placed aboard the ship, local dive shop owners said.

The owners said they've discouraged the business.

"We don't want it to become a graveyard," Phillips said.

Veteran Pensacola diver George Jose, who has made nine dives on the Oriskany, said each time he goes down, he sees the ship fostering more and more life.

"That ship down there is creating so much life," Jose said. "It's a good feeling because the ship did not die. It wasn't cut up for scrap. The ship is still serving. It is still alive."



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