Mysteries of the Deep
Artificial reefs attract sea life, biologists … and zombies?
By Bruce Biermann
There’s something about the ocean that makes me feel small and rather insignificant. Maybe it’s the endless horizon or the relentless pounding of the surf. At times the ocean is serene and comforting, then suddenly it can become as frightening as God’s wrath. What fascinates me most is the great unknown that lies just beneath the surface, the life that we can’t see but we know is there. Some of it is big and scary, some of it microscopic. There’s so much life still unknown, yet to be discovered.
Be they monsters or mermaids, I’m fascinated by them all. I guess that’s why I feel compelled to jump from a perfectly good boat to go explore what Jacques Cousteau referred to as “the briny depths of the ocean.”
Jumping into the Gulf of Mexico with full scuba gear is the closest I’ll ever come to being an astronaut walking in outer space. My entire being feels different. Water wraps around my skin, welcoming my body in a total embrace. I float as though weightless, peering straight down into an infinite depth. My hearing is muffled, which helps to clear my mind of distractions. The sunlight dances through the water in random lines and sparkling points. All of these sensations transport me to an alien world, one in which I don’t belong.
Thankfully, there are two other divers with me on this journey. I’m exploring one of the hundreds of artificial reef structures off the Texas coast with Brooke Shipley-Lozano, who is the chief scientist from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Artificial Reef Program, and Chris Ledford, the department’s scuba diving safety officer. The Artificial Reef Program works with partners to create and maintain more than 4,000 acres of artificial reef structures in the Gulf, benefiting divers, anglers and sea life itself.
This strange undersea world is now so normal for these two that they hardly recognize they don’t belong here.
The three of us descend down the boat’s anchor line to what remains of a cut-off oil platform structure intentionally left for the benefit of the life that now grows on it and lives around it. This is called reefing a rig. Our depth gauges read 25 feet, and we can just begin to see the faint, distant outline of the top of the platform 60 feet below us. Ledford and Shipley-Lozano look as though they are taking a stroll in the park. Their ease underwater gives me more confidence.
Ledford seems rather unassuming when you first meet him. What lie just beneath his surface are a quick, dry wit and an insatiable knowledge for the physiology, chemistry and physics of scuba diving. He also possesses a vast understanding of what to do if zombies were to ever take over the world.
Shipley-Lozano is a fun, ever-smiling redhead, a little shy at first. Point to any fish and she can nearly always identify it. Ask her about the stars or plot of any major movie produced after about 1950 and you will be astonished by the database she keeps in her head.
Divers explore an oil rig that now serves as a reef.
Shipley-Lozano and Ledford make a great working pair, teasing each other and pushing each other’s buttons just enough to get a reaction, but never enough to upset the other. What one doesn’t know, the other usually does. Though they love to venture off into wild discussions of zombie movies, most of their conversations center on the undersea world they explore on a regular basis.
“You feel small because you’re in such an infinite space and there’s so much life around you,” Shipley-Lozano says. “You’re in a huge circle of life, from amoebas to huge sharks. You get in the water and you realize you’re not top dog. People think they’re at the top of the biological food chain and feel confident on land, but the ocean connects you to the reality of how small we really are. There is a spirituality to it.”
Shipley-Lozano feels fortunate to be able to dive as part of her career.
“Diving is like everything you imagined as a kid growing up watching Cousteau and The Blue Planet on TV,” she says. “I feel kind of bad for the folks who sit behind a desk all day. The excitement of jumping into the unknown never grows old. You never know what you’ll see. These artificial reefs create such a wonderful concentration of life.”
The ocean has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember.
“I could swim before I could walk,” she says. “Being born into a fishing family, half my life was spent on a boat. Oysters and crabs are in my blood. I still have a piece of paper from when I was a child, and on it written in crayon it says I want to be a ballerina, scuba diver or a veterinarian. I kind of got two out of three.”
We’re now approaching 40 feet of depth, and the reefed oil rig is clearly in sight, spanning some 60 feet from one side to the other. The ocean floor is about 200 feet below. It’s like being in a skyscraper on a foggy day and not being able to see the street below, but you know it’s down there somewhere.
The life around the eight supporting legs of the platform is abundant. I catch some movement to my left and think it might be Ledford or Shipley-Lozano passing by me, but it’s not them. A blacktip shark is heading right at me. It’s about 4 feet long, so I’m not too worried about his size, but that row of sharp teeth gives me pause.
Sleek, bare and lightly glistening, the blacktip is superbly adapted to life in this saltwater world. He glides past us smoothly, looking at us with curiosity. I know what our intent is in this watery world, but I’m not so sure of his. We marvel at his ability to appear, then disappear into the murky distance with almost no effort. The shark is just one of the thousands of varied sea creatures that benefit from this artificial reef.
“I love my job!” Ledford tells me. “On a normal dive, you expect to see hundreds to thousands of small to medium-sized fish swimming around the corals that have grown on the structure. But you’re just as likely to have a school of enormous jacks or red snapper surround you, see hammerhead sharks off in the distance or silky sharks up close. We’ve even seen whale sharks. You just never know what’s going to show up. That’s the excitement of it.”
Ledford says scuba diving is an integral part of who he is and has become part of his regular routine.
“I have a difficult time if I don’t get in the water often enough,” he says. “I get grumpy and not so pleasant to be around. In January and February, when we are not diving for the department, I have to go jump in a lake and do a couple of quick dives just to stay sane.”
From his earliest memories, Ledford remembers daydreaming of being underwater.
“My dad was a scuba diver and introduced me to the sport at an early age,” he recalls. “I remember sliding down the stairs in our house on my belly with my socks half off my feet so they looked like fins, wearing a toy fireman’s air tank that I used as my scuba tank and one of my dad’s old, broken diving masks. Every time a Jacques Cousteau documentary came on TV, you couldn’t pull me away from the set for anything.”
Marine life thrives at reefs created from structures such as oil rigs.
Ledford says he is a person of two minds.
“I find that I have a top side, surface brain and my underwater brain. The underwater brain doesn’t communicate very well with the surface brain,” he says. “When I’m on the surface, I’m thinking about all the technical nature of what we do with the gear, the dive plan and the safety of the diving scientists. When I’m underwater, I think about all the various species of fish and the wonderful, alternate world that we’re exploring.”
For example, Ledford says he’ll make a note about a fish he can’t identify so he can look it up later, but sometimes forgets what it looked like when he gets back to the surface.
“The next time I jump in the water, my underwater brain gets triggered and I can see that fish from the last dive as clear as day,” he laughs. “On land we walk around in a vertical position. Underwater we’re in a horizontal position. That alone changes your perspective and your relationship with your environment.”
Ledford says being able to hover in and around the wildlife in the ocean is unlike anything else he’s ever experienced.
“In the woods, if you see a deer in the distance, it will run away,” he explains. “For the most part, sea life doesn’t run far away, so you can still see them up close. And the artificial reefs offer a wonderful density of life that makes the experience that much better.”
Back on board our scuba charter boat, The Fling, our bellies are full from a wonderful meal, and the conversation drifts from business to casual talk. After a full day of scuba diving and data collecting, our minds are getting sleepy and wandering to strange subjects.
Shipley-Lozano and Ledford fall so easily into a discussion of zombies that I can tell it’s a frequently explored topic for them.
“If zombies are the living dead, then they can exist underwater, correct? Just like in [the zombie movie] Land of the Dead?” Shipley-Lozano asks. “So, Mr. Diving Safety Officer, what do we do if we encounter one on a dive?”
Ledford looks away in deep thought and then offers his advice in quite a serious manner.
“First, I’d suggest you wear a suit of chainmail so they can’t bite you,” he says. “And then stay off the ocean floor. Zombies can’t swim, but they can walk across the bottom of the ocean. They could climb the legs of an oil platform, so don’t get too close to the structure on your dives. I’ll have to do some research about this one. I’ll get back to you.”
Great. Just what I need — another monster from the deep to fear.
What to do if you encounter a zombie while scuba diving
1. Zombies can’t swim. They just do the dead-man float. The obvious question: “How do you make a zombie float?” Answer: “Just add ice cream.” But seriously, data shows that zombies don’t float because their decaying bodies are porous and do not hold gas. So you’ll encounter them only on the ocean floor or on a structure they can climb, like an oil platform. Stay in the open water and you will be safe.
2. Zombies are clumsy. Because the risen dead have limited motor skills and abilities, zombies are inherently clumsy. Being underwater increases their lack of coordination and reduces their ability to strike. If you are a good swimmer, you have the upper hand while in the water. Swim like crazy and you should be safe.
3. Zombies are slow. Zombies are not believed to be fast, especially in the water. The already slow-moving undead are further inhibited by the resistance of the water, thus decreasing the threat level. Again, if you’re a good swimmer, you should be able to quickly get away from a zombie.
4. Zombies might be delicious. Being underwater also presents additional roadblocks for zombies, like very low visibility and threats from sea creatures trying to eat them. Again, this is a plus for the scuba diver. If visibility is low, keep your distance or swim away, and the zombie should not be able to find you.
5. Just the zombie facts. To date, reports of zombie attacks in any amount of water are extremely rare. This could be due to poor record keeping. However, statistics show that historically there haven’t been as many attacks underwater as above ground. If you do encounter a zombie while scuba diving, be sure to report it to the local authorities to bolster the existing databases.
6. File a zombie report with the Artificial Reef Program. From our experience with tracking oil spills, we have developed a floating buoy with a satellite transmitter that we can attach to zombies for tracking purposes. The quicker we hear about your zombie sighting, the easier it will be to relocate it for buoy attachment, so please be prompt with your reporting and accurate with your GPS data.