By Humphrey Carter
BY this time next year, the retired Spanish frigate Baleares should be nearly ready to be sunk off the coast of Calvia on the edge of the Malgrats marine reserve. The Bulletin has had exclusive access to the final project to create an artificial reef and revive an area of extreme marine importance off the coast of El Toro which is now being studied by the Ministry for Agriculture and Fisheries in Madrid. Calvia Council hope the project will be given the green light before Christmas. Calvia's director general of Strategic Development, Antonio Ramis Alos, the man in charge of the pioneering project, said this week that, despite opposition from Greenpeace and the local ecological group GOB, the project has the full support of OCEANA, the international ocean protection group, as well as the tourism industry and Majorca's diving community. Ramis said that everything possible has been done to make sure the project not only complies with the very highest international environmental requisits, the sinking of the frigate is being handled by the Canadian company CARC, the Canadian Artificial Reef Company. Only last week CARC sunk a frigate of Brisbane, Australia, and will carry out exactly the same process in Calvia. The primary aim of the project is to inject new life into a vast area of sea which is now “dead.” While the Malgrats marine reserve is flourishing, the area off El Toro, once famous for Mero (grouper) fish, has been literally killed by over-fishing. “What we're going to do is sink the frigate some 200 metres out from the coast, just on the edge of the Malgrats reserve. This is an area of some three square kilometres, and will extend the reserve right along to El Toro creating a protected area of around nine square kilometres,” Ramis explained. The 20 metre high frigate is to be sunk at a depth of 35 metres. That will mean that the top decks will rest at a depth of just 15 metres, ideal for marine life and fauna which need light. At around 20 to 25 metres, marine life and vegetation which only need a bit of light will be able to flourish. Down at 35 metres, the dark habitat will be ideal for those species more adept to living in the deep. What is more, very few divers, especially recreational divers, descend deeper that 35 to 40 metres. “This will be the first artificial reef of this kind especially adapted for divers in the Mediterranean. What we want to do is not only revive this area of sea, but also create a unique diving environment for Europe's hundreds of thousands of divers. “It's a win, win project. Good for the environment and it will be good for tourism and the local economy - there are honestly very few negative points and they have all been dealt with by international experts. CARC is the world's leading company in its field,” Ramis said. Once the council gets the green light and the permits from central government, the 4'177 tonne, 133.6 metre frigate will have to be stripped, cleaned, or rather sterilised or decontaminated, and especially re-designed for divers. “This will be carried out in the port of Cartagena and will take seven months. “We will have to strip all the paintwork etc. and remove every trace of possible pollutants. “Extra holes are going to be made to provide maximum security for divers, we have to make sure that a diver can see a point of exit at all times and, of course, 18 holes will have to be made in each side of her hull for the sinking. “However, the final holes will be made in the Port of Palma as the frigate, which the Ministry of Defence could have sold for scrap at a price of around 50 million euros, will have to be towed from the mainland to Majorca and we don't want her sinking on the way.” Special heat explosives will be used when the frigate is eventually sunk and Ramis explained that September or October next year do not clash with any of the breeding patterns of the bird life in the Malgrats area. Prior to the sinking the area will also be checked for any large mammal life and a 200 metres exclusion zone will be set up around the area. “Although a chain of minor explosives is going to be used to blow the final holes, we are also considering surrounding the frigate with a special curtain of water to prevent the shock waves travelling too far and disturbing existing marine life. “The whole operation will take just three minutes and, unlike in Britain where a pyrotechnical display was organised to make the sinking of the HMS Scylla off Plymouth more spectacular for the crowds, we are unlikely to do that,” Ramis said. However, the council is expecting massive local and international media and tv coverage - images and reports of the sinking last week in Australia were distributed world wide. The Canadian technicians and engineers in charge of the operation will also have to be careful that the frigate sinks correctly and comes to rest on the sea bed the right way up. However, out of the 20 ships the company has sunk around the world, only one tilted on to its side.
Ramis also said that it should only take two to three years to revive the new marine reserve. The whole project will cost 1.617.420 euros and Ramis is hoping to cover that with private funds raised from local businesses and sections of the tourist industry. “The money generated by the growth in the diving sector will eventually help cover the cost of patrolling and protecting the reserve,” Ramis said. “At the moment the number of divers who come to Majorca is similar to the 150'000 cycle-tourists, but once the marine reserve is operational, we hope to see a huge growth in the diving sector. “Divers have a high spending power and, like golfers, have to buy expensive and specialised equipment. “What is more, they understand and respect the need to protect the marine environment, so they are very compatible to our project,” Ramis added. “The Australian Environment minister said last week that the diving industry generates an extra 20 million AUS dollars, around 12.5 million euros, per year. In Plymouth, the Scylla is attracting some 300 divers a day and generating nearly two million pounds per year for the local economy. We are expecting to see the same kind of return within a few years,” he said. Ramis said that the most recent studies claim that 200'000 Europeans take up diving every year and that there are over 1'000 diving clubs in Spain and 3.500 instructors. Here in Majorca, the diving sector employs 300 people and operates all year round. Expanding the island's diving facilities will help to boost Calvia's low-season tourism industry. “We will also be setting up a marine reserve education centre for local schools and children so that the reserve becomes an integral part of the community.” As a parting shot, Ramis pointed out that Greenpeace's Raindow Warrior which was sunk in New Zealand in 1986, was salvaged and reconditioned to be transformed into an artifical reef in 1987. Since then it has helped breed new marine life in the area and become a huge attraction for divers - just like Calvia wants to do with the Baleares.


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