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Artificial reefs make big splash. They create offshore ecosystems for fish, coral, and divers

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The sunken freighter looks like an eerie underwater ghost town, with long passageways crusted with waving tentacles of coral and brightly colored fish darting this way and that. The divers have inched their way down a lead rope for five minutes to get to the ``Mercedes.'' You remember the Mercedes? The 496-ton freighter that ran aground in socialite Mollie Wilmot's West Palm Beach back yard on Thanksgiving Day 1984? The one they're making a film about, starring Bette Midler? Well, this is where it ended up -- at the bottom of Pompano Bay, Fla.

It's not alone. The Mercedes, which was dynamited and sunk in March 1985 by the Environmental Quality Control Board in Broward County, Fla., as part of its artificial reef program, is one of 30 freighters, oil rigs, tug boats, hull molds, gas tanks, and an airplane that have been sunk here since 1981.

``We don't `sink junk,' '' cautions Steve Somerville, a coastal engineer for the board. ``We `deploy artificial reefs.' '' Reefs shelter fish from predators and provide a hard surface for coral to grow on. Mmany natural reefs have been damaged by pollution and boat anchors, so artificial reefs create new ecosystems in unproductive areas. And these new reefs work quickly: Within one year of sinking the Mercedes, Mr. Somerville says, it was completely covered over with coral, sponges, algae, and swarms of fish.

``It's the one government program that doesn't have any detractors,'' says Somerville. ``It helps the ocean; fishermen like it because they always have a reasonable chance of catching fish here; the diving industry likes it, too,'' he says.

``It's great for the diving business,'' concurs Mike Becker of ProDive, a Ft. Lauderdale dive shop. Leaning on the mop he's swabbing a deck with, he explains: ``We run two trips a day to see the Mercedes; we've taken over 2,000 divers to see it.''

One diver just coming in from the reefs is Milon Cernkovic of Tampa, Fla. ``It's fantastic!'' he says, while rinsing off his gear. ``There's a real mystique about it. You think about the people that worked and lived on it.''

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