By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

When the scuba-diving community considered a destination in the past, Alabama was not a location that popped up regularly.

Those who love diving along the state’s Gulf Coast hope that is rapidly changing with the latest effort to bring a new awareness of the diving opportunities in Alabama state waters and a little farther offshore.

The first step in Alabama’s effort to attract the diving world occurred two years ago when a 271-foot coastal freighter, formerly used to carry cargo for relatively short trips to coastal areas and the Caribbean, was renamed “LuLu” and sunk off the Alabama coast to great fanfare.

The Alabama Gulf Coast Reef & Restoration Foundation (AGCRRF) was formed to coordinate and raise the money for the deployment of the LuLu. Obviously, that size vessel had to be deployed in deeper water to ensure 50 feet of clearance over the top of the ship. It ended up in 110 feet of water about 17 miles offshore from Perdido Pass with coordinates of 29 degrees, 59.520 minutes and 87 degrees, 33.037 minutes.

While the LuLu got a great deal of attention from divers, there was still a significant need for shallow-water diving sites.

That’s where Lila Harris of Down Under Dive Shop, a reef foundation board member, jumped in and got really busy.

Working with her committee and the Alabama Marine Resources Division, Harris and cohorts devised a plan for a diving area that was near shore and satisfied the 40-foot depth limit for certification of novice divers.

Harris, a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Master Instructor, has a passion for children who take up the sport of diving.

“I teach PADI Seal Team Scuba Camp during the summer,” Harris said. “We take kids from 8 to 14 and teach them the basics in the pool. Some are not old enough to get certified, so they learn about the fun of scuba diving. We get them comfortable with having all the gear on and they just have a lot of fun.

“If they are old enough, 10, some will come back and get certified. The parents and I always have a good rapport and they want me to certify their kids. I’m a former special ed teacher and history teacher, and the parents see how much I care about them.”

Getting young divers certified had presented Harris a roadblock in waters near Orange Beach. There is really only one spot for novice divers to go off the Alabama coast. She was afraid those students with a piqued interest in diving might lose it if something wasn’t done.

“There is a maximum depth of 40 feet for 10- and 11-year-old divers to get certified,” Harris said. “The lack in our area was that we only had a basic, rectangular barge, called the Three-Mile Barge. Of course, the first time my students went out there, they thought it was great. There were fish and things to l

ook at. But there really weren’t many things. It was just a flat barge. After two or three trips, they started losing interest.

“That bothered me because I want them to love diving and continue to see that there are so many amazing things to see and do. But with the depth limit, we couldn’t go anywhere else unless we went out of state.”

As an underwater photographer, Harris has traveled all around the world to famous dive sites to shoot thousands and thousands of images.

During one particular trip to the Bahamas, Harris had an epiphany about how the Alabama coast could start to solve its shallow-water diving dilemma.

“We were diving one of the reefs and there was a cheap plastic lounge chair that somebody had tied about 30 pounds to, to keep it in the sand,” she said. “I watched as everybody in our group, as they came by, would get in that lounge chair and say, ‘Take my picture.’

“My mind started clicking a little bit and I remembered the Cayman Islands. They had a mermaid statue, and everybody wanted to get their picture with the mermaid. It’s the same with Christ of the Abyss in Key Largo (Fla.). The more I thought about it, I thought why stop at one statue? Why not an underwater playground?”

That’s when the idea of Poseidon’s Playground was born, and it has become a reality within sight of the Alabama Gulf Coast inside state waters.

Working with the reef foundation and Marine Resources, the playground was designated within the Vernon Minton East Reef Zone. Reef board member Chandra Wright came up with the name Poseidon’s Playground.

The reef foundation had Walter Marine of “Reefmaker” TV fame build and deploy three statues – Poseidon, Apollo and Venus of the Sea. Harris’ students and parents, as well as Walter Marine, contributed to the deployment of a grouper reef with statues of triggerfish and dolphin in the area.

“That made it look a little like an underwater aquarium,” Harris said. “They all deployed beautifully.”

A few months ago, the reef foundation authorized the deployment of four blocks with chains for the dive boats to use as anchor points.

“We hope these blocks will keep people from dropping anchor and damaging the statues,” Harris said. “We went down in February and there was a lot of growth on the statues and the fish were starting to come around. It was exciting to see that it was

growing and developing.

“On March 19, we deployed a cross on a base. We hope early this summer to start having underwater weddings and other things that might revolve around that cross.”

In April, Harris took her DUDEs (Down Under Dive Explorers) to Poseidon’s Playground, and she said it was special.

“Many of them had contributed to getting one of the structures, and I was really able to enjoy watching them see it for the first time,” she said. “They were excited. The parents were excited. Many of them saw their names on a plaque and they knew it would be down there for a very long time. That was probably the most rewarding part of this project so far.”

Poseidon’s Playground is open to the deployment of other structures, as long as the height limit is followed, as memorials or mementoes.

“Walter Marine has for many years worked with families to create memorials for deceased family members by using their ashes to create pyramids,” Harris said. “It doesn’t have to be a pyramid. It can be a statue they might want to have made.

“I’ve got a friend who is exploring the idea of having a rocket made to honor her mother and father. Her dad worked for NASA (National Aeronautical and Space Administration) in Huntsville, Ala. We’re also working with local artists and getting them involved. They’re excited about the project and making it artistic as well as fun.”

The city of Orange Beach has donated $5,000 and the city of Gulf Shores is considering a matching donation. Ed Rodriguez of the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber said word of Poseidon’s Playground is spreading like wildfire through the diving world, and feedback from local businesses and civic leaders has been excellent.

“This is just another example of why Alabama has the best artificial reef program in the country,” said Marine Resources Director Chris Blankenship. “The Alabama reef program continues to provide great recreational opportunities for our citizens and visitors.”

Harris said a fundraising effort will soon be underway to honor a certain service sector.

“We’re going to start a GoFundMe campaign to recognize the amazing work of fire departments and police departments locally and nationwide,” she said. “It will be statues of a fireman and a policeman. We hope to launch that campaign in the next few weeks.”

Visit www.alabamagulfcoastreef.org for the latest on the LuLu and Poseidon’s Playground.

PHOTOS: (Lila Harris, Aquatic Soul Photography) The recently created Poseidon’s Playground is a shallow-water dive site that can be explored by experienced and novice divers alike. Several structures have already been deployed in the area inside the Vernon Minton East artificial reef zone and the statues are already covered in marine growth.

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