Oriskany luring divers

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Posted by on July 10, 2006 at 00:09:31:

Sink it, and they will come, we were promised.

Well, we sank it, finally, and they're coming.

The decommissioned aircraft carrier Oriskany became the world's largest artificial reef when it was sunk on May 17, some 24 miles southeast of Pensacola in the Gulf of Mexico.

The goal was to turn the 888-foot ship, resting in 212 feet of water, into a magnet for divers around the globe.

So far, mission accomplished.

Across Pensacola, area dive shops are reporting out-of-control business and booked-solid charter trips, and divers fresh up from Oriskany visits are swearing that the Oriskany is a dive trip that trumps all others.

"It's been a jam-up month, and we're going crazy,'' said Scuba Shack owner Eilene Beard during a few precious moments between phone calls and customer walk-ins.

"We're all tired, and we're all moving so fast. But we're not complaining. This is what everyone wanted.''

Pensacola has three dive shops, and no new dive shops have opened in the Oriskany's wake. All are reporting increased business. In all, the three shops are sending about 175 people a week out to the Oriskany.

At the Scuba Shack, about 75 divers a week have been paying $145 for a two-tank dive to the Oriskany, and the shop often has to turn away divers.

"(Last weekend) we turned so many people away because we just didn't have room,'' Beard said. "We feel bad we can't get everyone on the boat, but you can only get so many people out there. Today, I turned away a dozen people.''

But the divers who do go say the trip is worth every penny.

"The dive was extraordinary, one of the best of my entire life,'' said John Fleming, 48, of Tampa, a Navy veteran who visited Pensacola last week for the first time -- and who came just for the Oriskany.

"The visibility was excellent and just coming down and seeing the vast expanse of the wreck down below, and seeing how huge it was, well, it was phenomenal.''

MBT Divers is another Pensacola shop reaping the benefits of the Oriskany.

"We've been staying very busy,'' owner Jim Phillips said. "We're running four or five trips a week, with about 14 people a trip. People really are interested in this wreck.''

And, diving instructors say, more people are becoming interested in diving.

Area diving instructor Debbie Norris said dozens of new divers are signing up for dive classes, spurred on by the Oriskany wreck.

Even though the bottom of the ship is 212 feet deep, the tower is only 70 feet below the surface and easily accessible to the average diver.

So far, the Oriskany dive has been a safe one.

No Oriskany diver has been treated for dive-related injuries since the vessel went down, said Karen Smith, spokeswoman for Baptist Hospital -- the only area hospital equipped with a hyperbaric chamber to treat civilian diving injuries.

"Business has definitely picked up,'' Norris said. "Everyone is aware of the Oriskany, and I think more people who have never dived before are interested in it now.''

Norris has dived the Oriskany about 16 times since it was sunk just over a month ago. A certified diver for seven years, she said the wreck already is one of her favorite dive spots in the world.

"If it's not the best wreck dive in the world, then it's probably in the top five,'' she said. "It's pretty overwhelming when you come down and see it for the first time. It's just so big and such a huge structure under the water. And the visibility has been excellent all summer.''

Norris said that with each visit, she can tell more and more sea life is calling the Oriskany home.

"The first time we went out, there were already little crabs and small fish all over it,'' she said. "And every week, it seems like there are more. It's just been amazing to watch.''

Keith Wilkins, director of Escambia's neighborhood and environmental services department, said the Oriskany wreck is well on its way to becoming a economic pick-me-up for area businesses.

"All the predictions about the Oriskany are turning out to be factual,'' he said. "The wreck is putting heads in bed for tourism, and the dive shops have all been swamped. It's going to be a tremendous boon.''

Fleming is one of those heads in the beds. He visited Pensacola with a friend after reading about the Oriskany and spent three nights in a downtown hotel.

"It was my first visit to Pensacola, but it won't be my last,'' he said.

He said he and his friend also went to Pensacola Beach and visited the National Museum of Naval Aviation.

"And the dive itself was excellent,'' he said. "We saw jacks coming down on the wreck and crabs all over it. We'll definitely be back, probably about once a year. I'd like to do it once a year for as long as I dive and just watch it change.''

Merrick Vanlandingham, manager of Dive Pros in Pensacola, said the Oriskany will grow in stature among international divers as time goes on.

"I've been over the world and seen some great stuff, but the Oriskany just blows everything away,'' he said. "It rates as the No. 1 dive, absolutely. The size is amazing -- it's its own ecosystem.'

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