On Saturday, the 36-year-old jet concluded its final voyage. The plane’s journey began in Istanbul in April, where the massive Airbus — 177 feet long with a 144-foot wingspan — had been divvied into parts and then hauled on trucks to the seaside resort town of Kuşadası.
The Airbus A300 jet is thought to be the largest plane ever used as an artificial reef, reportedly taking 2.5 hours to submerge. Witnesses numbered in the hundreds, “cheering and blasting their foghorns” from their boats, Agence France-Presse reported. Divers and cranes lowered the Airbus to the seabed, guiding the aircraft on rafts of floating balloons until the nose of the plane finally slipped below the Aegean Sea.
Özlem Çerçioğlu, mayor of the local Aydin province, told AFP that the motivation for sinking the plane was twofold: to turn Kuşadası into a year-round destination for tourists who dive, and to protect the underwater life. “And with these goals in mind,” she said, “we have witnessed one of the biggest wrecks in the world.”
In the wake of recent suicide bombings, tourism has slumped in Turkey, in turn provoking anxiety among Istanbul shopkeepers, as Reuters reported. Enter gambits such as the Airbus artificial reef. Such reefs are meant to attract divers while, in theory, diverting people away from the delicate and natural counterparts; across the globe, disease, more acidic water and unusually warmer oceans threaten many coral species with extinction. Heavy tourist traffic, too, can further stress the tiny animals.
As part of its reef-building initiative, Turkish authorities recently sunk three other planes off the Turkish coast. The Airbus — purchased from a private company to the tune of $92,000 — is by far the largest.
Artificial reefs are not new inventions. The world over, countries have repurposed a variety of would-be detritus for a second life on the seafloor. Items may be as mundane as shopping carts, or as huge and imposing as aircraft carriers — such as the USS Oriskany, which now rests in the Gulf of Mexico near Florida. More recently, bespoke artificial reefs are cropping up in the shoals. Sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, for instance, crafts statues made from a coral-friendly concrete, sinking his installations in shallow seas to encourage the growth of coral and algae while offering a place for fish to hide from predators. For his most famous piece, “The Silent Evolution,” the artist sunk 450 different life-sized statues off the coast of Mexico.
Biologists stress that artificial reefs should not be conflated with trash dumps. Not any old junk will do. Coral does not take to appliances like washing machines, for instance, their cement-like secretions thwarted by the enamel coating.
Whether artificial reefs are a boon to the ecosystem writ large is an open question. Researchers who measured fish populations near an artificial reef offshore from Australia in 2013 counted significantly more fish — up to 10 times more — above the reef than at distances 1,500 feet away. But some marine experts, such as biologist James Bohnsack of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, worry that the reefs merely relocate fish, rather than provide a space for the animals to replenish their populations.
“It’s like a sponge,” Bohnsack told ABC News in August. “Squeeze out the water, and it’ll soak up more.” If the artificial reefs are fished too heavily, the plan backfires as the clustered fish are drawn in and funneled out of the habitat.
Artificial reefs can go wrong in other ways as well: Attempts to entice surfers to New Zealand with a wave-generating artificial reef failed to produce a stable structure, let alone gnarly whitecaps; the reef fell apart and formed dangerous rip tides. When constructed from improper materials, reefs historically end in catastrophe. Perhaps the most notable mistake is the Osborne Tire Reef, a 1972 plan to build a 35-acre Florida reef out of 700,000 bundled car tires. Some of the bundles broke apart underwater, and currents smashed the loose tires into neighboring coral reefs. Even where the tires remain stacked, sea life failed to move in, giving the reef the appearance of a sunken rubber apocalypse. Today, the U.S. military collects the tires as a training exercise.
From an ecological standpoint, some of the most successful artificial reefs are made of reef balls — hollow structures that look a bit like giant concrete wiffle balls. Spayed in sugar and mixed with a special compound to keep them less acidic, the balls invite plankton and coral polyps to sprout from their sloped surfaces. Once the balls are planted, the holes prevent currents from pushing them around. “Fish and invertebrates will start using it pretty quick,” Brian Lance, a federal fisheries biologist, told the Associated Press in 2006.
That is not to say the Airbus, lacking a sugar coat, is necessarily doomed to fail. Sea life have made planes their own before, even when not sunk for the purpose of becoming a reef. In May, oceanographers found an American aircraft lost in World War II, and photos show the torpedo bomber encrusted with ocean critters after 72 years on the seabed.
Çerçioğlu is optimistic that the Airbus reef will be a success. Kuşadası’s underwater biodiversity is expected to increase, she told Turkey’s Daily Sabah. “We expect some 250,000 domestic and foreign tourists per year to come here for diving.”