New Caribbean Dive Site: A Ship That Survived Pearl Harbor

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A report by Jennifer Billock for the New York Times.

On March 10, weather permitting, the Kodiak Queen — formerly Navy fuel barge YO-44 and one of the five remaining boats from the attack on Pearl Harbor — will take on a new life as an underwater art installation and marine life habitat in the British Virgin Islands.

The project is called Project YOKO B.V.I. Art Reef, a mash-up of the boat’s two names, and is a collaboration among Sir Richard Branson; Unite B.V.I., a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring and empowering children of the islands; Secret Samurai Productions, a team of artists that seeks to solve real-world problems through art; Maverick1000, a social-justice oriented group of entrepreneurs; the ocean education and research nonprofit Beneath the Waves; and a few other groups.

They will sink the ship off the coast of Virgin Gorda with a passenger attached to its deck: a kraken, a sea monster with 80-foot tentacles that was made by artists out of rebar and mesh. Once underwater, the Kodiak Queen and its monster will provide a dive site and structure to help rehabilitate threatened marine life in the region.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the YO-44 — holding more than 100,000 gallons of aviation fuel — floated in Pearl Harbor, tied alongside a submarine. As bombs began to fall, the ship moved several times to avoid exploding in a strike and blasting everything else around it. The ship withstood the deluge in the channel at Merry Point Landing, where the crew had to watch as their fellow seamen in the harbor suffered. The ship was later decommissioned, branded as the Kodiak Queen and converted to a fishing boat.

In 2012, Mike Cochran, a historian, found the Kodiak Queen rusting in a maritime junkyard in Road Town, the capital of the British Virgin Islands, on Tortola. Mr. Cochran created a website for the boat in an effort to save it from becoming scrap metal. It worked: Owen Buggy, a friend of and photographer for Mr. Branson, found the website and suggested to his boss that the vessel could become an artificial reef. Mr. Branson bit, and with Lauren Keil, the foundation manager of Unite B.V.I., presented the project to the Maverick1000 group. Project YOKO B.V.I. Art Reef was born.

“This project,” Mr. Branson said in an email, “provides an exciting opportunity to capture people’s attention and then to refocus it on important issues facing our oceans — for example, the importance of addressing global warming to protect our coral reefs and the need to rehabilitate vulnerable marine species such as severely overfished grouper populations.”

Now the boat will be in service again, to tackle exactly those issues — through a giant kraken communing with the ship.

“The kraken is embracing the boat and taking it down to this next life,” said Aydika James, a founder of Secret Samurai Productions, which did all of the art for the project. “She’s no longer a weapon of war; she’s now a platform for rebirth and regrowth. It creates really fun structural designs that allow for ideal grouper and marine life rehabilitation habitats inside the head, the ship and the tentacles.”

The team will use the boat as a combination artificial reef and habitat, science lab and dive site. Phase 2 of the project begins with coral restoration efforts using the kraken, and other artwork installed after the boat is underwater, to create a living space to encourage the regeneration of vulnerable species. One of them, the goliath grouper, once commonly seen in the British Virgin Islands, is now so depleted that local residents are lucky to see one every few years.

Scientists from Beneath the Waves will use an emerging technology called environmental DNA to monitor the groupers’ repopulation as well as the diversity of sharks, indicators of the artificial reef’s success. Water samples are taken from the area and DNA testing is conducted on it to determine what marine life is present and in what quantity. For scientists, it’s a way to judge fish presence and diversity without having to interact invasively with the species.

In addition to the scientific and environmental aspects, the team expects Project YOKO to become self-sustaining, in concert with local dive organizations. About a month or two after the boat goes down, divers will be able to swim through the structure — both the boat and the kraken — to experience a fantasylike environment. Unite B.V.I. also plans to use Project YOKO as an educational program for children, encouraging them to learn to swim.

“This project will hopefully excite our youth here in the B.V.I. to put a mask on and to explore the magic of our underwater world and be inspired to spend their adult years advocating for how important it is to protect our reefs,” Mr. Branson said.

Ms. Keil said the excitement was a boon for the project.

“Right now very few children of the B.V.I. actually know how to swim,” she said. “In order to raise a generation of ocean conservationists, we’ve recognized how important it is that children have an opportunity to build a relationship beyond marine life as a source for food, but instead as a source of entertainment and engagement.”

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