Hernando County Referrals

James W. McFarlane

Aug. 2, 1999

In 1994 local divers joined forces with the county government, McFarlane’s Scuba shop and Florida Crushed Stone, to build reefballs for the Hernando Reefball site. The idea sounded great; use surplus concrete, buffer it for the proper pH, and dump it into molds Volunteers would work with representatives from the Reefball Development Group to form and place the balls on our reef. Florida Crushed Stone provided space and surplus concrete, to create the reeballs.

Having some background in marine biology, I got excited about the prospect of an artificial reef that would have the proper pH to attract and have attached natural organisms. The selling point were exciting, hard corals, natural reef sounds and an object that would not relocate with wave action.

As the project got underway, several members of a local dive club showed up to pound air bobbles out of the mold as the concrete set. Poking with plungers and pounding with large rubber mallets the reefballs were formed. It was impossible to work without splattering concrete all over. I showed up several afternoons in school cloths to help in the development. It was fun, we set up a beach table and umbrella to sit back and relax under. Jerry, Larry, Roody & Michele did most of the work to create the 180 referrals, their efforts reward us for years to come.

As November rolled in the deadline for a state grant, that helped pay for the project, drew near. The balls had to hit the water. The reefballs were transported to Tarpon Springs where they were placed on a barge. Two days of barging and placing the ball on the site commenced. The location of the referrals is west of Hernando Beach in twenty-six to twenty-nine feet of water.

The placement of the balls was exciting, the seas were getting rough, newspaper reports, county commissioners, port authority members, and other government officials were on the site to watch the deployment. I video the placement from within the 64 degree water. The reefballs looked plain on the sandy bottom located at the site. Shortly after placement curious fish started swimming about.

The development and changes in the reefball sight have been monitored since the deployment. The day after deployment Michelle, Larry and I went to the site swam the area making sure all the balls were in an up right position. Fish had already moved in.

We returned to the reefballs several times in the upcoming years. A dive charter operator moved into the area and was running weekly trips to the reefball site. Two years after placement the interest in the site dropped, the diver charter operator, left the area. Today it is mostly local recreational dives and fishermen that show up on the site. It is beyond the range of many recreational boaters.

1998 Turbidity problem resulted in the lose of colurpa polifera, (an alga) sponges were the main species attached to the referrals. August 1999, I made two trips to the reefball site at the opening of lobster season. I was in hopes that many of the small holes had attracted lobster. I was disappointed, no lobster, but the referrals were infested with stone crabs. The base of every ball had at least 4 stone crabs, none were missing a claw. Many crack in the hard bottom had various sizes of stone crabs. The bad news the second trip in the week was Sunday afternoon most or the Stone crabs were missing. Not just claws. The other important species in the sandy area around the referrals was 4" long queen conk. Not just a few, hundreds, maybe this site is going to help redevelop queen conk populations, probably they started their life attached to the reefballs and have began to migrate.

The swarms of fish over and around the reefballs were impressive. When three or more reefballs are clumped together the small fish swarming over them was impressive, 100’s of 1000. The juvenile hog snapper were neat to see. I saw a single reefball with 6 grouper, a head sticking out each hole. Ten to fifteen grouper stayed just a head as we circled clumps of referrals.

Individual reefballs in sandy areas were the least impressive. Clumps of 4-5 referrals were the most productive arrangement.

This reef is my favorite in the area to dive. Army tanks and barges just do not have the diversity that you will find on the reefball site. The visibly in this part of the gulf in not that good, on both dive days there was a good 15 - 20 foot. The reefballs are not visible from the surface but if you listen you will hear the snap crackle as you approach a reef area.

It is time for Hernando County to regroup and begin to expand this site, adding some additional reefballs. Also, as was discussed many times, a reef development permit is needed for a site in the 9 foot depth range. Small recreational boaters need to have a site they can reach safely.

Jim McFarlane is the owner of McFarlane’s High Tech High Touch Systems, he teaches scuba and kayak from his retail location at US-19 and Northcliffe Blvd. Spring Hill, Florida.