Fort Myers Builds Dive and Arts Tourism on Navy-Themed Artificial Reef
Fort Myers Riverfront View from Hotel Indigo // All photos by Maureen Stone
Fort Myers, FL – The Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, which markets itself as “The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel,” kicked off its fall and winter tourism season in early September with a unique aquatic arts event centered on a retired US Coast Guard warship. The vessel now serves as a living artificial reef in 60 feet of water off Fort Myers Beach in the Gulf of Mexico. The USS Mohawk, a 165-foot World War II Coast Guard cutter, was intentionally sunk by explosive detonations on July 2, 2012, to create the latest in a string of 20 artificial reefs in Lee County that have become a tourism draw for divers, snorkelers and fishermen in the southwest Florida destination.
The partners in the Mohawk project are Joe Weatherby, president of Key West-based Reefmakers, a company that implodes retired vessels for the purpose of creating artificial reefs, and the Austria-based artist Andreas Franke. The latter creates unique photographic art that is temporarily attached by magnets to sunken ship surfaces before being returned to the surface for display and sale four months later. The Mohawk is the partners’ third artificial reef art project after previous planned ship sinkings in Key West and Barbados.
The results are ship-centered reefs that are a magnet to both exotic fish and deep-sea divers in search of high adventure. Franke’s haunting, yet amusing pictures are created by his shooting photos of staged studio scenes – in this case art models portraying Navy swabs and their girlfriends in circa World War II poses – and superimposing the staged images over his earlier underwater photos of the abundant varieties of sea life drawn to the sunken hull of the Mohawk. The photographic art pieces are then placed down on the shipwreck and enhanced by the briny barnacles that roughen or attach to their surfaces from temporary exposure to the underwater elements.
The Future of the Mohawk Project
The 12 USS Mohawk photos by artist Franke and brought up from the ship will be on display for a few short weeks this fall from October 4 through October 28 at the Alliance of the Arts in Fort Myers. Afterward, according to Franke, they will be dispersed to other art galleries for individual display, and for the ultimate private sale of the pieces that finance his work and future projects.
The interested parties for the Lee County VCB and its members in the beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel are the local art museum directors and curators. While at least one Mohawk piece might stay in Fort Myers, Matt Johnson, the executive director of the city’s Imaginarium Science Center and the History Museum of Fort Myers, said his museums have other plans to keep the Mohawk art project alive. Johnson described goals to have a large-scale model of the USS Mohawk created for future display in the Imaginarium, and for a history of the USS Mohawk, including its key role in the D-Day Normandy invasion and in the sinking of many German U-boats during World War II, to become an exhibit in the History Museum. Supporting sponsors are being sought to have these Mohawk-related attractions to make the project as accessible to non-divers as they are to those who can actually descend to the artificial reef.
Local promoters of scuba dive travel hope to attract thousands of divers to the Mohawk. “The reef has already attracted a large number of whale sharks, the largest species of sharks,” said Mike Campbell, the Lee County natural resources senior environmental specialist coordinating the project. Reefmaker’s Weatherby said the value to Fort Myers will be in attracting many divers during the prime dive season of June and July, which is low season for tourism in Fort Myers. “Most divers will spend $1,100 or more when they come to a dive destination even for a short visit of a few days,” he added.
The promotional event for the Mohawk art project, which drew about 60 scuba divers mesmerized by the chance to visit the underwater art gallery and help bring up the Franke pictures, was hosted by the 67-room Hotel Indigo in the Fort Myers downtown river district. The luxury boutique property, a member of the Inter-Continental Hotel Group’s Indigo hotel chain, features artistic touches including a set of four outsized lobby murals of Vincent van Gogh by local artist Leoma Lovegrove. The property’s colorful lobby bar was the appropriate setting for the Mohawk art project with many of the participating divers staying overnight in the hotel despite their dive destination being the artificial Mohawk reef off Fort Myers Beach, about 15 miles to the southwest and another 40 miles into Gulf waters.
Hotel Indigo Fort Myers
The Indigo, which was purpose-built four years ago on Broadway in the center of a recently renovated and revitalized downtown, features seven categories of rooms, each with creative arts elements including white walls and original murals, along with artwork of area attractions. The rooftop pool is adjacent to both a 24-hour health club and a popular indoor-outdoor sky bar which affords panoramic city views from its perimeter and a friendly sports bar vibe. The lobby bar offers a happy hour until 8 p.m., and some high-energy club-style music during later weekend hours. A recent check of the Indigo web site (www.hotelindigo.com) showed room rates ranging from $113 for a prepaid standard room to $189 for a luxury suite with a large living room, multiple flatscreen TVs and a wet bar. All of the hotel’s 67 rooms feature inviting walk-in showers with glass fronts and rain hat fixtures.
The Broadway Bistro, near the highly-understated side entrance to the hotel, offers excellent casual dining, including flatbreads and salads, for enjoying happy hour drink deals and TV news and sports viewing on multiple flatscreens. The Broadway Bistro is one of several Fort Myers restaurant participants in Lee County Restaurant Week (www.tastedeliciouslee.com) taking place from October 11 to 20, during the same period that the Mohawk pictures are on display in the local Art Alliance.
An opening night Restaurant Week charity event benefitting the local Roots Heritage Urban Food Hub will take place in the outstanding Twisted Vine Restaurant, located two blocks from the Indigo on the Bay Street waterfront. Owners Denise and Steve Hollister have a smash hit eatery on their hands, judging from the hordes of animated local diners crowding their warm, inviting room during the Mohawk project Friday night in early September. The menu included a perfectly-prepared rack of lamb and an equally-satisfying grilled red snapper, with chocolate molten cake and homemade vanilla bread pudding both served a la mode from the dessert list.
Edison, Ford and ECHO
Two attractions are recommended during a stay at the Indigo and downtown Fort Myers. One is the famed Edison & Ford Winter Estates on nearby McGregor Boulevard. It is possible to tour the adjacent former homes of inventor Thomas Edison and his best friend and carmaker Henry Ford. Elsewhere is the carefully preserved, remarkably simple laboratory where Edison worked with teams of assistants on many of his hundreds of inventions. There is also a museum with a pictorial biography of Edison and many of his historic artifacts. Not to be missed are expansive botanical gardens that have become among the most popular attractions on the Edison and Ford compound. There are nine buildings in the complex on the National Register of Historic Places.
A second Fort Myers attraction to be featured during Restaurant Week in October is the ECHO farm (www.echonet.org ), a sustainable and working agricultural farm in North Fort Myers dedicated to providing seeds for food growth in poor countries. The farm also conducts educational training of international representatives in agriculture and food production skills they can bring back to their home countries. The tour of ECHO will be part of a three-farm tour being conducted on October 17, along with Eden Winery and Buckingham Farms, two other popular area attractions.