By Thomas Shambler
With plans already underway to conquer space tourism, Richard Branson's latest endeavour is an underwater art gallery
Richard Branson has launched many a business venture. Rarely has he intentionally sunk one. But that’s exactly what he’ll do when he cuts the ribbon for his latest endeavour; a historic naval ship turned scuba site just south of Mountain Point in Virgin Gorda, part of the British Virgin Islands. When it sinks into the Atlantic Ocean, the Kodiak Queen — one of five surviving ships from the attack on Pearl Harbor — will officially become B.V.I Art Reef, a man-made marine ecosystem and otherworldly dive site crowned by an 80-foot-long Kraken sculpture.
It may be located near the billionaire’s exclusive Necker Island estate, but Branson’s new project is as democratic as they come. For one thing, unlike Virgin Galactic which will be shooting tourists into space for US$250,000 a pop, visiting the B.V.I. Art Reef is free if you take yourself, and is not meant to be a massive money-maker at all.
Proceeds will come in through diving operators—a majority of whom charge a modest US$100 for single-tank dives at other sites in the B.V.I. What's raised from local outfitters will be funnelled out to support various regional causes, from marine preservation to social justice initiatives. Boosting youth swimming-education programs at Branson’s multifaceted, not-for-profit foundation, Unite B.V.I., is one big-picture goal.
"The B.V.I is a collection of small islands surrounded by beautiful coral reefs full of life, yet many people from the B.V.I have never had the opportunity to witness this thriving underwater world because they have never had the opportunity to learn how to swim,” said Branson in an interview, citing a statistic that one in 10 children is unable to get across a pool. “One of the reasons why I have been supportive of this project is that I believe it will inspire people to want to learn how to swim, snorkel, and ultimately scuba dive—and my greatest hope is that, as that happens, they will fall in love with the world that lives beneath the surface and will become passionate to protect and preserve it."
While marine conservation is a personal passion for Branson, B.V.I Art Reef began with an entirely different preservation story, that of the decommissioned Kodiak Queen. Despite the ship’s historic significance, it had decayed past the point of repair; an unknown owner had abandoned it in the B.V.I., and it was scheduled for demolition after spending years in a junkyard. In short, the Kodiak Queen had become an eyesore.
“In the B.V.I, we have a lot of derelict ships that are aground on the main island of Tortola,” explained Branson. “They detract from the natural beauty of the place.” One of Branson’s team members, a marine mechanic and photographer, named Owen Buggy, saw an opportunity: “[Buggy] pitched the idea to me of cleaning this ship of any environmental hazards and then intentionally sinking it to become an artificial reef and recreational dive site,” recalled Branson. It didn’t take much convincing for the serial entrepreneur to get on board.
Restoring the Kodiak Queen has been a nine-month endeavour. Though the investment sum was undisclosed, the project is likely to have cost more than $4 million, which is what it cost to create and sink another artificial reef in Palm Beach, Fla., earlier this year. The project was made possible by funding from Maverick1000, a global network of industry disruptors; engineering help from B.V.I-based Commercial Dive Services; and the artistic vision of six creative masterminds from Secret Samurai Productions, Art Reef B.V.I. “We've been fortunate that, through collaboration, we've been able to accomplish what would have been very challenging—well, impossible—to do on our own," said Branson.
In time, Branson expects the coral to propagate naturally and create a thriving ecosystem—one that he hopes will bring back the endangered goliath grouper. (Having the massive fish in these waters doesn’t just make for good diving; grouper are also natural predators of invasive lionfish.)
Simultaneously, marine researchers will come in and start studying the effects of artificial reefs on rehabilitating over-trafficked dive sites. And the Art Reef team will also work with local operators to create “dive adventures” (think: scavenger hunts) throughout the site, encouraging travelers to support small businesses, rather than tackling the site on their own. A portion of those proceeds will then cover site maintenance, making the project fully self-sustained. It’s almost as if one of the world’s smartest businessmen came up with the proposal.