Artificial system

On South Beach, surfers are wary of the artificial reef project.

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Miami-Dade isn’t known for great surfing, but parts of Miami Beach can be tricky when the conditions are right. Surfers fear a proposed artificial reef will disrupt the waves. Here, Evan Geiselman, a competitive East Coast surfer, rides a wave off South Beach.

Courtesy of

Jesse Bull took advantage of low tide on Memorial Day. The San Diego transplant brought his family to South Beach. He chose a perfect spot to introduce his two young children to surfing – a stretch of beach south of Fifth Street where the waves can sometimes get high enough to excite even Californians.

The waves were small that day but this surf spot is considered sacred in Miami-Dade County. It is one of the few places where, when the weather is right, the ocean swell goes around the Bahamas and produces waves that are worth chasing. So when a non-profit organization proposed an unusual artificial reef project – featuring underwater art installations, including car sculptures – about 600 feet from the famous shoreline, it sparked a war of territory.

The dispute, ironically, ended up pitting two nonprofit groups with ocean conservation programs against each other. One wanted the beach south of Fifth Street to attract ecotourists with an artificial reef art project. The other prioritized surfing and worried that a group of sculptures would disrupt the wave energy that makes this small section of beach a rarity for Miami-Dade — a periodically gnarly city. destination for surfers.

The coral reef project, known as ReefLine, is run by the BlueLab Preservation Society, which focuses on water pollution and water-related environmental issues through art. The BlueLab Preservation Society has partnered with the City of Miami Beach, Miami-Dade County, Knight Foundation, Coral Morphologic and other organizations for the ReefLine, which also aims to build shoreline resilience by using coral reefs as a buffer against waves and floods.

The Miami chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, the group that challenged the ReefLine, has interests clearly defined by its name. The group’s stated goal is to protect public access and recreational enjoyment of open waters, including surfing. And the group argued that the placement of the project could alter wave patterns.

But after months of debate and discussion and tens of thousands of dollars in research, the groups recently reached a compromise. The reef art installation will go ahead, but in a different location offshore, about a block away.

Yet as the ReefLine approaches its first phase of construction in early 2023, surfers remain wary.

“A lot of people I know who surf have approached me about this and said they’re worried,” said Bull, a core member of Surfrider. “The concern was really: why there? It’s such a good wave and so special for all of us. The most general thing most people have said is, “Why can’t it be somewhere else?” »

Leandro Erlich - submarine.jpg
A rendering shows a coral reef sculpture in the shape of a car chain by Leandro Erlich. The sculpture is set to be part of the ReefLine artificial reef project off Miami Beach. It will be made of a geopolymer material that is four times stronger than concrete, pH neutral and safe for reefs. reef line Courtesy of

A Coral Quarrel

Unlike the northern beaches, especially from Sebastian to Cocoa Beach, Miami-Dade doesn’t have much of a reputation in the surf community – except for connoisseurs watching the weather.

Bull said the county’s surf community is tight-knit but mostly underground, only emerging when conditions bring favorable waters.

“When the surf is good you can go to Fifth Street and it will just be crowded,” said Bull, who pushed his eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son through the waves on a longboard one day when the tide was safe for children. “It will basically be side-by-side surfers from Fifth Street to the piers.”

South of Fifth Street Beach is so valuable to the Miami Surfrider Chapter that the group formally appealed a permit issued to the project by the Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resource Management last August.

Surfrider claimed the location “generates rare, world-class surfable waves not found anywhere else in Miami-Dade County.” He also pointed to the fact that the South Beach Park subdivision is the only beach explicitly described as suitable for surfing in Miami Beach’s municipal code. There, the use of surfboards is allowed. Anywhere else, such use is prohibited unless otherwise decided by the General Manager.

The year-old call led to conversations between Surfrider Miami members and the ReefLine team. Bull and Miami Chapter Treasurer Mike Gibaldi asked BlueLab to fund a study to prove that artificial reefs would have no impact on waves. In exchange for the study, Surfrider agreed to drop the permit appeal.

“From the Surfrider Foundation’s perspective, one of our main concerns is protecting special places, protecting waves and protecting beach access,” Gibaldi said. “So we had no choice but to be very careful.”

A compromise

Ximena Caminos, founder of ReefLine and president of BlueLab, agreed to pay for the study, which cost nearly $20,000 and was conducted by the University of Miami’s Surge Structure Atmosphere Interaction (SUSTAIN) lab. The SUSTAIN lab contains wind and wave reservoirs capable of emulating coastal water conditions.

“We decided to do this because we just want to be good neighbours,” Caminos said. “We are all trying to protect and preserve the same asset, which is our ocean.”

The results of the study were published in March. Surfrider announced the results earlier this year – and they didn’t amount to much.

“Surfrider was more interested in whether or not wave energy would be significantly reduced by shoaling and breaking as the wave passed through the structure,” said Brian Haus, director of the SUSTAIN lab. “There aren’t many other potential impacts, at least from this project.”

Haus used scale models of the car sculptures that will be part of the ReefLine installation. He placed them in a wind and water tank to observe any changes in wave energy or height. When the simulated waters passed over the sculptures and reached the false shores, the recorded wave heights resulted in a change of less than 10% – a change which, if any, resulted in a slight increase in wave height. waves.

“There were side effects that some of the waves would rise, but it would likely be a local impact due to the wave rising over the structure to some degree and then coming down again,” Haus said. “I don’t think it would change the weight impact or the shoreline.”

Although Haus’ final report found no substantial impact on surfing conditions, Surfrider still maintained some of its concerns, with both Bull and Gibaldi wary that the study’s time and financial constraints would not did not provide a full projection of the impact of the reef.

Caminos therefore took the compromise a step further. She agreed to move the project away from the beach south of Fifth Street. Now the project will start north between Fourth and Fifth Streets.

The first phase of construction of ReefLine is scheduled for early 2023, and the total seven miles of artificial reef will avoid Fifth Street entirely.

Once Caminos secures the estimated $12 million needed for ReefLine infrastructure, it said construction will take about four to five years. His hope is that those looking for diverse marine life and abundant coral reefs needn’t venture to the Florida Keys – that ReefLine can make Miami Beach “the most eco-friendly city of art”. environment in the world”.

The playful intersection of art and conservation that ReefLine offers is now unchallenged, as long as it doesn’t take unexpected detours to Fifth Street.

“We will monitor, communicate with them if necessary,” Gibaldi said. “We will be monitoring everything that is happening very closely.”

This story was originally published September 12, 2022 4:30 a.m.

Natalia Galicza is an intern for the environment and crime team of the Miami Herald. She’s a South Florida native and University of Florida alumnus who loves storytelling. You can read about his past work in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Miami New Times, Flamingo Magazine, WUFT News, and Atrium Magazine.