The whitewall rubber tires, which until recently had been on the bottom of the ocean floor off the coast of Broward County, now look like deflated, salt-encrusted life preservers, and reek of the decayed smell of barnacles mixed with sea spray.
They are the stars of an art exhibit called “The Eclipse,” open now in Miami’s Wynwood district, a tribute to a failed plan to create an artificial reef and mankind’s attempts to remove the tires and save the ocean from even more destruction.
“It’s really two works of art that merge together in one installation dealing with similar issues independently from two totally different perspectives,” said Eric Charest-Weinberg, owner of the Charest-Weinberg Gallery.
The exhibit affects multiple senses with its 80 retrieved tires, the wafting scent of sea salt and a video installation that shows crews working to remove the tires from the Osborne Reef.
It’s the brainstorm of Hannes Bend, a Berlin-based artist who came to Miami for a two-month residency program last winter. Bend, who grew up a mile from the Baltic Sea, became a member of Greenpeace at age 7. His love of marine life brought him to the Osborne Reef, a 35-acre underwater wasteland of tires that begins a mile and a half off the beach at Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauder- dale.
“I did a lot of research here and I found out about this artificial reef. This was a great way of incorporating both my environmental interest and art,” said Bend.
In the 1970s, a nonprofit group called Broward Artificial Reef, or BARINC, had an idea that it thought would create a win-win situation: Repurpose up to two million tires that were filling up landfills by using them to create an artificial reef that would attract big game fish and tourists.
No one knew at the time that coral would not grow on rubber, or that the metal latches holding the tires together would disintegrate after years in saltwater.
Loose tires, pushed by strong currents, crashed into the natural reef, causing damage, disease and death to the delicate coral.
For more than 10 years, there have been federal, state and county efforts to remove the tires, but most have fizzled.
The current focus is to remove the loose tires pushed by the current into the eastern ridge of the natural reef.
Pat Quinn, a natural resources specialist with the Broward County Environmental Protection and Growth Management Department, estimates there are about 300,000 tires in that area, which is about 70 feet beneath the ocean’s surface.
“It’s opening up [the natural reef] to disease,” Quinn said.
It was this back-story that attracted the attention of Bend.
He realized he wanted to use the actual tires from the reef for his project. That meant he needed money to secure boats, divers and equipment to retrieve them. It took him about four months to obtain permission from local officials.
But Bend got lucky: The nonprofit educational diving group called the Palm Beach Hammerheads provided two experienced divers. Miami Cordage donated equipment. South Florida Diving Headquarters provided deeply discounted boats. And he persuaded expert diver Matt Hoelscher that the complicated dive would work.
On a beautiful March day, they went to the site.
“One team would go in and rope the tires and another team would put them on the lift bag, and then we would have to drag them to the boat,” Hoelscher said. “All of a sudden — with a lot of words we can’t say — it all came together beautifully.”
The crew retrieved about 80 rotting tires, few of which showed any signs of sea life other than the occasional octopus or sea cucumber. All smelled of decay.
Those involved in retrieving the tires hope the art exhibit will inform the public about the hidden catastrophe underwater.
“This is a drop in the bucket,” said Jeff Torode, with South Florida Diving Headquarters. “There’s a lot more. When they see this and see what it looks like, then they are more apt to be in support of spending taxpayer dollars to remove it.”
Quinn, with the environmental protection department, said such a project is already in the works.
The plan is to use the artificial reef as a site for military training, which was done prior to 2007. If the project is approved, it would begin next year.