Up close look at new artificial reef along the Crystal Coast

MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. (WITN) - Two ships became reefs Saturday during a ceremonial sinking in Morehead City.

A longtime state employee, who helped to create marine habitats through artificial reefs, is honored with one of his own.

Two tugboats were sunk over the weekend to create the "JJF Artificial Reef" in memory of the late James Francesconi.

Right off North Carolina's coast you will find shipwrecks created from World War II that are crucial to marine habitats and so fun to explore.

But there are also a number of man-made artificial reefs that can be just as vital to marine life.

The JJF is the first one to be created off the Crystal Coast in several years.

Thanks to scuba divers at the Olympus Dive Center in Morehead City, we got an up close look at the sinking of two tugboats.

One of the boats is 110-feet, the other is 65-feet.

Robert Purifoy is the owner of Olympus Dive Center. He says, "Jim was a longtime employee over the North Carolina Marine Fisheries and for about 15 or so years he was director of the artificial reef program."

Francesconi spent much of his time overseeing the sinking of artificial reefs along our state's coast.

He died almost two years ago from leukemia, inspiring friend and co-worker Tim Mullane and Purifoy to raise money for an artificial reef in his honor.

Purifoy says the total cost of the project was around $118,000.

Purifoy says it is an underwater explorer's paradise and a home for marine life. He says, "More places for habitats to develop. More places for coral and sponges and wildlife to grow, which then attracts the small fish. The small fish attract the big fish and the big fish attract the fishermen and the divers.

There were donations from the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, Wells Fargo, East Carolina Artificial Reef Association and almost 100 people -- who helped with the project costs.

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The new underwater reef is a part of the James J Francesconi Memorial Project. He was a former North Carolina Reef Coordinator who suffered from leukemia and passed away in 2014.

It is a huge financial undertaking to create an underwater memorial. $12,500 dollars were raised through a GoFundMe account for the JJF Reef.

The Olympus Dive Center, North Carolina Marine Fisheries, divers, and fishermen all helped to make the event possible.