Sinking of the Ana Cecilia: Florida's Newest Ecotourism Asset in The Palm Beaches

Angela Ledford, Manager of Public Relations & Communications
Discover The Palm Beaches  
Office: 561-233-3064; Cell: 318-512-7464

Samantha Corr, Public Outreach
Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management  
Office: 561-233-2455

Sinking of the Ana Cecilia: Florida's Newest Ecotourism Asset in The Palm Beaches
Storied cargo ship sunk off Riviera Beach becomes new diving gem, one of 151 artificial reefs

Editor's note: Images and video of the Ana Cecilia sinking are available for download by clicking here.

RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. (July 14, 2016) - The Ana Cecilia cargo ship, once used in both an attempt to smuggle $10 million worth of cocaine on the Miami River and as the first ship to carry cargo from Miami to Cuba in 2012 after 50 years of embargo, now has a new destiny underwater off the coast of The Palm Beaches as an artificial reef. The Ana Cecilia is the 45th ship to be scuttled in Palm Beach County (PBC) in recent decades, drawing divers away from natural reefs, ensuring their sustainability. The Palm Beaches are home to 151 artificial reefs, including the Ana Cecilia, which provide a fascinating experience for divers. Plaques have been affixed to the ship, with sentiments honoring local community members Perry J. Cohen, Austin Stephanos, Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office Deputy Fernandez Jones, Jaden Jones and Willis Bell, who are missing or lost at sea.

The ship was sunk on July 13, 2016, 1.25 miles off the Lake Worth Inlet in 85 feet of water (coordinates: 26 47.118/-80 00.960), where it is in the natural process of becoming an additional marine habitat as part of the artificial reef system managed by the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management (ERM). Divers are welcome to explore this new underwater gem, which is expected to attract marine life within 48 hours after the sinking. The wealth of marine biodiversity is a unique attribute to The Palm Beaches' coast, because of the County's close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean's Gulf Stream - considered an oceanic conveyor belt of warm water and artery for its natural residents to migrate, such as sea-turtles, tropical fish, sailfish, goliath grouper, dolphins and more.

The Ana Cecilia is a 170-foot Halter Marine general cargo ship built in 1972. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the lead investigative agency in the Department of Homeland Security responsible for conducting narcotic smuggling investigations in the maritime environment, led an investigation targeting the importation of narcotics in coastal freighters into the United States via the Miami River. As a result of findings, HSI requested assistance from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for the extensive search of the motor vessel Ana Cecilia. In September 2015, CBP searched the vessel and found 386 bricks of cocaine with a street value of more than $10 million, which led to the seizure of the cargo ship.

CBP administratively forfeited the ship in January 2016. The Treasury Executive Office for Asset Forfeiture approved the transfer of the vessel to Palm Beach County in support of the Artificial Reef Strategic Plan in March 2016. After approval by the Palm Beach County Board of County Commissioners, the ship was transferred to county ownership in May 2016. The captain and owner of the Ana Cecilia, Ernso Borgella, was indicted and pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and was sentenced to nine years in prison.

"This investigation resulted in another significant narcotic seizure and motor vessel forfeiture on the Miami River that disrupted a transnational criminal organization," said HSI Acting Special Agent in Charge Robert C. Hutchinson. "The Ana Cecelia will now provide a much more positive contribution to the people of South Florida."
"Over the course of Ana Cecilia's lifetime, she made many amazing voyages," said CBP Director, Field Operations Diane Sabatino. "The ship was the first of her kind to carry cargo from Miami to Cuba in 2012, and she was the first cargo shipment since the embargo 50 years earlier. Unfortunately, later that year, she was taking on water, which ultimately ended the voyages to Cuba."
"In 2015, suspicions surrounding the Ana Cecilia were raised," Sabatino continued. "As a result of our efforts, the cocaine the ship carried didn't make its way into our communities and our homes. It gives me great pleasure knowing that a cargo ship once used to smuggle illicit drugs into our country is now being turned into an artificial reef here in Florida."

"For more than 50 years, Palm Beach County has been creating underwater habitats out of materials like ships, limestone rock, and concrete," said Palm Beach County District 1 Vice Mayor Hal R. Valeche. "These artificial reefs provide numerous benefits, the most important being that they take pressure off natural coral reef formations by providing additional places for fishing and diving. Today's sinking, or in nautical terms, scuttling, of the Ana Cecilia is a special moment in our county's maritime history."

"On June 27th, the Ana Cecilia was dedicated to Palm Beach County Sheriff's Deputy Fernandez Jones, his son Jaden, and stepfather Willis Bell, along with friends Perry J. Cohen and Austin Stephanos, who are missing or lost at sea," said Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay. "This new artificial reef will serve as a marine sanctuary and a lasting tribute to their love of the ocean and marine life."

"The Ana Cecilia will soon become a diver's dream, bustling with underwater activity as she is colonized by algae, sponges, and corals to support a diverse community of colorful marine life including Goliath Grouper, sea turtles, thorny oysters, and green moray eels," explained Palm Beach County Environmental Resources Management
Division Director Julie O. Bishop.

"Divers come from all over the world to experience the unparalleled reefs of The Palm Beaches, whether natural or artificial," said Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO for Discover The Palm Beaches, the official tourism marketing corporation for Palm Beach County. "Our area is geographically the closest land mass to the Gulf Stream in North America, and that magical current allows divers to see here a wide diversity of abundant marine life."

"Our clear waters and fascinating marine biodiversity are just some of the reasons why divers choose to visit this destination," continued Pesquera. "The Ana Cecilia's unique history, as well as its honorable tribute to beloved community members who are missing or lost at sea, make it a unique addition to our artificial reef system."

About Discover The Palm Beaches
Discover The Palm Beaches, formerly the Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau, is the official tourism marketing corporation that promotes the collection of 38 cities and towns and 15 tourism districts spanning 2,000 square miles and 47 miles of pristine beaches from Boca Raton to Jupiter, commonly referred to as The Palm Beaches of South Florida. Tourism is among Palm Beach County's major industries. It generates an annual economic impact of $7.1 billion in the local economy, produces $4.55 billion in direct visitor spending and supports more than 60,000 jobs.

About Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management
Palm Beach County's Department of Environmental Resources Management (ERM) implements programs to protect, preserve, and enhance the land and water resources of Palm Beach County. Since 1987, ERM has managed the county's Artificial Reef Program and created marine habitat through the deployment of dozens of vessels and hundreds of thousands of tons of concrete and limestone boulders. These artificial reefs provide a framework for hard and soft corals to thrive and develop into habitat for hundreds of species of fish and other marine life.