Reef Master

David Walter is the country’s premier builder of man-made reefs. He helped make Alabama the most productive red snapper state. Tourist destinations compete for him to attract snorkelers.

David Walter with newly completed Super Reefs. Photo by Adrian Hoff

Orange Beach-based Walter Marine is America’s premier reef builder. Over the past 32 years, the private, family-run company has created more than 40, 000 artificial reefs. It breached $1 million in annual sales in 2013, then topped $4 million last year.

Asking owner David Walter about his current sales trajectory elicits a litany of large, pending projects: often accompanied by an upward glance, a chuckle and a gentle plea that no more work be sent his way right now.

Declining BP Deepwater Horizon Restoration and Recovery Funds aren’t dampening sales. Demand is expanding, as is the company’s product line and its workforce. After years of getting by with eight employees, he now has 10.

“We had reached capacity, then gone beyond it, ” says Walter, who oversees operations from a small, utilitarian office cooled by a droning window unit. “Those big reefs that you see out there weigh 18 tons apiece. We have a couple hundred of those that we’ve got to build and put out.”

- Sponsor -

Walter Marine does everything in house. They build patented steel molds, pour concrete and, following a patent-protected process, embed limestone rocks throughout reef surfaces — by hand.

For those 18-ton Super Reefs, cranes position sets of three completed panels to “pour the corners.” Research identified the resultant hollow pyramid as optimal for natural reef development and underwater stability against shifting sea bottoms and hurricane-induced turbulence. The $10, 000 price includes deployment. Walter recommends its less conspicuous four-ton, $2, 000 sibling for private reefs.

ABOVE Schools of small fish attract and feed the reef’s larger residents.

Getting the reefs into the water is a job in itself. Walter needed a barge and light winds to move Super Reefs. They were beyond the capacity of his 114-foot converted Coast Guard buoy tender. So he added a second boat to his transport collection — a 180-foot oilfield supply boat, refurbished not only to tow but also to position the reefs precisely. Dynamic positioning, a sophisticated computer system designed to control the engines, is key. “We drive it out, push a button, and it stays in place while we deploy our reefs, ” Walter continues. “With people demanding greater accuracy, we’re mounting a survey-grade GPS on the end of its crane boom. A computer will swing everything around and set the reef exactly where they want it.”

The standards can be pretty exacting. For its near-shore snorkeling reefs, Walton County, Florida demands placement so precise that each grouping, viewed from space, resembles a giant sea creature, like a turtle or dolphin.

A Super Reef customized to also attract amberjack.

Such complexities largely inoculate Walter against competition. “Everybody claims to be a reef-builder now, ” he says. “But when they put their resumes in, I’m the only one that’s got the equipment and the experience.”

Walter Marine repaired yachts for 18 years before Walter inadvertently began accruing that experience.

Enterprising charter captains created structures with debris dumped on the local Gulf’s featureless sand and mud bottom. The Coast Guard cracked down. Alabama’s Department of Conservation intervened on behalf of the charter fishing industry. Its landmark 1986 agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers both legalized and regulated private reef construction throughout much of the state’s gulf waters.

The nearly 1, 200-square-mile private reef zone (by far the nation’s largest) is a phenomenal success. Alabama has only about 4 percent of the U.S. Gulf shoreline, but produces about 35 percent of the five Gulf Coast states’ combined snapper harvest. Before artificial reefs, Alabama’s catch was negligible.

Charter captains approached Walter because he could handle debris, like junked cars, too large for their boats. He unenthusiastically agreed to help.

“I got a little seasick; I didn’t really want to go out in the Gulf, ” he admits. “The more I did it, the less seasick I got. Finally, I got a captain to run the boat for me, and we just kept building from there. I bought every car I could find, trying to keep ahead of the game.”

Walter deployed 10, 000 cars before their 1996 delisting as acceptable reef materials spurred him to manufacture reefs. They weren’t an instant success. Orders tanked.

He sank an old freighter for Pensacola, entering the public arena — and a new specialty. Finding, prepping, marketing and deploying large vessels has become routine. He has sunk 22 and is currently marketing two riverboat-style floating casinos, which should make spectacular dive reefs — perhaps surpassing the 279-foot supply boat he sank off Gulf Shores to much fanfare during 2013’s Memorial Day celebrations. Renamed Lulu, after Lucy Buffett’s iconic eatery nearby, it is Alabama’s premier scuba destination.

ABOVE The Wet Willie Band plays on a nearby barge as the LuLu sinks 17 nautical miles south of Orange Beach’s Perdido Pass.

Walter’s first manufactured reef, created of old tires embedded in concrete, passed muster in Alabama, but not Florida. A concrete and steel version satisfied state officials. But those in Dade and Broward counties demanded Florida limestone rock: the lone reef-building material able to support all organisms that populate natural reefs. Its pH is perfect for marine growth and, unlike concrete, it’s soft enough to accommodate species that bore into reef surfaces.

“There are seven different types of Florida limestone rock, ” Walter explains. “We kept experimenting until we found one that’s perfect. Then we figured out how to embed it into concrete, and then make the reef. They really caught on.”

Walter received more than accelerating sales from his outsized role in the reef zone’s development. Private reefs are now about 3 percent of sales. But for decades they approached 100 percent.

Walter’s hollow pyramid-shaped, limestone encrusted reefs support larger snapper populations than limestone boulders or concrete rubble.

Everything he put into the Gulf back then was critiqued by someone whose livelihood depended on its efficacy.

“We had all of these fishermen giving us feedback. This worked. That didn’t. It needed to be taller, wider or heavier. Or more complex, ” explains Walter, who asserts no one else was privy to such extensive real-world data.

When private reef orders tanked, Florida picked up the slack. Each year, says Walter, Florida dispersed some $500, 000 from saltwater fishing license fees to coastal counties applying for grants. “The counties getting those grants sustained us for a lot of years.”

With even city-level tourism officials now using free, private snorkeling reefs to siphon tourist dollars from neighbors lacking them, Walter expects hotels to follow suit. “We’re working on new ideas and designs, but we’ve put them on the back burner until we get past all of this heavy-duty stuff, ” he says.

Walter has two franchisees. One may soon install wave attenuators along North Carolina’s Cape Fear River, he says. “But we’re so busy that we can’t fool with that right now.” The relatively new offering mitigates erosion, but unlike seawalls and riprap, it neither degrades shoreline ecosystems nor disrupts natural water flows.

Walter enjoys his work because he’s always doing something different. He mentions salvaging boats or sending them to the bottom, figuring out how to do stuff better and less expensively, and many other things — but omits starring in his own TV show, Reef Wranglers, that aired on the Weather Channel. The show didn’t attract clientele, he asserts, but “it did give me a little clout. That’s about all I can say.”

Walter has fielded queries from as far as Saudi Arabia. But thus far he’s worked no further from home than Texas and Florida’s east coast. Adding a second boat has expanded his options. So, who knows? Once he works through his current backlog….

Adrian Hoff is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Mobile.

The latest Alabama business news delivered to your inbox