After protecting and transporting S.C. National Guard members, 32 decommissioned armored personnel carriers were given a new mission Thursday about eight miles off the coast of Hilton Head Island.
They are protecting fish and other marine life.
Arranged in neat rows of two, the obsolete military vehicles were then flipped, tipped, rammed and nudged by a forklift off the side of a 150-foot barge, each sending a plume of water skyward as it hit the water before sinking beneath the surface within seconds.
Some of the vehicles fell quickly from the deck of the barge, while others teetered over the edge before being dispatched to the ocean floor 45 feet below. Within 45 minutes, the barge was empty.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the S.C. National Guard have sunk tanks, armored personnel carriers, old fighter jets and other decommissioned equipment to create more than 33 artificial reefs along the state's coastline since the Reef-X program started in 1997, according to the National Guard.
Before being dropped into the ocean, the vehicles are stripped of their engines and other internal parts and drained of any hazardous fluids to comply with federal environmental standards, said Melvin Bell, director of DNR's Office of Fisheries Management.
"They're totally gutted," Bell said, pointing to the hollowed-out, camouflaged vehicles. "They are basically one big box for the fish to swim through, and they're squeaky clean by the time we dump them."
About three years after settling below the surface, the vehicles will become home to several species of coral, sponges and fish, including Spanish mackerel, black sea bass and sheepshead, Bell said.
The vehicles deposited at the reef site Thursday joined a 105-foot fuel barge, 20 tanks and rubble from the old Broad River Bridge that have been dumped there over the years.
Thursday's deployment was the 40th drop of military vehicles by DNR and the National Guard as part of Reef-X and the third in waters near Beaufort County, according to the Guard.