HERNANDO BEACH — Who’s afraid of ghosts? Apparently not fish—they love the “ghost ship,” a 46-foot sailboat sunk 20 miles off Hernando County’s coast last month to bolster the Bendickson Reef.

Within a couple weeks of being scuttled, fish had taken up residence in and around the cement boat, a derelict that sat for years at the Hernando Beach Marina, unclaimed and unwanted. Somewhere along the way, it picked up the Ghost Ship nickname.

Keith Kolasa, Aquatic Services and Waterways Manager for Hernando County, said the old boat was stripped of anything harmful, including fuel tanks, engine and other parts and towed to the reef site and sunk April 23. It didn’t take long for fish to take to it.

“Already there are fish in it,” he said. “There are two goliaths (grouper) there.”

The fish have been spotted by divers setting reef balls around the sunken boat as added fish attractors, Kolasa said. The boat also has drawn schools of small baitfish and smaller grouper.

The latest addition to the reef, which has long been a popular dive and fishing spot, was 90 percent funded by private donations, Kolasa said. It was one of the county’s many aquatic and waterways and aquatic projects.

The Bendickson Reef is made up of 10 retired M-60 battle tanks, large concrete culverts and various pieces of concrete scrap and rubble totaling 600 tons. The Ghost Ship sits in an open area between major reef structures at the site, connecting to other parts of the reef and creating a sort of trail for divers.

Kolasa said the boat “was a labor of love” for members of the Hernando Port Authority Auxiliary, who worked for 18 months stripping and cleaning it in preparation for the sinking, removing its 50 hp diesel engine and other parts to make it environmentally sound to become a reef. Volunteers included members of the Port Authority, residents of Hernando Beach and local members of the Coastal Conservation Association.

Kolasa said the Ghost Ship, an old twin-masted schooner, belonged to a man who sailed it throughout the Caribbean. It also was owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for a time. Until tapped to become a new haven for fish, the boat had been taking up dock space at the marina for 12 years.

“The marina was happy to see it go,” Kolasa said. “Now they have an open boat slip.”

Kolasa said the concrete vessel, unlike a fiberglass boat, is perfect for reef building and will survive underwater for many years, eventually becoming part of the living undersea world as marine organisms attach themselves to the structure. Its many crevices and overhangs will make ideal habitat for structure-loving bottom species and baitfish, supporting a healthy fish population and providing great sport for anglers and divers.

Kolasa said the county has several other reef projects ahead that will use $1.5 million in federal RESTORE funds, money set aside from fines levied against British Petroleum for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in the Gulf off Louisiana. One possible reef addition may be statues of military members that would be placed in a circle at the Bendickson Reef to honor fallen military members and add interest for divers.

Some $4 million in RESTORE funds are slated for expanding Hernando boat launching facilities. Kolasa said that could include new ramps and expansions of existing ones. The county is eyeing four lots adjacent to the Hernando Beach launch for possible purchase to provide more parking for vehicles with trailers.

In addition, the county will scout the coast for possible sites for new ramps.