MURRELLS INLET, SC (WBTW) – A Coastal Carolina University student and scuba dive instructor who died more than a year ago was honored below the Atlantic Ocean’s surface Wednesday with an artifical reef.
Chris Chong loved the outdoors, but there was nothing he enjoyed more than diving in the ocean. When the CCU student drowned in Malaysia in December 2017 at the age of 23, his family and fellow divers found the perfect tribute to “Captain Chong.”
After Sunny Chong lost his son Chris in that diving accident, Sunny said he had to see why Chris enjoyed diving so much.
“I wanted to know what he was doing and what is so great about (being) under the water,” said Sunny Chong.
Sunny learned to dive and also met the diving family at Express Watersports that Chris spent countless hours with underwater.
“On my first couple of dives, it was amazing, awesome,” Sunny Chong said.
The diving crew raised money for an artificial reef. It’s a 105-foot tugboat with some of Chris’s ashes on board. It’s designed for divers to explore and sea creatures to live.
The reef is a roughly 28-mile boat ride from Murrells Inlet. Another boat pulled the reef from Georgetown in a 10-hour journey.
Crews put specific holes in the tugboat’s hull to make sure it didn’t sink too quickly. If it did, the boat could be damaged when it hits the ocean floor, ruining it for divers and fish.
After nearly two hours of waiting for the tugboat to fill with water, Chris’s memorial reef sunk 65 feet to the bottom of the ocean. It sits in a roughly half of a square mile plot of the ocean with other converted structures like boats, subway cars, military vehicles and shipping containers.
South Carolina has 42 of these artificial reef plots, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. The coast between the North Carolina border and Georgetown has 20 plots.
Chong’s reef is in PA-08, which is roughly 25 nautical miles from Murrells Inlet and the Little River Inlet. Many of the other structures there are located in another memorial area called the Bill Perry Jr. Reef.
When the boat starting going underwater, Captain Chong’s fellow divers sang a song he came up with called “Hail PADI” about the scuba certification.
“This is how goofy he was,” said Stewart Harrelson, who worked with Chong at Express Watersports. “Chong would always say that it’s almost like we’re in a cult because we give all our money that we make back to PADI, just so we can go up higher in our credentials.”
“He brought so many people together,” said Joanna Goley, who was Chong’s neighbor. “He brought us together.”
Seeing Chris’s reef go underwater was bittersweet for the Chongs, as they remember the son who made the most of life on land and on water.
“I’m sure he’s looking down from heaven and saying, ‘Wow, this is all done for me and everybody, all my friends are here to witness this,'” said Nancy Chong, who is Chris’s mother.
Sonny Chong says his first dive since he became certified will be to explore his son’s memorial reef.
“When everything is settled in June, probably July, I’ll be out here out here to dive because this means a lot to us,” Sonny Chong said.
Chris’s diving friends also say they can’t wait to get back out to the memorial reef in May so they can enjoy another dive with Captain Chong.