ROME (Reuters) - The Costa Concordia, the wrecked liner which has been half-submerged near the Italian island of Giglio since it hit a rock in January, could be a paradise for recreational scuba divers from around the world - if sunk instead of salvaged.
"Every night I light a candle and say a prayer for it to sink," Aldo Baffigi, a Giglio native, says of the 290-metre-long ship with its towering smokestack and four swimming pools.
Most of the Tuscan island's 1,500 residents want the modern-day Titanic to be hauled away as soon as possible, but Baffigi is an underwater guide and owner of Deep Blue Diving College, and he knows the fascination shipwrecks have for scuba divers.
"It would be the most popular shipwreck in the world. We wouldn't know what to do with all the divers. It would be like manna from heaven."
With the salvage set to begin this month, Baffigi's prayers have not yet had the desired effect.
But he has not lost hope because such a massive ship has never been salvaged in one piece, and a strong storm could still send the cruise liner, precariously perched on an undersea ledge, sliding down into deeper waters.
The U.S. company Titan Salvage together with Italy's Micoperi plan to tug the 114,000-tonne ship upright onto an underwater platform, attach two air-filled flotation devices to its sides to make it buoyant, and then tow it to a nearby port.
The $300-million salvage is going to take at least a year, officials have said.
"Nothing like this has ever been done," Italian National Research Council physicist Valerio Rossi Albertini told Reuters. One of the risks is weather, he added.
The salvage effort, which Italy's environment ministry described as "difficult and complex", are to be detailed by Costa Cruises, Italy's civil protection agency, and the salvage companies in a press conference later this month.
Because the island's pristine waters are the heart of the island's tourist-driven economy, the more traditional salvage method of cutting the ship into pieces and hauling it away on barges was ruled out.
For the same reason, sinking the ship in deeper waters, which is not an uncommon practice, was not considered an option.
The Costa Concordia - once a floating city with restaurants, a casino, a movie theatre and a fitness centre - came too close to shore on January 13 where a rock ripped a gash in its side that led to it partially capsizing a few hours later.
Of the more than 4,200 passengers and crew aboard that evening, 30 are confirmed dead and two are still missing.
Out of respect for the dead and for the environment, Giglio's mayor Sergio Ortelli said the crippled hulk must be removed.
"The victims must be respected," Ortelli told Reuters.
"We have the most beautiful undersea environments possible. We don't need anything artificial down there," Ortelli said.
Underwater guides Roberto Scotto of Diving Isola del Giglio and Stefano Morveno of Blue Scuba Diving both say they want the Concordia hauled away because of the pollution risks it poses.
But Gian Domenico Battistello, an instructor at International Diving, admits that Baffigi is right that a sunken Concordia would make an international diving attraction.
"The Concordia would be the Disneyland of the scuba diving world, and everybody knows it," Battistello said. "But I'd rather have pristine waters of Giglio than the ship."
Baffigi asked the mayor, a representative of Costa Cruises, and the head of the civil protection agency why sinking the ship was not an option.
"It was never even considered," he said.
He argues that taxing divers to visit the wreck would make the island's municipal government the richest in Italy, and its presence would underpin the economic future of the island.
Baffigi said he has only one prayer left: "A big storm."
Editing by Paul Casciato