Archive for the 'Florida' Category

Around Fort Myers, Florida

March 23rd, 2009 | Category: animals,Florida,Travel

After completing my dive on Thursday, I drove across the state to visit with my Dad & his wife Sue, who have a place on the west coast in Estero (a suburb of Fort Myers).

We visited the Audobon Corscrew sanctuary, which has a 2.5 mile boardwalk through it.  Because of the boardwalk, and the fact that people can’t easily stray from it, I think the animals are particularly at ease here.  Of course, I didn’t have a good camera with me.  We saw all kinds of animals at close range.  It’s a birder’s paradise.

A brown anole, a very common sight in Florida.

A barred owl, roosting 10 feet from the walkway and completely at ease.

Another place we visited was the Lover’s key park.  It has great beaches, the fish are leaping out of the water, and there are osprey nests around.

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Blue Heron Bridge – East side

March 22nd, 2009 | Category: animals,Florida,scuba,Travel

My last day of diving this week was a Thursday with threatening weather out of the south.  I decided to dive the BHB (Blue Heron Bridge, see here and here) solo, and stay on the east side in 20 feet of water.  There weren’t too many people there.  I decided to work the east side under the low bridge, because of the wrecks underneath the bridge and all of the animals that can be found within.  I’d heard something about seahorses, and hoped to find some myself.

I entered the water about 20 minutes before slack high tide, which was 2:12 PM. Now that’s an easy schedule!  For some reason the board near the water’s edge had a high tide time of 2:30 posted; check some tables if you’re making plans.  The water temperature was 72, air temp about the same.  Using a 3mm suit and a hood, it was doable, but I was pushing it. Visibility was about 20″, but when the current changed at the end of my dive – about an hour and 15 minutes later – the vis dropped to less than 10 feet over less than five minutes.

A lot of the best photo opportunities can be found in the shallow sand leading up to the channel under the bridge, in only 8-12 feet of water, just where the slope rolls off into the 20″ region.  You are supposed to tow one of those damned surface markers here, and I did – but none of the 10 other divers that I saw were using one.  WTF?  It’s a pain to tow one because they can get tangled with fishing lines from people fishing off of the bridge, and it is one more thing to handle when you’ve got a camera.  Between handling the float, the camera, standard dive safety things, trying not to blunder into other divers in the murk and sometimes low vizibility, and remembering not to dive near the swimming beach – there’s a lot to keep in mind here.  Luckily, it’s so shallow, and so close to shore, that it doesn’t strike me as a particularly dangerous place to dive.

First, as always around BHB, the ubiquitous arrow crab.

Juvenile Gray Angelfish.  This animal will grow up to have a very different coloration; see the animal in the background in this image.

Flounders are miraculous creatures.  They are invisible until they move, and then they are graceful as they swim with a rippling motion.  This”eyed” flounder – funny name, given that they all have eyes – is almost undetectable, blending in with the sand and broken shells on the bottom.

Under the bridge it is like a spooky underworld cathedral.  The bridge’s columns march into obscure distance and indistinct blue light.  Although it is the Lake Worth lagoon – a stretch of sea water protected by a barrier island, and fed by fresh water too from a number of sources – it might as well be the river Styx.  The bodies of several small sailboats lie under the bridge, swathed in continual gloom and watched over by large schools of spadefish.  The schools can be so large that on occasion, as they flow around you, it can be disorienting, like flying through a flock of mirrors.  The presence of a large school appearing out of the misty darkness can be a little frightening, as it first seems to be the body of an enormous animal.  The bottom, particularly under the wrecks, teems with otherworldly life.  A five-foot southern stingray, looking like a fleshy stealth fighter, rippled from the nothingness beyond my line of sight and, upon seeing me, spun on its axis and disappeared into the haze, followed by a retinue of remoras.  Had it been a vision?  I knelt on the bottom and stared at the activity, awed and soaking in the spiritual moment.  Photography was superfluous.  Overhead, cars rumbled over the bridge, oblivious to the world below.

A bright plastic object – a fishing lure – distracted me.  Surrounded by a cloud of fish, it was being gigged up and down by its owner 25 feet overhead on the bridge sidewalk.  The fish were nibbling at the attached piece of squid, getting some meat but not taking the hook.  The fisherman had no idea what he was up against; a small army of animals with miniature tweezer mouths and lighting reaction times.  I was having trouble seeing it – and it was only 5 feet away; I was also shivering.  Time to go back!  Total dive time: 72 minutes, and only 1/2 of my air consumed.

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Drift dive off of Jupiter (Florida)

March 17th, 2009 | Category: Florida,scuba,Travel

Another day, another dive.  I bought a seat on a “cattle boat” but it was a well-run cattle boat.  The weather was perfect, the water calm.  Today I learned my lower tolerance limit for a 3MM wetsuit – the water was about 73, which was OK for the first dive, but by the end of the second I was shivering.  It was just manageable, but I would have preferred using a heavier wetsuit or better yet, a dry suit.  The hood I used was a big help, as were th neoprene socks under my dive boots.  Everyone’s personal thermostat is set differently though; in my group there were a few dry suits, and a guy wearing a shortie!

The water is turbid at this time of year; you have to get right on top of animals to photograph them.  The limited visibility and current can be a little much for some novice divers; you have to be prepared for the spookiness of such conditions.  It is easy to get separated and lose sight of other divers.  Carrying a surface marker with a reel is mandatory, in my opinion (many dive operators require this too).

Scrawled cowfish, one of the most beautiful fish in the ocean.  I’ve seen them many times in Florida and in Cozumel.

Another scrawled cowfish, showing some color variation.

A spotted moray, Gymnothorax moringa, with an arrow crab in the background.

Check out those tubed nostrils.  I wonder if they help the eel discern the directions of scents?  Morays are supposed to have an excellent sense of smell.

A blue angelfish.

Yellowhead wrasse, terminal phase.  Many fish go through phases of develoment in which they take on radically varying appearances.  Until DNA analysis, observers thought that the juvenile and mature phases of some fish were different species.  Some fish have not only juvenile/mature phases, but other phases in between, where the fish might change sex.

Spanish hogfish.

An juvenile cocoa damselfish, about 3 inches long.

Harlequin bass

Brilliant yellow sponge.

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Blue Heron Bridge dive

March 16th, 2009 | Category: animals,Florida,scuba,Travel

Today I hooked up with a great guy I met on Scuba board.  Joe brought his friend (relative?) Lev and we all went in together.  Joe was kind enough to loan me a cylinder and some weights, the only things I don’t travel with.  Joe is clearly an old hand at the bridge and scuba, so was a natural dive leader.  For 75 minutes we dove the west side in water that never exceeded 13 feet and was a tolerable 74 degrees.  After all that time, I’d consumed only 1600 PSI of air (about half a tank).  That’s another wonderful thing about this site – endless bottom time, little danger.

The ocean has been disturbed by wind lately, so the vis was kind of bad.  You can see how many particles are in the water; it was only possible to take photos of things that were very close to the camera.  Some animals don’t like that!

I’ve written about BHB (as it’s known locally) once before because I dived there last year.  BHB is one of the easiest and most rewarding dive sites in this region.  It’s underneath a bridge on the east end of West Palm Beach.  There is a park – Phil Foster park – there, with bathrooms and showers.  Nothing could be simpler.  Dive up, park your car, gear up on a picnic table, and wade in.  There are only two gotchas:

1) Everyone else thinks that BB is great too.  There’s nothing like diving with, say, 200 of your fellow divers.

2) It’s only good for diving at slack high tide – the period just after high tide has finished coming in when the water i fairly still.  Otherwise, there is too much silt from the fresh water draining into the sea, and the visibility will be terrible.  Not to mention the current, which will carry you away.

To deal with these issues, we went on a Monday afternoon 20 minutes prior to slack high tide.

Here are the resulting photos:

This barred blenny is only about one inch long and is like a little fairy, because it has tiny little “antennas” (called cirri) and it pops in and out of hiding holes.  It’s adorable and fun to watch.  It will swivel its eyes paranoically at you and then instantly disappear, although the cirri will sometimes stick out of its hole.

This seaweed blenny reminds me of the dramatic gopher:

Red-tipped fireworm

Bearded fireworm.  I don’t know if they’re named “fireworms” because they are colored so brightly, or because they can sting (both are true).

Small yellow stingray, family Urolophidae

Crabs mating (blotched swimming cabs).  If disturbed, they will scuttle away together, locked in position.

One of the arrow crabs that are so abundant in this area.

A sharpnose puffer runs away; a gray angelfish is in the background.

I finally caught up with that sharpnose puffer, although it’s still pointed away from me…

A lantern bass;  it resembles a tiny grouper.

I kid you not, this juvenile wrasse is called a “slippery dick,” Halichoeres bivittatus.


What a day! A dodgy dive and a space launch

March 15th, 2009 | Category: Florida,scuba,Travel

I’m doing something I’ve never really done before, which is take off on a vacation with almost no plans.  I bought plane tickets to Florida, packed my dive gear, and went.  Until 24 hours before I left, I wasn’t even sure where I was going exactly!

I ended up near Jupiter, which is north of Ft. Lauderdale.  There is some good drift diving here, and lots of dive operators that go out frequently enough to make unplanned diving possible.  I called the night before I left and got myself a seat on a boat, a rental car, and a cheap hotel.

I got up at 5AM, flew to Ft. Lauderdale, drove an hour north to West Palm Beach, and jumped on a dive boat.  We got in a two-tank dive and I drove back to the hotel, exhausted.  The TV in the lobby announced that the space shuttle was launching at 7:43.  Looking at my watch, I saw that is was… 7:38!  Holy crap!

I ran out in the parking lot with a compass, oriented myself, and waited.  Sure enough, there it was.  I could actually hear it above the traffic, even though it’s a two-hour drive north of where I am.  And of course this was the one trip when I didn’t bring a good camera!

From a new york times article published tonight:

“I’ve seen a lot of launches,” said Michael D. Leinbach, the shuttle launching director. “This was the most visibly beautiful launch I’ve ever seen.”

This mission will deliver solar arrays and a toilet to the space station.

OK, now for the dive pictures.

This was cool – at atlantic guitarfish, which is uncommon.  It’s about 3 feet long, so it’s about as large as they get, according to the definitive ID Guide.  However, the Denver aquarium has one tha looks like it’s about 7 feet long; maybe it’s another species.

Next comes this disturbingly phallic sponge:

An obligatory green moray eel picture:

Some christmas tree worms on a brain coral:

And finally this object, which I had to stare at for a few seconds before I realized what it was:

Just a clue: it was 6 feet from nose to tail, and here’s its face, buried in the sand:

Eventually my presence disturbed this southern stingray, and it rose from the sand like a UFO and rippled away.

A few comments on the dive.  This was a little challenging because of an “instabuddy” and a sloppy dive operator.  The dive operation has a very good reputation, and I’m sure everyone has bad days – and it wasn’t all their fault, because if I’d had a regular diving buddy, the dive would have been different also.

My dive buddy, X, hadn’t been diving for a few years and was rusty.  There were about 12 of us waiting for the boat, and the weather was ominous.  The wind had picked up to an alarming level and even in the protected sound of west palm beach there were whitecaps. I checked to make sure I was carrying a barf bag.  Everyone else was thinking the same thing; an unenthusiastic, grim set of divers greeted the boat as it pulled up to the dock; it was fighting the wind with great difficulty.  It looked like we were going to search for a body instead of to have some fun!  As it turned out, nobody got really ill, although it was kind of rough.  The reefs here are very close to the shore and it’s a mercifully short ride, maybe 25 minutes.

So X and I entered the water.  Right away I could see X struggling to sink; X was under weighted.  Then X tried to empty X’s BCD but didn’t know how to operate it.  I aborted the dive and we got back on the boat after being in the water for 2 minutes; the 4-foot waves and chop were no place to figure things out.  We got it straightened out with the help of a very patient dive master, and tried again.  This time, we made it to the bottom, but since we were by ourselves, we had to make sure to keep a good compass heading to not get too far away from the boat’s path.  X kept swimming in the wrong direction, or maybe it was just my paranoia that X didn’t seem focused on keeping a heading.  I couldn’t really enjoy my dive as I had to keep following X and pointing out the right direction.  10 minutes into the dive, my dive computer flooded.  I decided to keep going, as I also had a watch on and it my first dive of the day; I’d just use dive tables instead.  Prior to entering the water, I had checked tables so that I knew how much bottom time I could get, in case this happened.  No problem.

X had a high air consumption rate and we had to surface while I had 1600 pounds left (that’s at least 10 minutes of dive time out of what could have been a 40 minute dive).  Then, as I shot my surface marker from the bottom, X swam over it, momentarily became entangled, and then rushed to the surface where X used my surface marker like a life raft while I did my safety stop.  X also got a nice mask hickey by not equalizing properly.

Yet X was too nice and apologetic to allow me to be annoyed for long.  I also have done boneheaded things while diving.  I’ve been lucky, sometimes, to have more experienced people help me learn without making me feel stupid.  I thought about how this had made the world a better and safer place and tried to emulate those people, explaining what could be done next time, without shame or iritation.  I think it worked.  After our surface interval, we were ready to go in again, all psyched to do things properly.

But now, the boat crew messed up.  They told her to jump, and then while she was in the water, the boat sped away from her while I watched helplessly.  To compound matters, they shouted for her to submerge, instead of waiting on the surface for me.  By the time they let me jump in, I was too far away to find her.  Perhaps I should have refused; it occurred to me.  I tried to find with the dive master, but he disappeared in the heavy current and low visibility (or I totally misunderstood the simple dive plan).

Annoyed, I realized that this had become a solo dive.  I was more worried about X than myself.  I hung around watching the giant stingray for a little while, and then shot my surface marker.  It was on the surface during the 10 minutes of my ascent and safety stop, yet when I surfaced, I could see the boat a half mile away.  There it remained for 15 minutes, occasionally visible as the 4-foot chop carried me to a crest.  Later, I learned that it was because some divers wound up near the shipping channel and had to be rescued.

Now I don’t really blame X.  This was a dive operater of the type that caters to “diving for fun” and I think they were careless with an obviously inexperienced diver.  They didn’t try to evaluate her beforehand and decide how much watching she needed, and didn’t respond to clues that she needed such watching.  Because of this, I felt that my safety was a little compromised.  I was prepared to take care of myself, and I did, but it made me think.

It made me think about how even before I got to the shop, there were some disconnects – they had no sign, and were hard to find, and didn’t seem to be able to give me directions.  Other divers were also uninformed about the sign-in proceedure.  The dive operator didn’t see fit to mention that the shop shares space with an almost unrelated business, so that even when I found it and walked in, I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place.  It made me think about how they delivered my EAN 36 without offering to analyze it, and I had to ask where the analyzer was.  I almost didn’t get on the boat then, and that was before all this stuff with X happened.  Which makes me wonder if I should be more picky, and draw the line faster and more judgementally than I did.  I can usually trust myself, but if the boat is sloppy, my buddy is inexperienced, and then I make a mistake, bad things could happen to somebody.  Accidents often happen when many things go wrong; why take so many chances?  I won’t be using them again soon, although they were friendly and earnest enough.