Jaws Comes to Florida

August 3, 2011

Another year, another Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.  This year’s episodes, beginning on Sunday, July 31st, offer more unique opportunities to learn about these incredible animals. Every night we sit glued to the television, looking for new information and enjoying beautiful shots of the sleek creatures we often scuba dive with. 

At the same time, I’m looking for a Florida connection and it doesn’t take long to find one. A brief mention of Florida in the show entitled “Jaws Comes Home”  (so titled because it is shot in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, an area where part of the Jaws movie was filmed) quickly catches my attention.

The show documents the research of an enthusiastic U.S. Fisheries scientist in Cape Cod where Great Whites have been showing up with more and  more frequency. The scientist manages to tag the sharks and learn where they go once they leave the Cape Cod area.  It seems they head south, along the contours of the U.S. shoreline, including down and around the Florida peninsula. 

I know there are dangerous sharks in our Florida waters, such as the Tigers, Bulls and Lemons.  But I always thought Great Whites were concerns for Californians, Australians and South Africans, not Floridians. Now I want to know if these traveling Great Whites are just passing by Florida on the long highway to somewhere else, or have other plans in mind.

A quick search on Great White encounters in Florida reveals that most reports are by fishermen, and many are located in the Gulf of Mexico.  According to the International Shark Attack Files in Gainesville, between 1920 and 2010  there have been no recorded attacks by Great Whites in the state of Florida.

 

Great Whites were at one time common in Florida waters, most likely due to an abundance of their favorite food source — seals. More specifically, Caribbean Monk Seals. Since the seals extinction in 1948, it’s anyone’s guess as to how many Great Whites are here in Florida now, and why.

The show’s revelation about the travel of the Great Whites gave even my dive buddy Matt a moment to pause, reconsidering those solo dives he does off his boat, 19 miles out in the ocean.  After a few moments of silence, he finally proclaims that I need to dive with him from now on and that we’ll find someone else to stay on the boat.

Uh…no. 

While shark cage diving with Great Whites in Guadalupe, Mexico is on my bucket list, being surprised by one in a dive off the coast of Florida is not.

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Florida Springs I: Diving at Ginnie Springs

May 4, 2011

Florida claims to have over 700 freshwater springs, many of which are accessible to the general public.  So far I have explored five of them, including Ginnie Springs located just northwest of Gainesville in High Springs.

 
 
Since Ginnie Springs is recognized as one of the best freshwater scuba diving locations in the state, we grabbed our scuba gear and made the 140-mile drive over. Not being cave divers, we avoided the overhead environments and did a simple dive into the main Spring.  At the back of the Spring’s cavern there is a grill that blocks the entrance into the massive Florida cave system beyond. Here you can feel the sheer force and pull of the water as it escapes deeper into the underwater caves.  
 
While not a long or particularly exciting dive, it is one I will always remember because of the overwhelming sensation it provided.  The water was so clear that I temporarily forgot I was underwater, and at one point reached up to remove my mask. Somehow though, I came to my senses before ripping it off. No wonder Jacques Cousteau once called Ginnie Springs the clearest water in the world!  
 
Speaking of underwater sensations, only one beats this one out for first place in my diving experiences so far. While diving a cenote in Mexico I entered a halocline (point where fresh water and salt water meet, causing a change in density) and my vision blurred to such a level that I was sure I was blacking out.  Two totally opposite sensations, yet each remembered strongly as if they just happened yesterday.
 
But back to Ginnie Springs. After diving the Springs, we ventured into the nearby Santa Fe River for a drift dive, cruising with the current and careful not to overshoot our exit point. Here we experienced the total opposite of the Spring — incredibly low visibility. Not to mention high grass and odd-looking fish.  How I forgot about the alligators in the area I’ll never know.
 
For anyone who dives, or who would just like to watch as divers gear up, either for a simple dive or a complicated cave dive, Ginnie Springs is a great place to do just that.
 
 

Shackled to the Sea

June 25, 2010

A month or so ago I came across a book in the library that caught my attention.  The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie: An African-American’s Spiritual Journey to Uncover a Sunken Slave Ship’s Past by Michael H. Cottman sat on the shelf of Florida-related books.  At first it wasn’t clear how the book was connected to Florida.  But after a quick review, it became obvious.  In 1700, the British slave ship Henrietta Marie sank just 35 miles west of Key West.  The first remains of the ship were found in 1973 by Moe Molinar, the only captain of African descent hired by the infamous treasure hunter Mel Fisher. Molinar had been searching for the treasures from the sunken Spanish ship Atocha and instead came across something totally unexpected.  Cottman tells it this way in his book:

Moe was reluctant to leave the site of the sunken Atocha. With nightfall only about an hour away, Moe decided to make one last sweep of the ocean floor before heading to the surface.  And then his hands…hit against something rigid, unfamiliar, and cold in a way that had nothing to do with the eighty-degree water around him.  Lying flat on the bottom, his chest pressed hard against sand, Moe’s eyes widened through the sting of salt water that was seeping through his mask…Slowly, with rugged hands, he parted layers of the ocean floor…He blinked twice, as if his eyes were deceiving him. Directly in front of him, caked in rust and limestone, were two feet of encrusted iron; ancient weighty chunks were piled high in the form of a pyramid…What is this? he thought to himself…Moe tapped his fingers gently on the mound of rusty iron. It was solid and sinister…He reached out again, this time lifting a large chunk of encrusted iron from the ocean floor and holding in his hands a pair of hardened, sea-soaked shackles…As if suddenly punched in the gut, he was struck by the painful realization that the heavy iron handcuffs he was holding were designed to fit tightly around black wrists much like his own.

After several shackles had been brought to the surface, Cottman writes this:

The irony of the moment was undeniable: The last black men to touch these shackles had been bound by them and forced on a three-month voyage, packed in the lower decks of a sweltering ship with little food and water. Centuries later, the first person to touch those same shackles was another black man – a free man, Moe Molinar.   

A Slave Ship Speaks: The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie Exhibit

While in Key West recently we visited the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum which houses an extensive exhibit of the Henrietta Marie, educating all  about the ways of the slave trade and its atrocities.  And there, on display, a few pairs of the shackles found.

Among the seven thousand artifacts recovered from the Henrietta Marie were the largest collection of slave-ship shackles and English–made pewterware ever found on one site. Experts now consider the Henrietta Marie the world’s largest source of intangible objects representing the early period of the slave trade, providing us with greater insight into the African diaspora 

In his book, Cottman attempts to reconstruct the slave ship’s journey, covering three centuries and three continents, while trying to make sense of his ancestors’ history.  He travels the route the ship might have taken, from England to Goree Island off the coast of Senegal (where he visited the “Door of No Return”) to Jamaica, where the slaves were unloaded. 

Cottman and other members of  the National Association of Black SCUBA Divers have since placed a plaque at the shipwreck site, situated to face the African shores.  Its message reads:

In memory and recognition of the courage, pain and suffering of enslaved African people. Speak her name and gently touch the souls of our ancestors.


Florida Diving – Part II

June 22, 2010

KEY WEST

Key West has never been known for spectacular diving.  However, just this time last year they hit the big time. In an effort to establish an artificial reef, the U.S.S. General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, a 522-foot WWII transport ship, was sunk six miles off the coast of Key West.  That sinking was pretty spectacular in its own right.

This is one of the main reasons we travelled to Key West during our recent trip – to dive two dives on the Vandenberg with SubTropic Divers.  Unfortunately the visibility was only 30-40 feet on the first dive.  With a mild current, we managed to see only part of the ship.  On the second dive, the visibility had increased a little to about 40-50 feet.  Matt and I went off on our own and managed to go from the middle of the ship (where we were dropped) to the bow, then back down the full length of the ship to the stern. We didn’t have enough time to look in all the holes of the ship or swim through all the swimthroughs purposefully blown out for divers.  Not much marine life has moved in yet but I did find several Arrowhead Crabs and other small creatures already staking out their claim. 

JUPITER

On the way home from our ten-day trip around Florida, on a whim, we decided to stop off in Jupiter and dive two morning dives with Jupiter Dive Center.  Matt had been diving with them several times and loved the dives.  BUT….where the water temperature in the Keys had been between 80 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit, recent storms had left the waters around Jupiter hovering between 66 and 68 degrees.  I thought the Dive Guide was joking with us when he mentioned this.  He wasn’t. 

For anyone who knows anything about diving and wetsuits, my suit is a 4/3 (4-mil on the core, 3-mil on the arms and legs).  This accompanied by tropical gloves and a thin beanie (hood) does not equal adequate coverage for 66-68 degree water!  Somehow, though, I managed to tough it out.  I would find a warm spot and try to stay in it as long as possible.  The visibility was horrible, maybe 20 feet if you were lucky.  It was very easy to lose sight of the Dive Guide and my dive buddy (Matt) for that matter.  This was one of those times you really had to stay tight as a group.  Three of us, along with the Dive Guide, stayed down for the entire dive, somehow surviving the cold and low visibility.  A few times I could just make out large shadows in front of me, unaware of what type of marine life it was.  I did however see some of the largest Goliath Groupers I have ever seen.  This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.  From turtles to Great Hammerheads, South Florida waters seem to grow everything big.

WHAT’S NEXT?

I have yet to dive for fossilized shark’s teeth in Venice, or dive the aircraft carrier Oriskany sunk off the coast of Pensacola.  With all these great diving opportunities in the state of Florida, adding Florida scuba diving to my List of 50 Things to Love About Florida is a must.


Florida Diving – Part I

June 18, 2010

 

Florida provides ample opportunities for scuba diving. On a recent trip around the state I managed to dive in three different locations – Key Largo, Key West, and Jupiter.  Happily I can say I saw no oil from the BP oil spill, and none had been reported.  I did ask a Dive Guide in Key Largo about the oil. As soon as I did his body went rigid, and his voice grew less friendly as he shook his head no and blamed much of the fear on media hype.  He compared it to the threat of hurricanes.  The sky could be clear blue and a reporter would still be standing there talking doom and gloom.

KEY LARGO

We had plans to dive two morning dives and two afternoon dives in Key Largo with Conch Republic Divers.  Since I had not been diving in several months, I wanted to start out with a relatively shallow, easy dive to acclimate myself to the gear and the underwater environment. The two morning reef dives were no deeper than 30 feet. During one of these dives, we saw four large green moray eels tucked up under the reef.  I never get tired of seeing these graceful creatures. Before I started diving I thought moray eels were evil, like the one in the movie The Deep.   That’s hardly the case.

Prior to striding off the boat for the second dive, the captain informed us that lightning cells were in the area and he might call us back to the boat early.  The method for this is loud banging which can be heard underwater.  Fortunately he had no need to call us back before the dive ended on its own.

Unfortunately the afternoon dives were cancelled due to 6-foot seas.  Many times I have ridden 2-4 foot seas waiting for a dive boat to pick me up.  But 6-foot waves are pushing the limit.  Not only could divers get lost in the ocean, they could get pretty beat up hanging on to the boat ladder and trying to climb aboard. 

The cancelled dives were a disappointment because we were to dive two wrecks in the afternoon – the infamous USS Spiegel Grove, a 510-foot long U.S. Navy Landing Ship, and the USCGC Duane, a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter.  I have been diving on these wrecks before and the Spiegel Grove is one of my absolute favorite dives to date.  It sits at 134 feet, with the highest part of the ship between 60 and 65 feet.

Neither words nor photos can express the sensation you get as you descend deeper and deeper and, suddenly, a ship, resting on the sandy bottom, comes into view.  At first your mind thinks it must be a mirage.  But then you realize it is real, and you can swim alongside it, and sometimes through it.  I am not wreck diver certified, nor do I want to be, so I would never penetrate a wreck where no light is present.  A few certified wreck divers have already lost their lives on these wrecks, so I always think twice about whatever I do.  I have to admit sometimes I grow curious about the stairwells or entrances.  I shine my light and allow myself to peek inside but I never enter.

To be continued…..