17 May 2010

Scientists worry current could carry oil to Keys

The loop current is a ribbon of warm water that begins in the Gulf of Mexico and wraps around Florida. Some scientists project the current will draw the crude through the Keys and then up Florida's Atlantic Coast, where the oil might avoid the beaches of Miami and Fort Lauderdale but could wash up around Palm Beach.

Many scientists expect the oil to get no farther north than Cape Canaveral, midway up the coast, before it is carried out to sea and becomes more and more diluted.

The pollution could endanger Florida's shoreline mangroves, seagrass beds and the third-longest barrier reef in the world, the 221-mile-long Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which helps draw millions of snorkelers, fishermen and other tourists whose dollars are vital to the state's economy.

Full story - http://www.comcast.net/articles/news-general/20100516/US.Gulf.Oil.Spill/

Florida Key's - Day 6 & 7

Day six was beach bum day, minus the beach. The girls went to Key Largo but we just didn't feel like driving anywhere else. We were ready to just chill out. We drank a few pina colada's, borrowed some bikes from the backyard, watched a movie, dried out gear, tried to eat the rest of the groceries, packed and reviewed dive pictures on the laptop. Marathon isn't the place for rock'n bars. There are a few watering holes but aside from water sports it's pretty laid back. If you're looking for something more lively hit Key West.

The following morning we were up EARLY to drive to Miami for an 8am flight out.

Hopefully, the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill will be under control soon. So far the keys look to be safe but if they don't get this under control it will ruin everything down there, both ecologically and economically. The diving and fishing operations are already taking it pretty hard. People are canceling their plans left and right. Over the next few weeks to a month might be one of the best times to go for a long while.

16 May 2010

Florida Keys - Day 5 - The Thunderbolt

Remember I was talking about losing and forgetting things on this trip. Well, I had left my fins aboard the Sea Eagle the day before. Fortunately for me, Captain's Corner held them at their kiosk for pick up.

We had breakfast, got my fins, started out return trip to Marathon, unsure of what, if any diving we would find. We still wanted to hit the Thunderbolt wreck, a 188-foot cable layer that later served as a research vessel to explore the electrical energy of lightning strikes. We called the 3 dive shops, in Marathon, we had numbers for. Of the 3, Abyss Dive Center was willing to take us out that afternoon. They didn't have anything planned but worked it out just for us. There was an additional 75 dollar fee to take the boat out to the wreck but it was split between us and a third diver who joined in. A dive instructor accompanied us throughout the dive so the fee didn't seem to extreme.

Their boat, a 34 foot Crusader, the Vitamin Sea, is equipped with a fresh water shower, a toilet facility, a dedicated camera rinse tank, complimentary sodas and ice water. There is a large cooler on board to keep any food or personal snacks cold as well. They carry a maximum of six passengers.

Great conditions again this day. Calm seas, very mild curren
t on the wreck and more then 60 feet of vis. When we arrived there were about 5 or 6 fishing boats around. According to the owner they have an unspoken rule that when a dive boat arrives the fishing boats back off which is exactly what I observed. Two mooring buoy's are attached to the wreck and they are both submerged about 20 feet under. The captain finds the general site with gps and then we all kept a lookout for the submerged buoy. "Is that it off the starboard side?" I called out seeing a large, white object under the blue. "That's it" replied the capt. Then our dive instructor swims down with the anchor line and attaches it. The deck of the Thunderbolt is at a depth of about 110 feet although I never went below 106. This wreck has been submerged more then 10 years and is coated with colorful sponges, corals and hydroids, providing refuge and sustenance to large angelfish, jacks, cobia, tarpon and a variety of deep-water pelagic creatures. My buddy claims to have seen a grouper over the side the size of a dining room table. According to this website - http://www.fla-keys.com/news/news.cfm?sid=7439 "Perhaps the most popular residents are the three goliath grouper that hang around the engine room — one nearly 800 pounds." That must have been him. We saw three sharks coming back up the accent line. Each one slowly making its way in towards us from the deep blue and then back out again. I thought for sure these were some sort of reef shark (swore I saw a black tip on a dorsal) but our instructor claims they were bulls. We all agree that they were probably there because of the fishing.

Dive Site - The Thunderbolt
  • Site Depth - 120
  • My max depth - 106
  • Vis - 60 feet or more.
  • Coldest water temp - 76F Surface 81F
  • Bottom time - 24 minutes
Our second dive was an hour long shallow reef dive called Shark Harbor (no sharks). This was similar to the dives we did 2 days ago but with a little better vis and no surge. Coldest temp was 80F and max depth was 30 feet (it would have been hard to find deeper). Most interesting fish - spiny lobster and a fairly large green moray among the other beautiful reef fish.

Oh and this day I left my snorkel in their rinse tank. Later that evening we picked it up while heading out to dinner and it was a good thing we did. Not only did they have my snorkel but they had Cliffords mask. Hah! I'm not the only one forgetting stuff.

15 May 2010

Florida Keys - Day 4 - Key West Diving

We all got up early, 7am? Hopped in the rental car and headed South/West for about an hour to Key West. Check in time was somewhere around 9 - 9:30 am with Captain's Corner Dive Center. A PADI gold five star center. We boarded the Sea Eagle. Nice boat. As described on their website - "Sea Eagle" is a 60-foot, 37-ton, all aluminum dive vessel. The custom configuration features two dive ladders, state of the art electronics, and the creature comforts divers and snorkelers prefer. With all these custom features, it is no wonder "Sea Eagle" was chosen to feature in the James Bond film, "License to Kill." They keep all their rental dive equipment right on board, in a large room, below deck. Again all the staff of Captain's Corner were very friendly, helpful and professional. The owner was a real nice, older lady. She told me that she was thinking/planning to sell the business. She also was going to hook us up with a place to stay for the night but the girls already found something. Honestly I think we would have been better off staying in the place she had to offer. It was like a block away and close to Duval Street.

As with all our dives it was about a 30-40 minute ride out to the site. Today we were heading out to the Vandenberg wreck. When we got to the site we tied up to the stern buoy of the wreck. There are about 5 mooring buoys along the wreck. It's huge! 523 feet long. The bottom rests in about 140-150 feet of water although the upper structures can be reached starting at about 40 to 50 feet. Most of the interesting structures are above 100. I was never below 92 feet. The crew tied off, from the mooring buoy to the front of the Sea Eagle. A second line was run at a depth of about 20 feet, attached to the mooring line and running to a second weighted line attached to red buoy the crew threw over. Make sense? No. Let me put it this way. We would hit the water, swim out to the red buoy, drop down 20 feet to a horizontal line, follow that line to the mooring buoy line and drop down that line to the stern of the Vandenberg. Still don't make sense, see the diagram. This method meant no one needed to hang on to the anchor line and possibly be jarred around/injured when the Sea Eagle rocked in the waves. Also a stage bottle was hung on the line should divers exceed no decompression limits and need a longer safety stop.

Dive conditions were about as close to perfect as they could be. The water was smooth, almost like glass. There was only a slight current. Visibility was 60 feet or more. We dove pretty conservatively as per the crew. With a 3000 psi tank we would start heading back to the accent line at 2000 psi and be heading up with no less then 1200. That would give us an extra 1000 psi should anything go wrong. I had no problems with this. We also did a 1-3 minute deep water safety stop which was 1/2 of our maximum depth.

As we descended there were schools of Barracuda around 60 feet and a thermocline at about 85 feet. The ship has been sunk for just about a year but is already starting to show growth. There was a slight current heading from the stern to the bow of the Vandenberg and this meant swimming against it to get back to the accent line. During the safety stop our captain swam by with 2 freshly speared Amberjack for his evenings dinner.

Because of the current we did the second dive as a drift, Cozumel style. As soon as we all hit the water the boat un-moored and moved to the bow mooring line of the wreck to pick us up. This was great. We effortlessly drifted past the whole 500' wreck from bow to stern.

1st dive -
  • Site depth 150 feet
  • My max depth 92 feet
  • Vis - 60 feet or more
  • Coldest water temp - 78 F
  • Bottom time - 30 minutes
2nd dive
  • Site depth 150 feet
  • My max depth 91 feet
  • Vis 60 feet or more
  • Coldest water temp - 77 F
  • Bottom time 24 minutes

Our surface interval consisted of an evening bar hop up the 1 mile stretch of Duval Street. Favorite bar - Sloppy Joes.

14 May 2010

Florida Keys - Day 3 - Marathon Diving

Finally we get to go diving. I called Captain Hooks the night before to confirm the dive was still going to happen.
Me - "Is there still a morning dive going out tomorrow?"
Girl on phone - "Yes there's one here in the books"
Me - "OK, cool, thanks."
But this got me thinking. This girl didn't sound like she knew anything about what happened that morning with the weather and the canceled dives so later that day I called back again. This time I got someone who was there for our previous experience. To my relief she confirmed that the wind was supposed to die down and the dive was still on. Unfortunately it was not going to the Thunderbolt wreck which we had originally been scheduled to do. Oh well, we'll get ourselves wet. It's been a little while since we dove last.

So we showed up again, 7:30 am. There were about 12 or more people scheduled for the dive and they were in the process of switching the equipment to their larger boat. Lucky for us. This boat, the Jolly Roger, is a nice 45 foot Corinthian Catamaran. Plenty of space for all of us. Small marine head in the back. Plenty of shade and sun. Three exits up front to giant stride into the water and 1 ladder on each side for getting back out.

Captain Hooks, a PADI 5 star dive center, is a pretty big operation. They do fishing and diving. They have several boats for both. The service on the dive boat is a little different here, in the keys, then down in Cozumel. They don't set up all your gear for you and they don't switch tanks for you between dives. Personally I have no problem with this although I've heard some others whine. I would much rather set up my own gear. That way I know how it's been handled and that it's set up right. This style is similar to what I experienced in Nassau and St. Thomas but I was just doing my open water training there so setting up my own gear was probably part of the class. Also, when diving in the Florida Keys don't expect there to be any food or snacks on the boat. All the operators we dove with did provide drinking water and every boat had an ice chest for anything you wanted to store. The staff on all the operators (Captain Hooks, Captain's Corner & Abyss Dive Center) were professional, friendly, answered any questions we had and provided good dive site briefings. I would dive with any of these shops again.

We did two reef dives this day. Both a little too shallow for my taste. My maximum depth was 21 feet. They had the typical reef fish, crushed coral sandy bottoms and coral formations. There was a noticeable amount of dead coral but a lot more that was living. Lots of sea fans here. There was also a lot of surge here. Not unbearable but a little annoying. There was still some swells on the surface and Clifford and I were "looking down the rabbit hole" of sea sickness. Fortunately we didn't go down the rabbit hole. Normally this feeling goes away during the dive but the surge wasn't helping. Most notable fish - Green Moray, Spiny Lobsters, Trumpet fish and a nice large school of Four-Eye Butterfly fish. Visibility was only 50-60 feet. This could have been due to the previous day's wind, swells and the surge. I lump these two dive sites together because they were only about 100 feet apart from each other. Each dive was about 50 minutes long. We were told to limit our dives to 1 hour or 500 psi, which ever came first. Being so shallow, 1 hour always came first.

Dive site 1
  • The Elbow - Coral reef shaped in a elbow.
  • Site depth - maybe 30 feet somewhere if you bury your computer in the sand.
  • My max depth - 17 feet
  • Vis - 50 feet
  • Coldest water temp - 81F
  • Bottom time - 47 minutes
Dive site 2
  • The Donut - Coral reef shaped in a donut.
  • Site depth - again maybe 30 feet
  • My max depth - 21 feet
  • Vis - 80 feet
  • Coldest water temp - 80F
  • Bottom time - 49 minutes
Oh did I mention I lost my mask? First dive, as I did my giant stride into the water my mask popped right off and sunk. Fortunately another diver quickly retrieved it for me. This boat did sit rather high out of the water. I normally grab my reg and press 2 fingers onto my mask to hold it there. Now I get a nice firm grab of both. This was the dive trip of forgetting/losing things. More on that later.

12 May 2010

Florida Keys - Day 2

This day was supposed to be our (Clifford and I) first dive day but when we got to Captain Hooks we were hit with some bad news. No diving. Lots of wind out to sea. Seven+ foot swells. No dive boats heading out. Bummer. We got dropped off by the girls and a staff member of the dive shop was nice enough to drive us back to our condo. Of course it would have been nice if they just called us in the first place and told us the dive was canceled.

Near the shore conditions were pretty calm, however. Our new friends, that hooked us up with the condo, were kind enough to loan Clifford and I their kayaks. The girls were heading to the beach.

This turned out to be a really great experience. Right outside their house is a narrow channel and on the other side is Boot key. Boot key is an island with solid ground in the middle, somewhere, surrounded by mangrove. We kayaked around the key and into the mangrove. Never have I experienced any habitat quite like this so it was a real treat. There are small channels into the mangrove where the trees grow right over you like a tunnel. In places, where it gets very narrow, you have to lay your paddle lengthwise on the kayak and pull yourself thorough. Stone crabs climbed up the trees as we passed and groups of clams were growing on the roots.

At one point we entered a small open area. The bottom was clearly visible only 1 to 2 feet down. I swung my legs over the side of the kayak and stepped down which upon reflection was probably not so good for this habitat. There appeared to be a grassy bottom and when my foot made contact it continued to sink right through. I could feel vegetation breaking apart as my foot was consumed. I stopped sinking through the bottom somewhere mid way up my calf. I took a few more steps. It was a fascinating and creepy feeling all at the same time. My mind raced through all sorts of things that could be hiding under there. I climbed back into the kayak. I was reminded of a similar experience probing the bottom of Lake Pleasant in AZ.

We left the mangrove and decided to head to the beach where Christine and her friend should be. They had left already. Time for a little snorkeling. Walking out into the water I thought to myself, "Shuffle your feet." A few minutes later Clifford confirmed my suspicion by reporting a sting ray sighting. Bad vis. Real bad vis. Back to the beach, the Laughing Gulls and the kayaks. Back to the house. We passed some shore divers along the way. Rescue diver training in progress.

The way back was tiring. The tide seemed to be against us. All in all we kayaked about 4 miles.

Florida Keys - Travel Day

May 1st was a travel day. A really odd travel day for us. Normally we take an early morning flight somewhere. This time we took a red-eye. The flight left somewhere around 10:30pm. Straight shot from here to Miami. What was so bizarre was sitting around all day waiting to head to the airport. What we didn't expect was how dead the airport would be on a Saturday night.

Christine's friend knows someone that works for Alaska Air and got us a upgrade to "first" class for only $150. We were told to mention it at check in and pay the clerk there. She took care of us and never asked for any money. Oops, first class for free. It wasn't that much different up there. Oh yeah free drinks but I don't drink that much. The food was a little better but not really a meal. It was comparable to food you would get 20 years ago in coach. Yeah, anyone else remember when they used to give you a meal in coach?

We arrived in Miami about 8am Sunday the 2nd, picked up the luggage, hopped the shuttle to the rental car, got treated to some Cuban coffee by the rental car guy (sweet) and headed South. Christine's friend didn't want to wait 6+ hours for my friend, Clifford, to arrive from Phoenix so two hours or so down the Overseas Highway to Marathon and the condo, then 2 hours back to the Miami airport and, return again, to Marathon. Gahhh! I spent more time in the car then on the plane. Later we found out there was a fraking shuttle bus from Miami to the airport in Marathon that Clifford could have took! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!

A few drinks and off to bed. Did I mention we got hooked up with a condo, on the water, for free? Christine's friend knows a friend who owns the place.