My daughter had signed up for a Mote Marine Labs workshop at the Mote facility on Summerland Key so I decided to add some diving of my own to the trip. I'll mention her experience with Mote later on, it was a good one. I booked dives for June 11, 12, and 13, 2002, with Reef-Divers of Cudjoe Key. This outfit was highly recommended by divers on http://www.scubadiving.com as well as news://alt.rec.scuba. Capt Wyatt uses two outboard powered six-pack boats for trips out to the reef as well as to deeper wreck destinations. Two tank dives are available in the morning and afternoon. This is a top shelf operation and deserves to be on folk's short list for this area. He also provides most PADI certifications. I completed my nitrox dives and quiz with him during the week. His website also indicates he can do Trimix blending. He mentioned that he runs groups out to the Wilkes-Barre for trimix diving. I'm not familiar with this type of diving and cannot evaluate this segment of his operation; check his website for more info and contact him directly for information if you do this type of diving. Briefings were excellent and included recall information.
The weather was touch and go with an upper atmosphere low pressure disturbance over the Bahamas messing things up further south. Wind, rain, and a few thunderstorms between patches of blue sky were the norm However, we got some great diving in. Capt. Wyatt (he is a retired naval officer and served on the Spiegel Grove) uses nitrox on dives below 60 feet. We reviewed blending and analysis procedures and checked out my tanks. They were well within 1% of the 32% O2 spec we wanted. I am a conservative diver as is my daughter, we keep our computers in the green at all times, so I approached increased NDL limits with a bit of skepticism. Not to worry, though. The dives did give me the opportunity (excuse) to get a new computer, an Oceanic Versa Pro.
The Looe Key section of the sanctuary is shallow. Dives run in the 20-30 foot range with some sections shallow enough for easy snorkeling. On June 11, I did four dives on the reef. Within a minute or two of hitting the water on the first dive, two reef sharks, nice big ones, came sailing by. Apparently they are very common. Large barracuda, 1m in size, were also present. Other divers also reported eagle rays in the area. My daughter diving with the Mote group saw a very large, well fed, Green Moray. The condition of the coral was surprisingly good in terms of variety and quantity from what I expected. It's obvious that folks are going to some length to help the reef stay healthy. Visibility was over 50 feet.
Check some of the pictures that I have up below. The other fishy inhabitants were also quite healthy. I had never seen schools of parrotfish before, just solitary individuals. Some of these guys were huge - several feet long. Several groups of large midnight parrots were around. Macro opportunities were also present but the surge from the waves made using my framer almost impossible at my skill level. I left it topside after the first dive. These were easy and relaxing dives. There are quite a few mooring sites in the sanctuary so one doesn't have to go back to the same spot over and over. In the afternoon, a shark swam from behind me - I would tentatively ID it as a Bull with its heavy body and blunt head. Capt. Wyatt said he'd heard reports of Bull Sharks on the reef. Anyway, it kept heading away in fast, jerky movements, not the fluid, slow swimming of the reef variety I've seen.
On June 12th, we dove two tanks on the Adolphus Busch in the morning. The ship has been opened up for swim throughs with all of the compartments we were in opening directly into the open ocean or into a compartment that did. The ambient light was excellent. I've got an overhead shot of the engine room up below. Four of us went down and descended and ascended as a group on the buoy anchor line. You need gloves for this activity. We all used Nitrox 32. I've got some pics of the divers and the Busch up below. One of the group was completing wreck certification and practiced reel and line usage. A really huge grouper was on deck when we descended the first time but moved off into the open water as we completed our descent. Visibility was top to bottom vertically and about 40-50 feet horizontally.
That afternoon we did two more reef dives. Again, the visibility was fine. Large, docile barracuda were under several ledges. Back roll entries were used on all dives. We took our gear off in the water before removing fins and climbing the ladder. The dive boats are high sided and this made boarding easier.
The Looe Key area was pretty rough on the 13th, Capt. Wyatt elected not to go out. I checked around Key West and dove two afternoon dives with Dive Key West . The boat is large and one enters using giant strides. There was me, and two instructors, one with two students, one with one. I dove with the trio. The going was pretty rough - 5 foot seas but the sun was out. Visibility was pretty bad at the Haystacks on Eastern Sambo Reef. However, it was obvious when one got close, that the reef was in good shape and there were plenty of fish around. Lobsters were under several ledges. Huge parrotfish again. Several folks diving that afternoon were finishing their OW certification. Pretty rough conditions for that activity. Triptone kept my lunch down, though. :-) . The experience getting back on was a reminder of my certification dives in the Bahamas in March of '01 - wind and waves. Briefings were excellent; the boat was equipped with an underwater speaker system for diver recalls using a siren. The large, beamy boat was stable in the seaway and the crew very helpful. The between-dive snack was one of the bests I've had - lots of fresh fruit, loved it. Hopefully I'll be able to go back in better conditions. I strongly recommend this operation.
The Mote Labs program my daughter took part in is a five day residential program on Summerland Key at the Mote facility there. The young people performed fish counts, did some lab work, and were able to get to know what the facility and its staff does. Staff presented programs on issues facing the Keys and the reefs.
The diving for Mote was handled, I think, by Underseas, Inc. of Big Pine Key on the Pegasus, a fifty foot flat deck boat (around home we call them party boats) that can carry up to 40(!) divers. One of the program staff as well as the dive operator's staff dove with the young students, all of whom were certified divers and were 14-15 years old. Elizabeth said it was well handled and safe - they went out all three days, she elected to snorkel one of those days. Snorkeling was either at Looe or up the road at Pigeon Key (where the workers who maintained the old rail line years ago were housed, an interesting side trip in itself). Mote has several other offerings, check their website.
That points up one thing I alluded to earlier - Looe Key trips are fine for both scuba and snorkel users. We had snorkelers on one of our trips, some of the reef sections come up to 5 feet or so of the surface. Families with some of each can enjoy the same trip out.
The two of us had a great time. I missed diving with my daughter, we've done some 60 dives together over the past year. She's a safe diver and I feel very comfortable in the water with her. Hopefully, the whole family (my wife snorkels) can go back in the near future.
A postscript - getting there is easy. If you don't drive - either fly direct to Key West (I stayed at the Hampton Inn, good "senior" rates :-0 for those over 50) or to Miami by air and rent a car. Driving up and down the Keys is as slow as ever - one crawler slows traffic to a standstill. Delta Airlines was punctual and presented no lost luggage problems. Small fanny packs count as a piece of luggage and had to be stowed in another carryon piece. Key West dining is great, as is the Mallory Square street artist entertainment at sunset every evening.
It was a great trip.
|Jim Wyatt and two OW students||Engine room of the Adolphus Busch|
|Cooperative French Angel||Pipefish on Busch - not sure why red shift occurred|
|Barracuda were plentiful and docile, I botched several pictures by being too close. Thought about using the macro on the teeth, then thought again.||Mr. Gray showed up on most Looe dives.|