Coming to America
By Paul Tzimoulis
After 20 years of diving exotic locations such as Palau, Coco and the Cayman Islands, I recently found myself driving down a familiar road in the Florida Keys. It was August, the dog days of summer, with the air temperature at 91 degrees F, water temperature at 86 degrees F and the sea surface glassy calm.
I had been hearing great things about Florida diving and it was time to rediscover America's most famous dive area.
We began our dive trek at Key West by hooking up with Southpoint Divers. Capt. Glenn Evans introduced us to the wreck of the Cayman Salvage Master, a 186 foot steel hulled buoy tender resting upright on the bottom in 92 feet of water. While divemaster Chip hooked up the mooring line, Capt. Glenn explained the Jewfish were back and that practically every wreck in the Key West area was inhabited by two or three of them. They ranged in size from 100 to 800 pounds, he said.
The Florida Marine Fisheries Commission declared a moratorium on harvesting Jewfish in 1990 and now, seven years later, the great fish has made a major comeback. Sure enough, we spotted a small 110 pound Jewfish in the engine room of the wreck. On the second dive, we discovered another rarity;at least three large Snook in the same engine room area. The exterior of the vessel was teeming with fishlife;Blue and Queen Angelfish, schooling jacks and a dozen other species of reef fish. At one point, two giant African Pompano cruised past the wreck as if they were on parade. It was a circus down there.
From Key West, we drove 50 miles to Marathon, making an early morning visit to The Diving Site, a full service dive center that caters to experienced divers. We joined Capt. Bob Tilman aboard the Seafari for a trip to his newest dive site, Samantha's Reef. Capt. Bob has discovered a group of Nurse Sharks that are friendly and can be handfed. I had not seen anything like this since Belize. Here we were in 22 feet of water, feeding and petting a group of four beautiful Nurse Sharks that were as gentle as puppy dogs.
From Marathon we drove another 50 miles to Key Largo, where we paid a visit to Atlantis Dive Center. We joined up with Capt. Spencer Slate for one of his fish feeding performances. It was not long before we were introduced to Psycho, a five foot Barracuda with the biggest set of teeth you can imagine. The big predator was floating just under the surface, a foot behind the dive platform.
Capt. Slate's Barracuda feeding is one of the most awesome events you are likely to see underwater. The big fish backs up about 25 feet and waits for Capt. Slate to remove his regulator and insert the bait in his mouth. The Barracuda rockets in at 35 mph, striking the bait with the force of a locomotive. With its jaws wide open, the bait virtually explodes in the Barracuda's mouth and the pressure wave rocks you backward.
This Barracuda feeding is something all certified divers should see before they hang up their fins.
As we left Key Largo and drove north to Miami, I could not help wondering why more divers weren't enjoying the wonders of the Florida Keys.
The quality of diving is superb;better than it was 20 years ago. The dive stores and boats are first rate and the service excellent. After two decades of chasing diving adventure around the world, I have found it right here in America's backyard.