As fishermen tell it, these marine blimps hover in wait of easy meals, parking themselves next to fishing boats and snatching someone else's hard-won catch off the line. They face strong opposition from environmentalists, divers and some scientists, who relish the opportunity to see these enormous, surprisingly curious fish just a few hundred yards from South Florida's condo towers.
“If you sit still, they'll come to you and see what's going on,” said Kevin Metz, owner of Underwater Explorers of Boynton Beach, whose business from August through October consists almost exclusively of taking divers to see Goliath groupers at a submerged wreck. For anglers, watching in dismay as Goliath groupers swallow their catch, the huge fish are as charming as that friend who always seems to show up around dinner time.
His eyeball was the size of a baseball, and its mouth was so big it could’ve eaten a small child.” Brian Sanders of Davie has taken famous South Floridians including former Miami Dolphins' linebacker Zach Thomas and former pro wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson fishing for Goliath.
Written comments to the wildlife commission in support of allowing them to be taken again describe similar experiences. Whether to allow them to be killed, the wildlife commission has received 439 written comments so far, the majority from fishermen who blame the resurgence of Goliath groupers for a decline in the number of other fish.
“They eat massive amounts of reef fish to maintain and grow to these huge weights. Known until 2001 by the politically incorrect name “Jewish,” the goliathgrouper had sustained a sharp decline due to overfishing for its meat, the loss of coastal habitat for young fish and the inherent vulnerabilities of a long-lived species that takes years to reach sexual maturity.
The species is classified as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global authority on the status of wildlife populations. “Recent stock assessment indicates abundance in South Florida has greatly increased since the fishery closed in 1990,” said Amanda Valley, spokeswoman for the wildlife commission.
“While a limited harvest of smaller-sized fish in south Florida is unlikely to harm the population, the FCC also wants to take into consideration stakeholder perspectives. Sylvia Earle, one of the world's foremost marine biologists, who was named a Hero for the Planet by Time magazine, strongly supports keeping the ban, saying that living Goliath groupers are ecological treasures that support a growing tourism industry.
A group fishing off the coast of Bonita Springs in Florida snagged a 5-foot (1.5-meter) shark -- hook, line, and sinker. But before they could haul it up, a spiky, golden leviathan surfaces and snatches the shark.
Apparently, this monster grouper had tried to steal at least one other catch earlier that morning. Atlantic Goliath groupers are known to grow up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) long and weigh up to several hundred pounds.
While diving in 80-foot deep waters off the coast of Jupiter, Florida, spear fisherman Arif Saber had a standoff with a seemingly fearless and ferocious goliathgrouper, which Grind TV estimated was 300- to 400-pounds. Saber had just caught a lesser amber jack with his spearfish gun, he told Grind TV, when he noticed the large grouper eyeing him and closing the distance in between them.
The video, shot by his wife using a GoPro 3, shows the hefty fish as he nips at the man's flipper, tearing it off, and then goes straight for his catch with its powerful jaw. But, even if the diver wasn't familiar with that specific size of this type of fish, Goliath groupers have been known to roam western Atlantic waters near Florida.
If you’ve never heard of the GoliathGrouper it is the largest of all the grouper species, and as we SE here it’s also a fish you never want to mess without in the ocean. The GoliathGrouper (formerly known as the Jewish) all-tackle world record was set back in 1961, in Fernanda Beach, FL…that fish was a colossal 680 POUNDS.
So now that we’ve established their impressive size, it’s easy to question why in the hell a spear fishermen would get so close to one out in open water. “TROPICAL STORM FRANKLIN SLOWING Curing UP THE EAST COAST OF FLORIDA.
PREDICTED TO BRING 50 MPH WINDS AND 2 TO 4 INCHES OF RAIN TO EAST COAST ON SATURDAY AND SUNDAY.” Yes, Florida suffered from an unprecedented number of hurricanes and tropical storms in 2004, and 2005 is looking like it will be more even more terrible.
Worse than that for me, however, is that I have signed up for a weekend dive trip off the coast of Jupiter Florida. We do six dives in less than two days -- a rather large number in such a short period of time.
My dive computer -- while a device I've always found pleasurably reliable -- was designed for regular air, and not the recently emerging nitro gas. So while I was happily enjoying more safety and longer dive times, my faithful (and suddenly obsolete) computer was presuming that I was, as always, using conventional air.
Indeed, it is madly, frantically beeping and flashing a terrifying “SOS” message. The poor little outdated computer is screaming at me that I've exceeded my “decompression stop” limits.
My computer thinks, erroneously, that I need to stop at 15 feet of depth for 19 minutes before surfacing in order to out gas nitrogen in my blood. Ordinarily, this kind of “deck stop” miscue means the diver has a very good chance of ending up with a terrible case of the bends due to wildly expanding nitrogen bubbles.
Of course, I was perfectly fine, being on nitro, but my computer was programmed to take the safety measure of being unusable for the next 24 hours while it blared SOS!! The dive trip leader, well aware of how annoying such a safety device can be on a computer, points out to me that the warning should not read SOS.
But this little hitch hardly puts a dent in this otherwise wonderfully memorable dive trip. Lots of nurse sharks (totally harmless, yet incredibly graceful and fun to see).
An abundance of very large green moray eels (some the size of telephone poles, as the photo shows) poking their squirming heads out of coral formations, and menacingly snapping their sharp-toothed mouths open and shut to intimidate any potentially hostile attackers. We also have the pleasure of seeing an enormous number of large-antenneaed lobster (see above), some colorful queen angelfish, schools of barracuda, and some extremely large loggerhead and hawks bill sea turtles.
On one of our dives, we come across a 400-pound turtle resting at 70 feet with two 4-foot long remoras’s attached to her back. We just effortlessly glide by in total silence as the colorful reefs and vibrant marine life pass before our eyes.
In a single 40-minute dive, we casually inspect 3 ships lying wrecked at the sea bottom about 90 feet down. It is hard to describe how astonishingly HUGE these guys are (the photo shows a diver swimming alongside one that is about one third SMALLER than the ones we swam with).
One could eat fish like a king for five years if you caught one of these slow-moving monsters (they're protected by law, fortunately). When I was thinking about making my Florida trip in July, I made a post on Facebook asking for recommended dive ops.
For those who have been following my blog, I’d done two of the nicest wrecks in Florida (or anywhere for that matter) along with some great reefs with lots of fish. For sharks, my friend Jen Gilligan gave a recommendation for Deep Obsession out of Lake Park in Palm Beach County.
I might add that Palm Beach County in Florida attracts divers from everywhere. I made trips there whenever I could afford it back in the 80s when I lived in Orlando.
The end result is warm water, nice reefs, plenty of fish, and the chance to see pelagic like sharks. As I mentioned in my last blog post, after diving Key Largo for two days I headed north.
By 5:30 PM I was pulling into the parking lot of the strip mall where Deep Obsession has a shop. I walked in too Jim Abernathy’s Scuba Adventures and Marine Life Art Gallery next door and inquired.
I told the woman there I was diving with Deep Obsession the next day. She told me they were already gone for the day but were usually in the shop in the morning around 8 AM preparing to go out.
I saw a very thin pair of gloves that I thought would be ideal for the shark dives. I got back in my car and continued north up US Highway 1 until I reached the Best Western Plus in Palm Beach Gardens.
At 75 dollars a night it was the second best rate I’d paid on the trip and turned out to be the nicest room! While checking in I asked for a room close to parking and downstairs because of all my gear and the desk clerk very nicely put me in a 1st floor room closest to the exit to the parking lot.
Before returning to the US I’d made a decision to upgrade my camera equipment and had starting ordering the week I came back. By sticking with Nikon, it allowed me to use the lenses that I’d made a significant investment in already.
Ike lite without a doubt makes some of the best strobes out there and I have and continue to receive good service from my DS125 and DS160. I also believe Ike lite makes a quality housing which is much less expensive than other systems.
My dives on the Brisbane in Pensacola and in Key Largo had all been done with just the camera, housing, and video light. After a leisurely breakfast I went back to my room and loaded everything in the car and left for the dive shop.
Amber was there, and we got all the usual paperwork out of the way including one that said I wouldn’t sue if a shark ate me… just kidding, it didn’t say that :)) After that I got directions to the boat which it turned out was only a couple blocks away. I arrived at Lake Park Marina around 8:40 where there was a buzz of activity.
The crew was loading the boat and told me to just leave my gear and tanks, and they would take care of them. It was looking like another beautiful sunny day in Florida and the water was absolutely flat as we left the marina.
There wasn’t much traffic out as we made our way down the intracoastal, under the Blue Heron Bridge, past another marina, and then a left turn to the east and down the channel to the Atlantic Ocean. On the way out Autumn and Derek cut up fish and prepared a milk crate of chum that would be used to lure the sharks to us.
We pushed east towards our first dive site which Scott called Deep Ledge. Autumn and Tony gave a very thorough brief on the dive.
Everyone would enter the water and arrange ourselves around Autumn who would stay with the crate to prevent the sharks from tearing it up to get at the fish scraps! We were cautioned not to let our depth drop too low as this could have an effect on the sharks and cause them not to come up.
When we reached the site and given the word by Scott we started entering the water. I stepped off the dive platform, turned and Derek handed me my camera.
I have many friends that do not dive (and some who do) who have communicated a fear of sharks, but I can truthfully say I never felt threatened in any way. Once on the boat, the crew circulated offering drinks and people chatted about the dive.
The ESO Bonfire was a tanker built in Honduras in 1926. It was seized by the US Government when the US Customs Service discovered 55,000 lbs of marijuana aboard.
The Economic Council of Palm Beach County purchased it to be sunk as an artificial reef. The dive was briefed and because of current we planned a negative entry and drift down and into the wreck.
I spotted a very nice size lobster near the beginning of the dive. There were places we could drop out of the current and be sheltered by the reef, and we made a couple of stops.
Water temperature was 83F for this dive and maximum depth was 82 feet. On the way back in I decided that I would stay and dive another day.
When we arrived back at the dock, I took my camera and the crew assured me that they would take care of my gear and have my tanks filled for the next days diving. The next days diving had a departure time of 10 AM, and I was asked to be at the shop around 9 AM to do paperwork.
After getting back to the hotel I showered and rinsed my camera gear again. After breakfast, I went back to the room and installed freshly charged batteries to my strobes and camera.
Once everything was set up to my satisfaction I put everything in the car and headed to the dive shop. This dive starts about a mile northeast of Lake Worth Inlet.
She was cleaned up for diving and has had all the doors and hatches removed and cleaned up for diving before being sunk as an artificial reef way back in 1968 making it the oldest artificial reef in Palm Beach County. I managed to fight the current long enough to get some photos then drifted along the bottom to the end of the wreck and up to the deck.
I’d spent most of the time allotted for this wreck photographing the Goliath groupers. After a few minutes we started towards the second wreck in the lineup, the PC-1174, and old patrol craft.
It’s heavily deteriorated and I spent almost no time there as by as my computer was starting to flash at me to go up. I grabbed a couple of shots and drifted as I started to go up.
It was towed to the present site in 1968 and sunk in 85 feet of water as an artificial reef. Once back at the dock the crew unloaded my gear for me and I stowed it in my car.
On Saturday morning I headed to Ft Myers to visit an old friend and his family. After spending the night I left Sunday afternoon, stopping in Orlando to have dinner with my step-son.
After surviving Hurricane Harvey over the weekend I’m in the planning stages now for my next dive trip. I’m expecting to return to Darin where my friend Mark Morley, from Australia is very close to completion of a new dive resort.
I stopped and got something to eat at Burger King (no breakfast or lunch) and thought about it. After checking Google Maps, I decided that Key Largo was doable and got back on the road.
I stopped at one place that didn’t come up on Agoda, but they wanted $105 a night plus tax for an RV! Key Largo Inn was $99 bucks a night and breakfast was included.
I unloaded my gear and then after a quick shower, I worked on finishing up my previous blog post on diving in Venice. I wandered over to the bar/restaurant where they had plenty of fresh pastries, fruit, yogurt, and coffee.
After I finished eating I walked across the street with my coffee to Scuba-Fun Dive Center. There I met Dan who initially told me that it was too late to dive that morning.
He ended up being able to get me on the boat with Horizon Divers for a 2 tank trip out to dive the Spiegel Grove! I ran back across the street, poked my head into the office to let them know I’d be staying an extra day, and then went to my room and grabbed my gear.
There was a quick brief and the boat got underway for the Spiegel Grove. The USS Spiegel Grove (LSD-32) was a Thomaston-class dock landing ship constructed by the In galls Shipbuilding Corporation in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
She made two goodwill tours to Africa carrying tons of supplies. USS Spiegel Grove was decommissioned on 2 October 1989 and her name struck from the Navy list on 13 December 1989.
She was then transferred to the United States Maritime Administration and the James River Reserve Fleet near Ft. Eustis, Virginia. The ship was to be sunk near Key Largo as part of the artificial reefs program.
Over a 2-day period, 10-11 June 2002, and at an additional cost of $250 thousand dollars, the Resolve Marine Group got her rolled over on her starboard side and laying on the bottom. At 510 feet long and 84 feet at the beam, the Spiegel Grove was the largest ship ever to be reefed at the time of her sinking (bigger ships have been reefed since).
Just 3 years later after Hurricane Dennis passed by in July 2005, divers were surprised to find that the storm at righted the ship, and she was now sitting on her keel! Every time I’ve dived it there has been strong current there and this is considered pretty normal due to the location.
A diver really should be comfortable in the water to make this dive. I’d been asked before I left the dive shop if I wanted to hire a guide and I’d said no, they could just buddy me with someone on the boat.
As I was getting my gear setup I met DJ Hall who was my buddy for the morning and it turned out was also an instructor for Horizon Scuba. We turned out to have quite a bit in common as we’d both served in the United States Navy at the same time.
Once we arrived at the site, the boat was tied off to a mooring buoy and lines were rigged. As with other boats I’ve dived with where we were off-shore with current, a trail line consisting of about 50 feet of line with a float on the end was attached to the stern of the boat.
We did a giant stride off the dive platform and then followed the lines down to the wreck. We planned to explore the outside of the wreck on this first dive, and we made our way around the upper deck.
Rather than using my strobes, I’d opted to use a single video light for photography on this dive. Hall salutes the flag that is still waving above the USS Spiegel Grove LSD-32, which now serves as an artificial reef 6 miles off-shore of Key Largo, Florida. One of the things that really strikes me about this dive is the huge numbers of fish around the wreck.
There were many of “the usual suspects” as I call them as well, including butterfly fish, squirrel fish, grunts, and dam selfish. We explored the outer hull and towards the end of the dive did one limited penetration into the area where he messes deck used to be.
Even with nitro the computer will normally determine the length of the dive! There we made a penetration into one of the forward machine spaces.
We then made a penetration down some main passageways in the superstructure where I spotted the ship logo I mentioned earlier, on the deck. Later I stopped by the drugstore and picked up a few odds and ends, including some snacks and some drinking water.
I went by Scuba-Fun and settled my bill since I planned to leave the next day after my dives. The rate for 2 wreck dives including tanks and weights is $85.00.
On Wednesday, August 16th after a good night sleep I was up in time to pack the car and grab some breakfast at the hotel. My plan was to check out of the hotel before going to dive and then leave after that for the drive north.
Guido Gillette, an Italian sculpted the original which was placed in the Mediterranean Sea on 22 August 1954. A second statue cast from the same mold was placed in the waters near Grenada on 22 October 1961.
The statue at Key Largo was also cast from the original mold and was a gift to the Underwater Society of America in 1962. On 25 August 1965 it was placed in 25 feet of water at Dry Rocks in the John Pennekamp State Park.
It is attached to a concrete base that weighs 9 tons! In one of these indentations is found the statue which is quite popular with snorkelers and divers.
One thing you don’t want to do is touch the statue as it’s now completely covered with fire coral! For this morning I was buddies with a father and son who were on vacation.
Visibility was not quite as good as on the Spiegel Grove the day before and it was a bit warmer, but the water is quite shallow here. Lots of reef fish including parrot fish of various varieties, angelfish, butterfly fish, dogfish, and groupers.
After seeing the statue, which was swarmed by people (divers and snorkelers), we checked our other areas of the reef. As time started to count down I ran a compass course back to where the boat was and made sure my buddies stayed within sight.
When we got back to the area of the boat they went up and I stayed down a bit longer while they were getting onboard, then I surfaced. We traveled a fairly short distance and tied up to another mooring buoy.
Similar reef system, but a bit of current this time. Maximum depth for this dive was 29 feet, it was again 86F and lasted 55 minutes.
Once back at the dock I washed my gear and packed it in the car. I took advantage of the outdoor shower there to give myself a good rinse and changed into dry clothes for the trip north.
If you enjoy reading about my adventures why not sign up so you never miss a post. In my next blog post I’ll be writing about my visit to Palm Beach County, Florida where I dived with Deep Obsession.
You’ll get to hear about my experience diving with sharks in open water (without a cage), and goliathgrouper (at 8 feet and over 700 lbs they could swallow a diver whole I think!). Venice, Florida is known as the “Shark Tooth Capitol of the World” and for good reason.
Due to a set of unique circumstances this is the number one place on the planet to find fossilized sharks teeth! Although they can be found through digging and even just washed up on the beach, one of the best ways to find them is through scuba diving.
During this period sea levels were high and the area we know today as Florida was underwater. During millions of years, layers of limestone accumulated on the seafloor creating what is today the bedrock of Florida.
During the Oligocene period 28-40 million years ago sea levels began to drop as the planet cooled and the ice caps expanded. Rain created many cave systems and sinkholes in the porous limestone.
During the Miocene Epoch 12-28 million years ago we begin to see land animals moving into the area. There was also heavy sediment with rich deposits of nutrients that were being washed down from the Appalachian Mountains in the north which were uplifted during this period.
The Pliocene Epoch that began 12 million years ago and lasted until 2 million years ago, was a period of extreme climate and sea level changes with levels as much as 300 feet lower and a 100 feet higher than they are today (long before people were a factor, but I digress). When sea levels would rise during inter-glacial periods many of these animals were buried and preserved through the fossilization process.
Sediment also buried and preserved many marine species, as it was deposited into the sea. This whole process continued into the early Pliocene Epoch, about 5 million years ago.
These deposits created phosphate rich layers or formations which today are mostly underground. The Peace River flows into the Gulf of Mexico just south of Venice.
Finally, during the Pleistocene Epoch that began about 2.5 million years ago and lasted until 11,000 years ago there were several ice ages where again the polar ice caps expanded and contracted which raised and lowered sea levels. Many ice age animals that lived in Florida during that period have been preserved in the sediment through the fossilization process.
The Peace River Formation is exposed just off the beaches of Venice, Florida. That was why I dived the Brisbane last Friday and then came to Venice to look for fossils.
I did a web search as I normally do and the operation that I saw consistent recommendations for was Florida West Scuba. According to many scientists Carcharodon Megalodon sharks went extinct 2.5 million years ago, but their teeth are abundantly found here.
Just to give a small idea, the boat we dived off of was 35 feet! On Sunday, August 13th I stopped by the shop where I met Gary and Jerry.
Cost was 84 dollars for a 2-tank trip and included tanks and weights. “Hunting Fossil Shark Teeth in Venice, Florida-The Complete Guide:On the Beach, Scuba Diving, and Inland” by Robert L. Aqua and “Fossilized Sharks’s Teeth & Fossils-A Photo Identification Guide” by Byron Fink.
Grabbed a quick shower then loaded everything in the car and checked out of the hotel. There I met Captain Steve Jones, the owner of Florida West Scuba.
I unloaded my dive gear from the car and took it down to the dock where I met Dan Sandier, the divemaster for the day. He had two set aside and brought them over and removed the plugs for me Steve showed up and did a brief of the boat.
On the way out Dan did a brief on how the diving would be done and gave a fascinating talk with lots of anecdotes, about the history of Venice and why there were so many sharks teeth there. Dan does a quick class on the geologic history of the area as well as the identification of fossils and how to find them. It was a beautiful morning, and we were quickly on the first site.
Dan jumped in to check the site and when he returned and gave the okay the anchor was dropped, and we started entering the water. Dan handed us a float with dive flag and off we went.
Everyone did their own dive, which required a compass and would find their way back to the boat. The rule was 90 minutes or back on the boat with at least 500 psi left in the tank, whichever came first.
Water temperature on this dive was 88 degrees Fahrenheit and maximum depth was again 25 minutes. Next time I go I think I might try to stay a bit longer and maybe do some beach dives also.
Once back at the dock, there was large barrel for us to rinse our dive gear. There is a refreshment shack near the dock and it has restrooms with showers.
Once I’d rinsed my gear and put it away, I grabbed a quick shower and changed. I swung by the dive shop and picked up a couple of items and then I was on my way.
I haven’t dived Key Largo in a couple of years and that is where I’m at tonight. I know it might sound crazy but I don’t always really plan trips Sometimes I have a rough outline in my head and then I just go and make it up as I go along The only “scheduled” dives I’ve made for this trip was the ones on the OrBrisbanend the shark dives I’m going to do with Deep Obsessions in Palm Beach on Thursday.
The Brisbane is a WW II era Essex class aircraft carrier that is now the largest artificial reef in the world! In 1966 one of the worst fires since WW II broke out on Brisbane when a magnesium flare was accidentally ignited.
Review of this fire was part of my training in firefighting school when I was in the United States Navy. After 2 years she was re-possessed in 1997 due to a lack of progress on the part of the contractor in scrapping her.
In 1999, she was towed to the Maritime Administrations Beaumont Reserve Fleet (also where the Texas Clipper that I dived a few weeks ago was before being sunk as an artificial reef). In 2004, it was decided to sink her as an artificial reef off the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico.
The environmental preparation work was completed in Corpus Christi, Texas. Following Hurricane Gustav in 2008 she shifted and ended up 10 feet deeper.
I contacted H2O Below and received a response on July 26th that they had room on August 11th. I’d initially planned to make a weekend diving Pensacola then continue south.
Unfortunately the transmission on my brothers vehicle (that I’d planned on driving to Florida) malfunctioned (wouldn’t go above 2nd gear) and I found myself having to rent a car. I decided to cancel the other dives in Pensacola because of the unexpected expense.
I filled out the usual paperwork and signed the normal release, then unloaded my gear. I found out later that possibly this affected the choice of dive buddy.
Before getting underway, Captain Doug Hammock gave a very thorough brief on the boat and what the procedures would be. Captain Doug is one of the few full-time dive charters operating out of Pensacola.
The H2O Below is a 36-foot Newman custom dive boat. It runs an average of 20 knots which puts it at the Brisbane between 60 and 90 minutes depending on conditions.
Captain Doug had called me on Wednesday night to check on tank rentals. Like the Texas Clipper, the Brisbane is a fairly square profile.
Obviously a lot of forethought has been given to mitigate potential problems. I’ve talked a bit about my setup before in my blog.
Initially he was going to follow me around the wreck, but it ended up being the opposite as I had a camera and photographs tend to be more interesting with people in them I met Alton at the descent line as we had arranged previously, and we descended to the wreck.
I was immediately struck by the number of fish on the wreck including species like queen angelfish, butterfly fish, Tories, neon dam selfish, puffer fish, trumpet fish, and even lionfish which are an invasive species not native to this side of the world. On the first dive we dropped to 130 feet, then worked our way around the island as we moved back up.
The “island” for those who don’t know is an aircraft carrier’s command center. This makes most of the island, which is bigger than some wrecks I’ve dived on, within recreational limits.
(Note: after originally publishing this I discovered that my Facebook friend Tim Duncan, is the one who put the flag there and maintains it. I was back on board with 80 bar (Because I dive so much in Asia I have a metric gauge… 1 bar=1 atmosphere so about 1200 psi).
Water temperatures were a bit warmer in this part of the Gulf of Mexico at 81 degrees Fahrenheit. Back at the surface, I handed my camera to Captain Doug, removed my fins and climbed the ladder to the dive platform.
The sun was shining, but there were some clouds and a breeze so it really didn’t feel hot. During the surface interval, I mentioned to Alton that I wouldn’t mind doing a limited penetration, so we planned that.
All the doors, windows, and ladders (Navy-speak for stairs) had been removed which made penetrations of the island relatively safe. I had a flashback to my time on the USS Nimitz and being on the island on that ship.
My many years of sea duty means it’s not hard for me to imagine what this ship would have been like so many decades ago. Nine showed up with two slipper lobster and motioned for Alton to take them as he had a thigh pocket big enough to hold them until we were back on the boat.
I swam away from the island to get some shots and before I knew it my computer was again blinking at me that I was getting close to deck and it was time to go up. During the safety stop I killed time by photographing several barracuda including one that got my attention because of a large hook in its mouth.
It’s not air consumption, but no-decompression limits which are the deciding factor for run time. Once we were tied up and I’d gotten my gear and camera equipment cases on the dock I settled up with Captain Doug.
If you would like to dive the world’s largest artificial reef, then you can contact H2O Below via their website at http://ussoriskanydiver.com/ I stopped and got a hotel on the way last night.
Of course as those of you who follow my blog know, I’ve dived almost exclusively in the Philippines the last few years. A Windsor class attack transport ship named after the borough of Queens in New York City.
After the war she was sold to American Export Lines in 1948 and renamed Exception. For the next 11 years she sailed a regular route from New York to ports in the Mediterranean carrying passengers and cargo.
Consequently, she was laid up as a part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet from 1959 to 1965 when she was loaned to the Texas Maritime Academy as a merchant marine officer training ship. After that she was returned to the National Defense Reserve Fleet and moored in Beaumont, Texas until 2006 when she was transferred to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Artificial Reef Program.
The ship underwent a cleanup of hazardous materials and openings and modifications were made in order to make it safer for divers and wildlife. Masts and king posts were cut to meet Coast Guard Clearance requirements and secured to the deck.
She was sunk in 136 feet of water on November 17, 2007, approximately 17 miles northeast of South Padre Island. From where I stay near Houston to South Padre Island is almost 300 miles and a 6-7 hour drive depending on traffic.
I could have flown to many top dive destinations in the Caribbean in much less time than it took to drive there! I opted to stay in Port Isabel, which is just across the bridge from South Padre Island.
After the usual paperwork and paying, I was directed to where my tanks were waiting near the dock. They had a meter ready, so I could check the oxygen content which was 31.9%.
I have a new Nikon D500 with an Ike lite housing and this would be my first dives with the new camera setup. I decided to just shoot with a single light on top of the housing and leave the strobes.
I was buddy’d with Mark Park, who like me it turned out lived near Houston. There was a big drawing of the wreck on the cyclone fence that ran alongside the staging area to the dock with picnic tables set up in front that Captain Tim referred to during his brief.
Once everyone had a number and the gear was in order, the crew moved them onto the boat. While we were sitting and chatting a crew member passed out breakfast burritos to everyone, and they were quite tasty.
There was a cooler full of drinks that you could help yourself, but members of the crew circulated around passing out bottles of water. After eating we decided to go up on deck and sat at the bow and chatted while taking in the scenery.
Our tanks and equipment made the ride out strapped on the roof of the crew compartment on the boat. There we would don our gear with assistance from the crew and then when we were ready just roll forward into the water.
This is the easiest physically and saves energy (and air) for the dive. The farmer john is a 4th Element Thermohaline which is neutrally buoyant.
I had just purchased a Sharkskin top which is also neutrally buoyant. There were plenty of fish around, spade fish, chub, sergeant-major, grouper, dogfish, schools of jacks, and barracuda as well.
There is one area for a limited penetration that used to be the Promenade deck that has many openings out so it’s very safe. The short dive time wasn’t because of air but because even with Nitro with such a square profile we run into no-decompression limits.
I hit the surface with a 100 bar (roughly 1500 psi). After a surface interval it was time for the second dive and the previous procedures just repeated themselves.
We had one spear fisherman on the boat with us, and he speared a lionfish near the beginning of the dive. For my friends on the SE Asia side of the world, lionfish or a real problem in the Caribbean.
Many programs have been formulated to try and keep them in check including actively spearing them. Maximum depth this time was 87 feet and the dive was 24 minutes.
We loaded my gear into his vehicle and stopped by the shop to buy a souvenir shirt before heading home. Tomorrow morning I have a doctors appointment and then I’ll be headed to Florida.
I knew I would be headed back to the US on July 12th, so I decided I would pick a destination in the Philippines. I’d been thinking about going to El Nido again ever since my buddy Ron from California had told me what a good time he had there.
After a web search, I emailed three different dive operations to ask about rates. If I don’t have a personal recommendation then I will just pick and hope for the best.
I was also able to get a fan room in OG’s Pension House, which is above the dive shop. I bought tickets for my flight through Cebu Pacific which is usually the cheapest way to fly in the Philippines.
I traveled by bus to Manila and as I normally do, stayed in a hotel overnight in Cuba. We waited just outside the terminal for about 30 minutes before boarding a van to leave the airport.
There we waited another half hour for other passengers to join us before finally heading to El Nido shortly after 1 PM. Late June is the beginning of rainy season, and we would have rain off and on the road north to El Nido.
It was rainy and already getting dark when the van arrived in El Nido at the transportation terminal where a trike took me too Cabana Divers. After a good night sleep (it rained off and on) I went downstairs to the shop.
Each day the shop would load tanks and everyone’s gear on the boat. One thing that was a bit annoying was that boats in El Nido are not allowed to go out until they are given clearance by the Coast Guard.
I spotted schools of fusilier’s, catfish, Nudibranchia, angelfish, lionfish, lizard fish, anemone fish, parrot fish, and bodies. My dive time was 50 minutes and maximum depth was 94 feet.
I spotted, parrot fish, dam selfish, cleaner wrasse, angelfish, blue-ribbon eel’s, bream, and the highlight of the dive was the large schools of snapper. Blue-ribbon eel, butterfly fish, groupers, and Moorish idols were all spotted during this dive.
More of the same from the previous dive including a large school of snapper. Twin Rocks- This dive site is on the north side of Manioc.
A small group of 3 Nudibranchia, Chromosomes willing. A Titan trigger fish with two cleaner wrasses working him over, dam selfish, and more anemone fish.
The dive started at 9:40 AM and was 49 minutes with a maximum depth of 97 feet. Nudibranchia, whip corals, squirrel fish, blacktop grouper, Moorish idol’s, emperor’s, and dam selfish were all spotted on this dive.
As before there were schools of fusiliers flitting around, anemones with anemone fish, and lots of nice hard corals. Lots of dam selfish, anemone fish, grouper, and schools of yellow-tailed fusiliers were all spotted on this dive.
Some nice swim-throughs that were huge rocks set close together and covered in corals. Nat Nat- Sloping reef to a sandy bottom with beautiful corals and plenty of fish.
Right at the beginning we saw a Dendritic Jaw fish- Opistognathus dendritic. Communal shrimp perched on an anemone followed by a devil scorpion fish.
There were small schools of bream, various anemones with anemone fish, and at the end a trumpet fish. File fish, butterlyfish, dam selfish, wrasse, and ending with a scorpion fish.
White with a yellow edge on the margin of the mantle. The corals were in nice shape, as they were everywhere I dived in El Nido.
There were large rock formations underwater with gave a few mini-walls to explore. Three different species of Nudibranchia, Hypselodoris bullock ii, Phylicia elegant, and Chromosomes Anna were spotted along with an octopus, a peacock mantis shrimp, and a juvenile sweet lips.
We also saw banded pipe fish, grouper, and a decorator crab. There are openings in the middle that let light in to a fairly large cavern there.
Soldier fish and squirrel fish and even a couple of sweet lips. Just outside was a cowrie with the mantle extruded and covering the shell.
An anemone with among shrimp, clams, more bodies, schools of bream, anemone’s with anemone fish, goat fish sifting through the sand, hermit crabs, and juvenile puffer fish. On this one spotted a mantis shrimp hiding in its hole, anemone’s with anemone fish, Moorish idols, cardinal fish, and a nice size flounder.
Schools of fusiliers, and a sea snake on the hunt. Denise Reef- Beautiful coral garden that slopes down to a sandy bottom.
Schools of fusiliers, butterfly fish, lionfish, bodies, and flounder out in the sandy area. El Nido seemed drastically different to me from the sleepy little town I remember from my last trip there in 2009.
Tourism is big business here with lots of tours (island hopping, snorkeling, etc…), souvenir shops, and some really great restaurants. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail, but the service was terrible and so was the food.
Art cafe is really in to locally grown and produced food I had the El Nido Salad which is a combination of fresh greens, mango, and nuts with a homemade dressing. They also have live music in the evening and a great 2nd floor balcony you can sit on.
Great homemade chips and salsa, excellent fish tacos, and amazing chicken enchilada’s! It was so good I asked to speak to the manager (turned out to be the owner) the first time I went in.
After breakfast on the 27th I grabbed some cash from the ATM and settled my bill at Cabana Divers. Because of the rainy weather my gear wasn’t quite dried out, so I hung it on the balcony there.
Made the trip to the famous Underground River on the 28th and flew back to Manila on the 29th. Next I’ll be writing about my trip to South Padre Island where I dived the Texas Clipper on July 29th.
It was for 5 nights and 5 days of diving aboard SS Throwing in Chuck for only $1997, including airfare from Guam and free nitro! I fired off an email and had a response from Matt at MDA less than an hour later.
I’ll talk a bit about Guam then to start off. I’ll describe the trip there and I’m also going to give some historical background on Chuck.
There will be information on Operation Hailstone, the military operation launched by the United States during WW II that essentially removed Chuck as a military threat for the remainder of the war. I’ll give you a rundown on Throwing and then background on the wrecks that I dived that week.
On Saturday after I arrived and checked into my hotel, I went by MDA (Micronesia Dive Association). The staff were very friendly and let me use a computer and printer to print out my itinerary and voucher for the trip.
They also recommended Mosey’s for dinner which turned out to be a great place! After all Guam is an island in the Pacific and a lot of things are brought in from outside.
On Sunday morning I had breakfast at the Tracked Egg in Tumor which is the main tourist area. A couple of waitresses walked by but no one offered to take my order or expressed they would be with me.
To add insult to injury they tacked on a “service” charge! There I met Jim Pinion who it turned out I had mutual friends with (small world).
Jim is the Dive Rite dealer on Guam which is what brought me into his shop when I saw the sign. I also needed hose clip retainers and bought 4, so I’d have a few extra.
Jim is a really friendly guy, and we spent some time talking about Guam and other dive destinations in Micronesia. The rest of the day I cruised around in my rental car getting a feel for the place.
I found that prices were a bit higher than what I normally pay back home and significantly higher than what I’ve paid during my stay in the Philippines! I walked around the exchange (a department store on base for all the civilians reading this) and checked out prices.
Of course my batteries were all fully charged in preparation of diving that day! I stopped at McDonald's again for breakfast, although in hindsight I should have just eaten at the airport.
I picked the group out of the crowd just based on how they were interacting as they obviously all knew each other. Eric and Greg Snell who I would meet later were walking together hand carrying their cameras in the housing.
After passing through security I walked up behind them and as they were getting ready to turn in to the United Lounge, jokingly said, “Nice rig’s, but to high dollar for me”! The bags were unloaded on the other side of a curtain and pushed through.
The larger islands possess volcanic peaks, the tallest being nearly 1500 feet. The barrier reef is roughly triangular and a 140 miles around.
Within that is a huge deep water lagoon more than 800 square miles in area. Sitting just above the equator with lots of sunshine and rainfall, the average year round temperature is 81 degrees Fahrenheit making it green and lush.
Even without the wrecks, Chuck would be a divers' paradise! We waited a few minutes and when the rain slowed he walked out to get the vehicle.
He took my bags and I piled into the van to wait for the rest of the group who all showed up after me. Eric, who I mentioned earlier, is retired US Air Force and the Instructor Coordinator and Pad Course Director at MDA.
Then there was Greg Snell who is a radiographer working with non-destructive testing on aircraft in Guam. Jason too, is a part-time Pad MST.
He’s also a Nazi instructor who had extensive experience in the Pacific Northwest before transferring to Guam. We were driven to Blue Lagoon Resort to meet the boat that would take us out to the SS Throwing.
At the resort we met Spartan “KJ” Ohm sen, a Pad Instructor and Photographer from Denmark, and Alessandro “Alex” Barlettani, who is a Pad IDC Staff Instructor from Italy. A boat was waiting, and we were whisked out to the SS Throwing.
We all met in the lounge and Lance gave a fascinating talk on the history surrounding Operation Hailstone, the American attack on Chuck that some called “payback for Pearl Harbor”. During WW, I Japan invaded and occupied the Caroline Islands (which Chuck is a part of geographically).
At that time they were administered by Germany who had purchased the Caroline and Marshall Islands from the United States who had acquired them at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. Prior to and during WW II, Japan built Chuck into a formidable base.
By the time the war started there were over a 100,000 Japanese in Chuck with only 50,000 native islanders. Chuck had become a major logistical and operations base and the home port for the Japanese Imperial Navy’s Combined Fleet.
They had fortified caves and mounted coastal defense guns and mortar emplacements. Additionally, they built a torpedo boat station and submarine repair shops.
After the fall of the Marshall Islands, the Japanese had begun moving their warships, with carriers and battleships going to Paley only the week before Operation Hailstone. By the time the attack was over 3 Japanese light cruisers, 3 auxiliary cruisers, 4 destroyers, 2 submarine chasers and an aircraft transport ship had been sunk, along with many merchant ships.
On the first day American Hellcat fighter pilots had shot a 124 Japanese planes out of the sky and a similar number had been destroyed on the ground. Many of these ships were fully loaded with supplies and troops to support and reinforce garrisons around the Central Pacific.
Officially 47 Japanese ships were sunk, 270 aircraft destroyed, and over 4500 killed. The Japanese later relocated a 100 aircraft from Abdul to Chuck.
As part of the brief Lance also talked about additional safety stops. 3 of the 21 dives I would make during the week were beyond recreational depths of 130 feet.
There is a decompression chamber in Chuck, but who wants to use it if they don’t have too? He would talk about the crew and cargo and how the ship was sunk and how it was lying on the bottom.
He would tell us about interesting things to look for and if a penetration was advisable or not. Some penetrations are no longer safe due to deterioration of the wrecks.
Being a history buff I found his dive briefs to be fascinating. The SS Throwing was built in 1954 and was originally a Norwegian whaling ship operating through the 50s and 60s.
The Throwing is an older ship and it’s been 12 years since the last time it was renovated so adjust your expectations. I doubt any other operation in Chuck can give you the sheer variety of diving that the Throwing can.
Every morning about 6:30 AM some type of pastry or sweet would be put out in the lounge and the coffee pot was always ready! Given the overall expense of diving there (from the US you can easily spend $2K on airfare) they may or not be at full capacity.
After Typhoon Mask plowed through in 2015, only the Throwing was still fully operational (although it did sustain some damage to course). Once he finished his general brief of the ship, safety rules, and history he asked us about what wrecks we wanted to dive.
The Captain of course had final say based on conditions, but he was very open to us diving wherever we wanted. Eric had been to Chuck many times and the rest of the group deferred to his advice and the Captains.
On her maiden voyage she set a trans-Pacific speed record. Requisitioned by the Imperial Japanese Navy (In) and converted to an auxiliary submarine tender.
The largest wreck in Chuck Lagoon she lies on her port side in 110 feet of water. There are 4 disassembled Mitsubishi aircraft in one of the forward holds and a 6-inch bow gun.
Its holds were packed with munitions, weapons, gas masks, trucks, and a tank on deck! We did a blue-water descent with the superstructure not coming into view until we were about 40 feet.
Requisitioned by the In and converted into a military transport ship. In hold number 5 are armor-piercing shells, that were destined for the battleships Amato and Hisashi.
The cargo in the rear hold was primarily munitions and there may have been fuel drums as well. The forward holds contained airplane parts and more fuel drums.
In Tatami- The Tatami is an Imperial Japanese Navy salvage tug launched in 1939. The Tatami actually made it through the war but was abandoned, left anchored with no crew on board.
The engine room and bridge were both in great shape, and we were able to do a penetration. It performed passenger service from the Orient to New York City The In took control of it in 1941 and it was converted into an armed, merchant raider.
It was built in 1919 and was originally coal powered, but was later converted to an oil fueled ship in 1922. It was sunk after being struck by six 500 lb bombs from aircraft from USS Essex.
When I get the chance to go back I’d like to take a look in the cargo holds that are crammed with war materials. Everything from mines and torpedo body’s, to aircraft bombs, airplane engines, artillery shells.
Kans ho Mary- Launched in 1938 and utilized for cargo and passengers before the In requisitioned her. She initially was put to work transporting supplies from Japan to the Marshall Islands.
Great engine room and machine ship to explore. The floors on the bridge have given way and radio equipment has tumbled through into the Captains quarters below.
Pakistan Mary- Prior to the war the ship was used to transport cargo (mainly rice). It was requisitioned by the Japanese Army to transport military personnel and supplies at the beginning of the war.
The rest of the ship lies on an even keel in 90 feet of water. This wreck is covered in really nice soft corals with plenty of fish life.
Shikoku Mary- A tanker built in 1940, it was initially utilized in transporting oil from the United States (back when we were the largest exporter of oil in the world). It’s covered in corals, both soft and hard, sponges, anemones, and schools of fish.
It has a nice bridge with 3 telegraphs, and also an operating table in the superstructure with a number of artifacts (including human bones) that were placed there by other divers. Bioko Mary- Designed to carry passengers and cargo, she was part of a secret mobilization plan and was immediately acquired by the In upon her completion August 31, 1941.
Later she joined German raiders in the Indian Ocean around Java in the same mission. She arrived at Chuck shortly before Operation Hailstone transporting part of the Japanese Army’s First Amphibious Brigade.
Reportedly 730 members of this brigade along with 11 ships crew were killed when she was sunk. Untie Mary- Was built in 1905 in Great Britain and is the oldest ship sunk in the lagoon.
She was requisitioned very late in the war in January 1944 and arrived in Chuck the end of the month. She’s sitting upright on an even keel at 130 feet.
There is a bow gun, heavily encrusted with coral. I went 114 feet on this dive going into the forward hold where there were old gas masks, china, bottles, and drinking flasks.
The second dive I talked about earlier was the Hirobumi Mary which we also did on the second day. Rosa Mary- Built in 1937 it was part of a class of coastal freighters designed for maximum cargo capacity.
The cargo was made up of torpedo body’s, shell’s and fuel drums. There was a period when it was not really safe to dive because of deteriorating explosives.
Loki Mary- A captured New Zealand freighter built in 1921 in Scotland. She was requisitioned by the British Ministry of War Transport in 1940, but continued her regular route.
In January 1944 after 18 months in Singapore having the engines overhauled she was re-commissioned as the Loki Mary and sent to Chuck. Lots of interesting cargo including, bulldozers, trucks, munitions, and bombs.
“Jill” Bomber- In remarkable shape sitting in 84 feet of water like it had just come in for a landing! The history of this particular plane is unknown, but we can narrow it down a bit.
The Natalia B6N Tenant (designated “Jill” by Allied forces) was a torpedo bomber that could land and take off from aircraft carriers. They were intended to eventually replace all the B5N aircraft that were operating from the carriers of the 3rd Fleet based in Chuck.
In 1943, she was re-converted into a transport ship, moving military supplies and personnel. The ship is resting on its starboard side in 110 feet of water.
After the last dive on Friday, June 7th we washed our gear and sat it out to dry. It was a good time as we decompressed and talked about the week.
My gear was still drying, although diving in a synthetic (4th Element Thermohaline) farmer john with a rash guard, does cut down on not just weight, but drying time too! After lunch the crew loaded our bags in the boat, and we were taken back to Went where a van picked us up and took us to the airport.
He was very interested in the Philippines and thought it might be a place he’d like to check out. Sunday I drove around and visited a couple of apartment complexes (I’ve been giving some thought to re-locating to Guam for a bit) and on Monday I checked out and caught my flight back to the Philippines in the evening.
If you’ve enjoyed my blog why not subscribe so you’ll never miss a post? My next blog piece I’m planning to write about El Nido in the Philippines.