Florida Diving - Part 3

On to the Key Largo and Pennecamp Park

Monday morning, we took off for Key Largo. The weather was sunny, but nicely cool with some clouds drifting by. We went down the Florida Parkway, which was well worth the near $5 in tolls. It was annoying to stop to pay though. It is a fast, uncrowded hiway and a much better drive than 95.

We got on to hiway 1 and we quickly came to Key Largo. It didn't look like a whole lot really, but I have never seen so many dive shops. Well, I was here to relax, so I got to the room and turned on the AC.

I'll interject a few comments here. There are some very interesting curio and souvenier shops around here. The Shell Man seems to be the biggest. They have an incredible selection of shells, shirts, beautiful glass work, spices, music and what not. I almost got one of their lifesized stuffed alligators. They also had a wrought iron lobster... The T Shirt Factory, Sandal Factory and a number of other curio stores were a lot of fun and well worth checking out. Get your T Shirts near Key Largo. The selection is great with lots of Pirate, Diving and Jimmy Buffet motifs. Key West mostly has Key West T Shirts.

The road from north of Key Largo, all the way to Key west is mostly 2 lane with some passing lanes and areas to pass. The speed limit is mostly 55 or less. It is a pleasent drive in February, but I expect that it gets busier at other times.

I should put some perspective here. I am a diver who likes a dive to not only be stimulating, I want some excitement. That's not OK with a lot of people. Diving is dangerous. Excitement makes diving fatally dangerous. Oh oh oh!!! I claim it's a machismo control thing. The instructors and agencies get a bit of self imposed authority and watch out. The dive operators say that it is liability. Realistically, some divers do have to be protected from themselves. There are all kinds of divers and all kinds of diving, but what happens, for whatever the reasons, is that diving is pushed to the lowest denominator. As I always rant, "if this were skiing, we'd all still be on the bunny slopes". This isn't wholly true. Everywhere there are divers, there are adventerous ones who are comfortable under water, not just clumsey tourists out of their element. They are strong divers, skilled and not prone to mistake or accident. The agency lines on safety and diving habit just do not completely apply to them. Alone and using junk for equipment, they are far safer under water than any tourist with a buddy and the safest equipment made. While I have nothing against neophyte or unskilled divers, I do not like my diving limited because of them or for any other reason. If I want to go explore "that a way" by myself, I do not expect to be told "that's not the way we do it". To make this short, Florida gets a lot of divers with quite limited experience, so some of this essay will be an examination of how the dive operations are able to accomodate my desire to do advanced diving... And if you know me, you know I am not kind to people who get in the way of my diving. It's something too important.... I said before I went that I was going to check out different operations and see what adventure factor I would give them, so on with the tirade. I did find some good operators and diving, but you have to look around.

Back in Boynton Beach was an outfit called something like "Deep and Deeper". I talked to him on the phone a bit before I flew out to Florida. I have to wonder if he just insults Californians or does he insult everyone equally... I'm pretty sure that that one was a case of personal machismo. I would give them a 4 on the adventure meter just based on what I could figure out just from his insults.

Now another problem that goes right along with this that I really saw in Florida, is that many of the operators were so bored that they were never going to foster any enthusiasm in a diver talking to them. Diving is great fun. These guys didn't act like it. Perhaps it is just the huge number of divers that come through. Perhaps they think the local diving is boring... Perhaps they think they are just water taxi drivers. Maybe the heat melted their noodle.

So I'm just stumbling around the hotel some and there is this dive shop in the center of things. I check out dive shops... Actually, I had already talked to a number of shops and diver operators down around here on the phone, but I forgot that I had already talked to Bruce at 'It's a Dive'. If I had remembered, I wouldn't have bothered walking in the shop even though it was right in front of me. I went in and asked about diving the Duane. I had heard that it was a dive to do when you were down here. Bruce and the other woman working there told me that my NITROX card wasn't quite up to their qualifications for diving the Duane. Come on, this is only around 100 feet in clear warm water. I had my little picture album that shows pictures of me diving over the past quarter century or so. No matter. I wasn't up to their qualifications. They illustrate what is the worst thing that has been done to diving. I wasn't too concerned, but I love diving and talking with people like this unexpectedly, makes me want to get sick. These people are dipsticks in my opinion. They get my award for divers that can take the adventure out of any dive. Macho authoritarian wanna be's.

I wandered over to Qiescence Dive shop. They had some boats going out later that day to Pennecamp State Park and I tentatively planned on going with them. They had come highly recommended and seemed quite professional, but I had a feeling they were snobs. As the days went on, I found this to be a fairly common attitude amoung the people in the local dive industry. I don't know if they all had such a high opinion of themselves, or just a low opinion of everyone else. Maybe they go to the same spot too much or just don't care about diving, but they show very little enthusiasm. Some shops, certainly were not this way, but it was very different from where I have usually been diving.

I got back to my room and called around a bit and it turned out that the boat out of Pennicamp Park itself, was going out that afternoon. Well, dive when you can. I drove there, all of about 1/2 mile and got arranged. They were pretty easy going, but a bit bored too. It was only going to be myself and another couple from Holland on the afternoon boat. We loaded up and headed out the channels through the mangroves. The skipper was very experienced as a captain and it seemed that this was a bit like driving a cab for him.

Very quickly we reached the reef and tied up to one of the anchored buoys in the area of the main reef. We were getting together and he said jump off and hold the current line until you are ready to descend, then be sure to go up current from the boat. Since it was just a sightseeing trip, I told the other couple that I was supposed to buddy with, "I'll just follow where you want to go". We hopped in and I grabbed the current line and parked. They missed the current line and drifted off in the slow current. After they floundered around on the surface for a couple of minutes, the skipper yelled down to me that I had better lead.

I was looking around below me. It was warm and clear and looked to be only about 25 feet deep at the deepest. I always like diving in fish preserves.

Eventually, they got under water and we slowly moved up current some. Truethfully, I would rather have been with better divers, but I resigned myself to not worrying about it and enjoy the sights.

The fish were thick, but much of the coral in this area was white. From down here, I could see that the vis was about 100 feet. The reef had a great deal of relief, with walls and ledges sticking up as much as 10 feet. On the sand areas between the reefs were a great deal of pieces of Elkhorn or Stagshorn coral that must have been alive on the larger reef in recent years. I saw very little of it now. The skipper later told me that the water had gotten so warm last summer that it had killed off a lot of the coral.

While the coral was a bit sad, the fish were happy and plentiful. The usual suspects, parrotfish, trumpetfish, puffers and butterfly pairs were common. Out above the sand patches were small barracudas. I paused beyond one rock to wait for divers and to take a close look at some large green Christmas Tree worms extended out of the coral rock. These are about the most colorful and delicate critter on the reef. There were also some large orange sponges in numerous places.

Fish preserves are great. I saw 4 small groupers together and some lobsters standing on the sand a bit under an outcropping. In every sheltered space in and under the rocks there were fish. Lots of fish.

We slowly moved along, generally upcurrent. I was pointing to a few things I saw that I wasn't sure if the other divers noticed. They tended to be swimming in a line over the coral rocks. I tended to swim between the rocks and then a couple of times around each of them. Pretty soon, one of the other divers pointed at his console and generally gave the impression that the dive was over. We headed back some.

When we surfaced, I couldn't believe it. True, we weren't swimming fast, but we still ended up 80 yards or so behind the boat. It was a good arguement for surfacing before heading back, especially in such shallow water. Well, they seemed to be well enough off, but were certainly not going to be swimming to the boat anytime soon, so I decided to stretch my legs a bit. I went down just to where I wouldn't touch the reef and started powering towards the boat. It is something I enjoy so much when diving. Swim as fast as you can and follow the terrain down walls, across the sand and then turn up just before you hit the reef again. Then cross the reef and go down again. If there is much of a current, it is harder, but stay close to the bottom and you are largely protected from being pushed on much. I went up and over a rock. At the top, was a nice lobster in a little small depression in the rock. I touched the very end of his antennae as I went by and just kept going. I could see the boat ahead and came up to the ramp. We went back and picked up the other divers.

After a short time and a relocation of the boat, one of the other divers said that they were sitting out the next dive. Their buddy said that they had had a bad experience and so wouldn't dive with anyone else. Actually, I thought they were both just an accident waiting for a place to happen, but... Well, the skipper figured that I was experienced enough that I probably wouldn't drown on him in water this shallow. He told me that "thata way is the debris from a railroad construction barge". Dive, but don't get out of bubble sight. This was much appreciated and I boogied off.

Again, fish. Lots and lots of fish. I headed out the way suggested and after travelling over the familiar walls and valleys of the coral reef, I came to old rusty twisted railroad rails. They were numerous and spread out over an large area. There was other recognizable hardware as well. All had become part of the reef and had extensive growth on them. I made a fairly large loop throught the area. What coral was still alive was very pretty and seemed very healthy. I saw some large elkhorn coral on a higher rock.

At one point, I was moving along the edge of a fairly large part of the reef and a school of perhaps 100 blue tangs went by. They are about the size of your hand spread out and a very pretty blue, but what was amazing was seeing what they were doing. As a group, they were moving over the reef fairly quickly, say a fair divers swim speed. As individuals, they were scouring every part of the reef that they were crossing. In ways, it looked like a flock of birds. It was really something to see. This fast moving group with almost frantic internal movement with in the group.

It was so shallow, that I still had air left after a while, but I didn't feel like making the skipper nervous by moving all that far across the reef, so I called it a dive. It's just another short trip back...

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