20190811 SE 8th St | Aqua Zoo View

We had breakfast on the beach, swam until it got too hot and retreated back to the Sea Cove. I got my snorkeling gear and walked six blocks south on the beach to SE 8th St, where I had read there was a reef just off the shore. Sure enough the sea was teaming with life. An ecosystem that thrived, at that point, simply because the ocean floor is otherwise featureless. The deep buckets in the stone coral gave sanctuary to species of small yellow fish while the larger fish, such as French Angel, fled each time I dove down. I found a sea pearl, a sphere of algae, that glistened like a pearl, and exploded when I tested its rigidity. 

Of all the dive shops in the city, I had the best response from South Florida  Dive Headquarters, which were also the organizers of Saturday’s competition. SFDH organizes at least three chartered boats per day. The scheduled sites include shallow reefs where you can snorkel or scuba, deeper reefs, shallow wrecks and even a few deep wrecks. Best of all, the website emphasizes that you can sign up for a dive without the need of a dive buddy. 

Sunday’s chartered boat was called the Aqua View. It touted a glass-bottom that could be used to observe sea life while sipping drinks in the evening, but this feature was covered and scuba gear, flags and snacks were piled on top of it. At the stern I met Henry, who had started diving in the marines almost two decades ago. Next to him was Wes, who had started last year and struck me as almost a type of beginner: one that’s enthralled with having the gear, using everything, bringing everything. A submariner-boy-scout. He’s a maximalist, but with high energy; the three of us were all alone and decided to buddy-up for Sunday’s dive.

At the helm was a Hungarian captain who played Butt Rock on all loudspeakers while the dive master attempted to disclose the formal security features of the Aqua View. Exits, fire extinguisher, garbage, toilet rules. Most of the information was inaudible, but the priority to Poison, Guns N Roses, and Journey conveyed message that it was every man, woman, child for his, her, or itself in the event of an emergency. Float until help arrives. From the dock through the canal, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, we were in the church of classic rock. Vehemently hetero, four-four time, universal themes of universality. Here, between the vacation and retirement homes that appear empty but under renovation, the 1970s and 1980s have not died. Inexplicably, Pearl Jam has been included in that catalogue.

I presumed the lack of a disclosure of underwater etiquette during the inaudible directives of the dive master–don’t touch this, don’t mess with that, try not to kick plants, etc.–was excluded was because the hobby of recreational diving shares these rules independently. That is, a culture of “preserve for the next guy” existed. But how was I supposed to know what was to be preserved? Some things seemed obvious: don’t kick a sea fan, but what to avoid kicking with your fins is contingent on your knowledge of the marine world; lots of organisms don’t even appear like organisms, such as algae. I mean, what’s alive? What’s fragile? What I can I pick up and take? Any way you want it, that’s the way you need it. 

I wasn’t surprised by the lax attitude on the boat; the diving industry, a cottage industry really, has the appearance of a business but the acumen of a gray economy. From the client experience, one looks at the boat schedule, reserves a seat on the boat, but receives no information on when or where to show up. At the docks I was directed to the office where I signed a waiver and paid, but there was no inquiry as to whether I had reserved a seat. Then I returned to the boat, but wasn’t instructed as to where I would get my cylinders. A person just periodically asked if anyone on the boat whether anything else was required until no one made a request. Then captain shoved off and asked if everyone had signed a waiver. They did a head count and compared it with the names that had signed; if someone was on the boat but hadn’t signed, they just added you. I paid for a weight belt and weights, but realized that I could just grab one and use one on the boat, if I needed to. I also realized that I could just pay for air but ask the deck hand for nitrox, which cost 50% more. Hell, I may have even been able to get on the boat without paying at all. Welcome to the jungle.

And that was just for recreational diving. For education it was even more disorganized. Ostensibly, the requirements for certification were to create rites of passage that would reduce the amount of deaths in the hobby. Allegedly, most deaths are new divers, which suggests that either the training standards are insufficient or that they are regulating either the wrong party in the transaction. (In reality, many deaths occur to experienced divers who are in bad physical shape and have some medical event while underwater and never come up.) Unlike degree-granting institutions, which received accreditation based on meeting standards, transferring those resources to students in the form of courses, which are taught by qualified individuals, scuba diving is the reverse: a qualified instructor pairs a student with the resources of a dive shop–such as a boat to take you to a dive site, cylinders to store air, gear to survive while under water–but very little of this is held to a standard by the agency that designates who is an instructor. A separate agency regulates boats, another regulates gear conditions, another regulates the sites–reef, wreck, etc.–if at all. The instructor is held to the standard of their accredited agency-PADI, SSI, SDI–but they don't see the student, nor the resources. The result is instructors who cut corners for their own gain, by shortening a course, to certify for cash without any instruction at all, or instructors who just don’t give a shit. It’s as if you pay tuition for a college and then show up at an address and it’s just some guy in a sweater sitting on a bench in a park and he shouts “Welcome to university!” and commences teach you calculus in the park. In a world where you can buy something on your phone and it’s delivered to you within an hour, the entrepreneurs of scuba shops seem dated. The website are frequently modeled after geocities. And even getting a return phone call in 36 hours can be a challenge!

On the other hand, it’s a wonder why any regulation exists in this hobby at all. Mountain biking, cycling, weight lifting, spelunking, rock climbing, skiing, et al. are unregulated for the recreationalist and claim a fair number of suburban mortalities per annum. While commercial diving is regulated and training organizations have a sense of reciprocity, recreational diving certifications carry the minimum understanding of what the certification-carrying individual is capable of doing, either physically or with knowledge. While there are international agencies such as CMAS that have set the minimum training requirements for certifications, these don’t mean much more than an individual may have demonstrated knowledge at one point one time to one individual. And as a hobby that is less than a century old, there are people who are used to dive before safety regulations were set in place. 

On the Aqua View, I was pushing all of these observations of training, performance, safety, death and drowning out of my mind when I decided not to bring my camera or lionfish equipment; I didn’t want to complicate my first dive from this establishment. I considered my amygdala and aversion to risk, as well as my approach to mid-life and whether this new hobby, really a detour for an imagined project, wasn’t just an expensive crisis, or if I was motivated by curiosity, risk or creative ends, as I told myself. Looking around the boat I decided not to wear my wetsuit, since locals had mentioned it was not necessary. No hood. And my safety regulator on my left side, which was a big deal  made by my instructor from NJ, who had 35 years of teaching, was mutinied against by the crew. It was the first and only thing everyone noticed. I was green. 

Directly west was Deerfield pier, a storm was moving in from the east. The Gulf stream was heading north at about 1 knot. The destination was the Aqua Zoo, an artificial reef comprised of a barge and cement culverts, which were probably cast for laying electrical wire under city streets but left in surplus when the reef was created. We stepped off the View, grabbed a line and followed it down to the wreck. It was less sinking than pulling oneself down, further, into the blue. At 52 feet, we encountered the top of the wreck. Tweaked our buoyancy, gave a few “ok” signs and then Henry led us between a three foot aperature, down into the barge, covered with young coral polyps and growth. Now, the first thing that instructors tell beginning divers is not to dive into anything beyond your experience: no caves, no ships, nothing too deep. I remembered this but didn’t hesitate to follow Henry and Wes because the other thing that instructors emphasize is not dive alone and if you lose your buddy you’re supposed to go to surface. 

I slipped between the opening, down to the sandy floor that spilled toward a wall that narrowly opened at the bottom. We went under, up and through the next crevice. The compartments of the barge reminded me of the derelict sites of Detroit, or abandoned subway tunnels of New York. The mounds of sand formed under the small openings, as it accumulates in an hourglass. Solitary fish inhabited these spaces, but not many. I had read about a goliath grouper–200 to 300 hundred pounds–who guarded the wreck, but there was no sign of it. 

We emerged from the barge and circled around it, more culverts in the sand and many more fish. Initially, the tubes had been placed on top of the barge when it was scuttled, and were intended as a marine jungle gym for divers. Henry flowed through them, and Wes followed with some struggle, so I stayed above and observed how this collapsed gym appeared more like the exposed urban infrastructure that it was: a disrupted, destroyed conduit built by a civilization on the horizon of conscious self-destruction. Soon these sorts of structures would be underwater by virtue of rising tides.

French Angelfish, Pocamanthus paru, floated in a triangular formation. Porkfish, Anisotremus virginicus. An unidentified fish that was black in the front half and white in the second half disappeared into the crevices. But no lionfish. Not a single lionfish. Where was the infestation? Where was this invasion? 

There are three reef systems off of Pompano. The first is just beyond the buoys that mark the swimming area off the beach, about 150 feet from the shore. I had been snorkeling there earlier. In shallow, 15-20 feet of water, I was surprised by the multitude of sea life there. The second reef runs parallel, and lies at 30-45 feet of water. The third is further east still and lies at 60-80 feet, dropping down to around 100 on the eastern slopes. Because charter boats, running three times a day, seven days a week, and spearfishermen ride these boats–and because there are no limits on lionfish–the second and third reef systems have been almost entirely depleted of lionfish. The fish has adapted to deeper waters. A few may drift or swim up and populate another reef, but they are quickly wiped out. If I were to find the reefs in similar conditions as I’d seen on youTube, reefs populated almost entirely lionfish, I’d either have to go deeper, or go to the shallower reef where only beach divers hunted the fish. But even near the shore, I saw dive flags on a daily basis.

We did an air check around 1,000 psi and signaled another 5 minutes and started heading to the rope to go to the boat, but the current, just at the top of the barge, was already too strong and Wes burnt through his air by the time we grabbed the rope. Holding the line with one hand, he showed me his gauge, almost zero psi, and I immediately handed him my octopus. It being on my left side, it was easy for him to hold in his right hand. I had a convert to the wrong orientation of safe-second! Henry came and assessed the situation and reminded us to hold on to each other, since we were already holding into the rope, he had really helped. All three of us were completely horizontal and grasping the rope against the current. We stopped for the 3 minute safety stop, and watched the air gauge slowly lower as Wes and I drew the air necessary to feed the muscles that held us fast.

On the surface we learned what had happened. An afternoon storm was rolling in and added power to the currents. A sudden rainfall forced us to leave the wreck and head south, to a smaller reef system, about 35 feet deep. The second dive should have given us almost an hour of dive time, but for some reason I burned through air, but before I did I saw some amazing sea life. A lobster stuck his antennae out of a hole. A spotted porcupine fish, Didon hystrix, corralled under a reef overhang. Hogfish, Lachnolaimus maximus. Foureye butterflyfish, Chaetodon capistratus. Barrel Sponges everywhere, Soft Corals, Hard Corals, schools of French Grunts, Puffer Fish, Blue Tangs, Creole Wrasse, Pork Fish, Spotted Drums, and Moray Eels all have found homes on this reef. Giant Brain coral, Diploria labyrinthiformis, and many sea fans dotted the areas with less stony structures.

20190812 Lady Luck | Sunkist

English was not Atilla’s mother tongue, and the pace the past six months of learning about and engaging dive shops, diving and finally getting certified, had instilled a sense that hobby requires patience and persistence. But the delay had me concerned about with whom or whether I could actually do any certifications while in Pompano. I had called at least four shops to inquire about course availability and costs; even though it’s 2019, and you can learn the price of a grape in Bangkok in less than two minutes, dive shops rarely post the price online, and usually don’t process payments online. Forget about dates. Everything is “flexible.” So after a week of texting back and forth, in English, Spanish, a little German, I was concerned that this Atilla fellow might not actually be able to help me get nearer to my goal. But last night we had arranged to meet at 8 am on the docks. I arrived at 7:30, stopped in the office at Sands Harbor, signed a waiver and was directed by the receptionist to get back on the Aqua View and Atilla would meet me there. Around 8 am he struts onto the boats and walks up to me and says, “You Donald?” I said ‘yes,’ and he shouts, “What you need? What you need? I text you everyday for week and you tell me different. How many dive shops you call? What you need?” 

I was taken aback, wondering if I should explain, apologize or just say, ‘hey, fuck you’ and walk. Who the fuck was he to bark to me like that? But I followed him back into the office and we sat down and wrote down some options of specialties. This was a good idea because part of my confusion and indecision, and the bases of my temporary humility, was due to the convoluted manner of progression in the SSI scuba diving formation. Basically, one must be Open Water certified to have tanks filled and dive at any site. More complicated still, deeper or treacherous sites require more certifications, such as Advanced Open Water. But some say you have to do specializations and then become Advanced, while others offer you a package of multiple Advanced experiences. So honestly, I didn’t know “what I need,” other than I wanted someone whom I could trust to point me in the right direction, and the only person I knew in the industry was taking 48 and 92 lackadaizical hours to reply to any of my email inquiries. And Atilla wasn’t winning trust points with his erratic behavior, but I knew that any window of opportunity that Pompano may be offering was closing as time marched on.

In less than 60 seconds he drew a diagram of the different paths, the difference of Advanced Open Water and Advanced Adventure and I agreed to complete a Deep and Navigational specialty, which would put me within one specialty from Advanced, since I had completed Nitrox in New York. My final specialty would be Underwater Photography, which I hoped to do in New York with more serious photographe. $720 later we were loading back on the Aqua View, heading to Lady Luck, a deep dive wreck about 110 feet down. As Atilla warmed up on the open ocean the persona of Viktor Orban wore off, and we discussed the dive plan. 

The current was about 2 knots moving to the north. A dropline lead to the wheelhouse, just ahead of the stern. We would walk down the line, hand over hand, as Atilla explained, using small muscles of the forearm to preserve air, down to about 80 feet, drop onto the boathouse, crawl with our hands over the bars, swim up toward the bow, turn around, go through the wheelhouse and make it back to the rope. Stop at 50 feet for an extra safety stop, then ascend to 15 feet, stop for 3 more minutes, and return for the boat. Atilla estimated about 20 minutes at depth. 

I was one of two students on the boat; the other was a kid finishing his Advanced Open Water. The rest of the boat were technical divers with double cylinders. Immediately in the water, the intense current rushed against us, almost pulling my mask off. We were labored onto the rope against the northward push. Total blue, perforated by the bubbles of those who had dove before me, filled my field of view. Looking down on the water-swept hair of Atilla, who slid his grip down the rope two hands at a time before looking back at me to make an ‘ok’ hand sign, which I returned, before he snuck further down, appeared suddenly heroic. It was beautiful, dramatic, and intense. 

Lady Luck had been a barge that operated between New York City waste treatment plants, hauling wet human excrement from plants that could not dry it across the city waterways to facilities that could dry it out, prior to hauling it away. The barge had been purchased for pennies on the dollar by Shipwreck Park, a local nonprofit that aims to make Pompano Beach a world-class scuba diving destination and artificial reef sanctuary. My ongoing fascination with solid waste management, the crisis of our urban existence and symbolic placement of this link of civic infrastructure at the bottom of the ocean called to me.

We dropped off the rope and drifted away from the wreck, even though the structure partially blocked the current. I reached for the railing, covered with barnacles and hoisted myself over, then followed Atilla around the wheelhouse onto the stern. We scrambled over the exposed structure to try to conserve energy and air. Tiny sea life was everywhere, over every inch of the wreck, which I tried to avoid destroying. Atilla went around a stairway and I followed but passed too close, scraping my right leg on the sharp, calcium carbonate growths. The twenty minutes went by very fast while I was looking at fish, fighting the current, checking the gauges, maintaining buoyancy and trying not to scrape against more barnacles, before ascending back up. 

We were first in line on the rope, but the current was too strong, so too much air had been used and people were having too much difficulty just holding on, so we skipped the 50 foot safety stop, and went to 15 feet, and waited in the garden of bubbles. Back on board, Atilla, the anti-hero, was beginning to warm up more. He complimented my equipment, which I took as complete insincerity, a surrogate for an apology for his being rude earlier. He hung off the stern chain smoking before handing me a package of peanut-butter and cheese crackers. A fair amount of time was spent discussing how other instructors misbehaved, either by lobstering while teaching, or misleading their students in conventionalities, such as the arrangement of my octopus. I wasn’t surprised; in a predominantly male hobby, competition is the lingua franca, and if you can’t be best, you undercut the rest. 

The captain decided the current was too strong for a second dive, and a storm was rolling in, so we headed south and stopped at Sunkist reef. Compared to the Lady Luck, the reef was tranquil, almost boring. We came upon a green turtle tip-toed on the sand, which it lifted up and away.  Atilla considered this lucky sign. I saw two lionfish, gathered under a ledge. As I put my camera into the hollow, they both opened their fins, exposing the venomous spines, but I realized that getting a spear near them would be no issue. 

We conducted two navigational exercises. Reading the compass from the side, while holding it with both hands, arms extended at eye level, and staying on a zero, or north reading, then returning on a 180-degree, or south reading, and moving in a square, rotating at 90-degrees. While deep diving is more adrenaline-inducing and pushing the limits of no-decompression diving, or even decompression diving, navigation is the intellectual pursuit on the ocean. It’s aquatic-applied math. The compass is a tool that can be used for triangulating your position on the water's surface, where no marker can be placed, direct you where nothing can be seen or calculating trajectory. Still, I didn’t see any divers using their compass.

20190813 RSB-1 | Captain Dan

To complete the Deep Dive certification, we followed a dropline down to RSB-1. The RSB-1 is a 160' long tender. The bow is pointing north and the ship is upright, at a slight angle. Noticeably, all of the vertical surfaces were covered by corals, barnacles and sponges while the horizontal surfaces were primarily covered with some organisms that looked like lichen. SFDH describes the RSB-1 as follows: 

This is another ship with tall structure on the wheel house, creating a great fish haven. Usually you will see schools of fish around the mast. Penetrating the ship’s hold is very easy thru large openings. The RSB-1 was built in 1966 and was used as an oil company tender. In 1971 it was purchased by the Navy. She eventually wound up with the Pompano Fishing Rodeo and Broward County Artificial Reef Program. The RSB-1 was renamed the Jim Torgerson, after the lead explosive expert with the Broward County Sherriff's. The Jim Togerson was deployed April 23, 1994. [ 1 ]

Every wreck description on the SFDH site includes the length of the wreck and a cursory history, and while there are slight variations to each site, the regional conditions of water, current, native species and depth mean that they are essentially the same. There has been some efforts to make each wreck unique with artistic interventions by local creatives, such as poker tables or planted sculptures, but if you’re just diving each site once the characteristic soon blend together. Ironically, if one were to repeatedly dive and gain a sense of each wrecks’ identity, one may wonder whether that was more mind numbing or compelling. Very soon, the element of diving that few discuss, becomes the predominant ingredient to the experience: the people on board. Many were locals and sufficiently involved in the diving industry, or community would be a better description. Gear was a constant subject prior to the dives and show and tell of what was caught, seen or missed prioritized the surface intervals. Sarcasm seasoned most remarks and I was a little put out that no one had even mentioned Jeffrey Epstein, who had resided only a few minutes south of Pompano Beach!

This morning the waters were completely calm, a sleek surface extended as far as light permitted until our bow broke the surface. We were simulating what should be done were we to dive beyond the no-decompression limits. An emergency 19cu tank filled with pure O2, with a blinking red light and a green regulator was left on the deck of the wreck at the dropline. The dive to the RSB-1 is just over a hundred feet to the sand. We entered the wreck while Atilla took advantage of the calm conditions to take photos of me, the site, and marine life, which he used on his website to promote his business. I had brought my own camera with me this time, only I secured it to my chest so that it wouldn’t distract me from basic procedures. The dive was simple compared to yesterday’s, so I was happy that my camera was capturing footage.

The third and final deep dive was at Captain Dan, a 175-foot long Coast Guard Tender. SFDH describes the site as follows:

The bow points south and the ship is standing at attention upright at 110 feet. The top of the wheelhouse is around 80 feet. The Dan is covered with fish. You never know what you will see here, there has been 2 whale shark sightings here, a day and a year apart. Large barracuda, grouper, amberjack, and other schools of fish frequent this wreck. Originally commissioned the Hollyhock, a US Coast Guard Tender, the Captain Dan was sunk in February 1990 as part of the Rodeo Reef. After being decommissioned by the Coast Guard, the Hollyhock was purchased by a missionary. Mechanical problems stranded the vessel and she was towed to the Miami River where she was sold to the Florida Boating Improvement Program to become an artificial reef. The Hollyhock was renamed Captain Dan in memory of Dan Garnsey, a charter fishing pioneer, and sunk on February 20, 1990. [ 2 ]

This description is found on any dive site in the Pompano area, copy and pasted. These descriptions imply a mixture of interest, nautical history and marine biology. Lady Luck and United Caribbean have the most interesting history, the latter is better known as the Golden Venture, which was a vessel that was used to smuggle Chinese most from Fujian province as human cargo to New York but ran aground off Rockaway Beach in 1993. After over 100 days at sea, many survivors fled when the boat stopped, though some drowned. Most were rescued by the coast guard. Reading the archived New York Times article is a fascinating juxtaposition to how human trafficking, refugees, and immigration is discussed today. 

“But these known incidents are believed to be only a fraction of the problem’s dimensions. Some experts say the tide of illegal Chinese immigrants to America has grown to 10,000 to 30,000 a year, swollen by the lure of jobs here and hard times and oppression at home, including a government population-control policy that limits each family to one child.”

We sucked all the air out of our BCD to prepare for the hotdrop, a slow motion rendition of skydiving onto an alternate planet. Pure blue, the sound of the second-stage regulator, breath, bubbles and a slow, controlled descent until the ship finally came into view. We drifted over to the deck. Everything was still. The fish floated in almost suspended animation. The spearfisher-woman was already on the hunt down in the sands. Atilla signalled me to follow him around the bow. 

Captain Dan was one of the earlier shipwrecks sank in Pompano Beach with the intention of creating an artificial reef. Here they are also used by spearfishermen, but primarily for scuba divers who like to see interesting sea life outside of an aquarium. Pompano Beach is branded as the shipwreck capital of Florida. In a sense, Pompano Beach is itself an artificial reef for scuba divers, attracting tourists who want to visit and artificial reef. It’s meta.  

We circled around back to the deck where a prism of a dozen Angelfish held my attention until an enormous, green turtle soared up from the deck, majestic, indifferent, leaning to his right to make a circle back around. We watched him make a few flutters of his fins, and then disappear over the starboard side of the deck. More good luck. We continued over the port side, into the sand where a Goliath Grouper, Epinephelus itajara, at least six-feet long and 400-pounds, floated ten yards away. He looked indifferent. We drifted toward the stern and followed him until he disappeared when we looked down to see a two-foot conch, just left by a hermit crab for another shell, in the sand. Atilla grabbed it and we circled around the stern, admiring the wall of corals, sponges, and algae. Before we ascended we saw a donkey dung sea cucumber, Holothuria mexicana, nestled under stair. Atilla picked it up to demonstrate its portability; I was horrified by his liberal disturbance of the creature, but he put it back. Two other divers came back up with lionfish, another with lobsters. In these frequented dive sites, the catch of lobsters and lionfish is remarkably similar. 

The design of an artificial reef is essentially to create a disturbance in the otherwise featureless seafloor to which coral, barnacles and other ecological engineers can adhere, and propagate marine life in that location. The challenge is finding or creating objects that will stay in place, won’t disintegrate and won’t pollute the surrounding waters. Historically artificial reefs were and still are a hack of nature, the creation of a concentration of marine life activity where there wasn’t before, and usually with the goal that humans could exploit it for food. Artificial reefs have also been created for other reasons, often disguised in the leading theme of the day: ecology, efficiency, externalization, cleanliness, or limitless aspect of natural resources.

Artificial reefs made from old boats or subway cars or tires, are an example of how the pursuit of recreating nature while repurposing of garbage, a sort of untested notion of recycling, has been propagated. Nationally, this practice was likely motivated by the question of what to do with all those ships after WWII. In the 1980s, a nation-wide outcry for landfills–the state of landfills, the hysteria that our landfills were “filling up,” that our mummified garbage would soon take over the freespace on the North American Continent–all of which had some truth as runaway consumerism spiked with the off-shoring of production, cheapening of consumer goods and expansion of disposable culture–fomented in Washington and caused cities and States to at least consider alternatives, such as recycling. (Did anyone suggest buying less junk?) In Florida, “reef-ification” formalized within the Fish and Wildlife conservation efforts in the 1980s, even though the state and federal agencies had been experimenting with similar structures, meaning Florida was sinking things offshore with intentions other than conservation, since the 1950s. Functionally, Florida’s artificial reefs have been part of what could be called aquaculturing, which has taken place for thousands of years, except that today’s man made reefs combine the issue of solid waste management and concern for ecological decay. 

Though the population of lionfish are greater in natural reefs because there are more of them than artificial reefs, the invaders have been found to prefer and congregate on artificial reefs more than on natural reefs. It begs the question how the “infestation,” “proliferation,” and “invasion” may correlate to expansion of the artificial reef system. That is, with the goal to improve the marine environment through artificial means, did Florida create the perfect situation for further biodiversity collapse or simply just a location where the population growth was visibly more acute?

20190814 Pompano Beach | Lauderdale-By-the-Sea

I started the day with a workout routine on the shore, dipping into the ocean between rounds. We walked northward for a few hours. It was quiet. A few homeless folks have dared to establish an encampment off the beach, but that’s to be expected with this weather. The polemic going on in town surrounds the construction of a new “high-rise” a 35-story development with two towers, which will be the tallest structure in Pompano when finished. I watched the public access channel where residents voiced their complaints of shadows being cast on their pool for a few hours a day, or the congestion on A1A, the central road running north/south on the key. I supposed that every beach tower has faced NIMBY opposition; people are afraid of change and they’re greed. 

Pompano Beach feels like a retirement and vacation community. The prices of food are colluded by social security benefits, which are 25-40% less than anything in New York. It’s clean, quiet and noticeably heterogenous 25 feet west of the beach sand. The average age of Pompanner is 55, and augments the gray wave of Baby-Boomers who are cashing in on the good life before they die in the Sunshine state. Several cities in Florida are ranked as the most popular destination for Americans to move. Orlando, Melbourne, Lakeland,Port St. Lucie, Dayton, Sarasota, Fort Meyes have all seen double-digit population growth in the last few years. 

The other concern was about the new FWC instructions on how to deal with the invasive iguana population: humanely kill all that you see. What this means is not clear is how to do this safely within an urban setting. BB gun? Bowling ball? Booby traps?

Briny Irish Pub is one of the few establishments on Atlantic Ave with a mature, developed style. The barnacled buoys hang from the ceiling with maritime accoutrement and dissolves into sports collectibles on the walls before realizing the true potential of the place, the blood sweat and tears culminating in the central bartending path, where tenders sport camouflaged baseball caps that uniformly read “Pompano.” 

On a typical Saturday night, one can wander to the rear of the bar and find a live cover band meandering through the Top-50 from 1970-1995. The drink specials persuade clients to shrug off their public candor and dance in a style that can be described only as the White Trash Shuffle, a short of zombie trance in which all rhythms and movements are transcribed exclusively into the knees, as the dancers shuffle through the crowd with their hands out-strecthed. It is the prefered step of the young and old alike; by ‘young’ I mean in the fourth decade of their life. I counted the number of men wearing shirts with collars. 

We ran into Barry while Vanesa was stepping out for a smoke and he joined us inside, reciting his enthusiasm that we had recognized him from his visit to the Sea Cove three days before. Again, he invited us to come to his house for no other reason than “see where I live.” We politely refrained. Barry started to tell me about his artwork, drawings inspired by either Gaugan or Van Gough, and how he was certain he would be famous after he died. Mentioning I made art once was sufficient. I nod. He said he wanted to show me his drawings to which I replied he should take a photo and send them to me. He didn’t have a camera. I suggested he use his camera phone. Most of what he said was masked in the loudspeaker of the band, but when I lost track of whether to nod in affirmation or cock my head  to express my interest for him to continue, he would lean across the table and speak directly into my ear. 

“You should come back to Pompano without your girlfriend.” 

“Why would I come back to Pompano, Barry?”

“Why don’t you want to come back to Pompano?” 

“Why would I come back to Pompano? There are so many places to visit in the world.” I realized I had missed some things he had said beneath the loudspeaker, which may have been crucial. After half an hour, I went to look for Vanesa, who had found another new friend at the bar, and we decided to leave when he blurted out to me, 

“I have to tell you something, that’s humiliating and embarrassing.”

“Barry, you don’t have to tell me anything that’s humiliating, I don’t even know you.” 

“Sometimes I have same-sex relations with men.” 

“Ok, sure. It’s 2019. You can do that. It’s Florida. I’m sure you’ll be fine.” I patted him on the shoulder and left, realizing I had completely misunderstood the entire last hour.  But I was happy to have mis-read Pompano.

20190815 Dawn | Dusk

Lionfish are a crepuscular species, so I decided snorkeling at dusk and dawn would offer a better chance at seeing one. I walked straight from the hotel to beach, down SE 2nd and dropped my bag.  The beach was mostly empty, save a few early morning shore walkers, but I felt secure leaving my rucksack of valuables on the sand and swimming out 150 feet, just beyond the buoys. 

Lionfish are a venomous species that was introduced into the water near Florida and spread throughout the Caribbean. The two species of lionfish, Pterois volatons and Pterois miles, commonly known as Red lionfish and Devil lionfish, respectively, are members of the scorpionfish or Scorpaenidæ family. The family includes the most venomous known fish in the world, the eponymous scorpionfish, whose poison can actually kill a human, if gone untreated. Like all members of the Scorpaeniform order, they are carnivorous. With 18 venomous spines that are as sharp as a hypodermic needle, pray can be paralyzed before being consumed. If a human is stung by a lionfish, excruciating pain and swelling occurs, but can be mediated with hot water, which breaks down the toxin's proteins. But lionfish also exploit camouflage as a hunting technique, which native fish are oblivious to, due to their lack of evolutionary familiarity. In their native environment on the Indo-Pacific, potential prey presumably are aware of lionfish and can avoid being consumed, compared to the fishes of the Atlantic. What's worse is the insatiable appetite of lionfish; they will eat up to 35 times their stomach capacity, gorging themselves in at the chance of feast. Not only does Pterois spp. gorge itself, its palate is diverse, with at least 100 known species it has consumed. In the process of consuming and pushing out other reef organisms, the delicate balance of reef ecology has been taken to the fore. Each species function has become highlighted, as the lionfish have decimated species, one by one. After small organisms which clean the reef are gone, once consumed by lionfish, algae spreads, pushing out the foundational coral. Without their native predators, like sharks, grouper, large eels, frogfish and other scorpionfish, the population of lionfish have exploded over the last two decades. Some reefs are now entirely lionfish,  a situation which can result even in cannibalism.

Removal entails using a Hawaiian slingshot spear, which is about three feet long, with a rubber band connected to the end of the spear, which is taught as the diver holds the spear near the head, where the trident is located, and releases the grip when an unexpecting lionfish is in proximity. The initial blow may be fatal, but some do escape with injuries. A successfully speared fish will be stored in a container that protects against the puncture of the venomous spines. Devices such as the Zookeeper, a clear acrylic cylinder with a one-directional trap door, have been developed specifically for this problem. More high-tech devices, such as robotic or remote-controlled submersibles are being developed with the aim of removing the human variable from the equation. 

I saw everything except lionfish. A shark. A manta ray. Several stingrays. Varieties of Angelfish, lobster, puffer fish, parrot fish, clown fish, but not a single lionfish.  Even a green turtle was on the reef! But no Pterois volitans. I noticed that this reef had much more fauna than the structure just six streets south and wondered how much difference was anthropological and whether these environments were in a state of change, decay, or collapse. 

I returned to the reef at dusk and saw different species of fish, except lionfish. I tested searching on different sides of the reef, thinking that the hunter that relied on camouflage, like the lionfish, may prefer the ledges where shadows aided his ambush, but without air tanks my search was limited.

20190816 Reef | Data

At 6:30 I was heading to the beach down SE 8th St. There were already divers in the waters and when I reached the reef I was surprised to see much more fauna and coral than at the structures of north and south. Still, no lionfish. 

We attended the derby kick off event, where Lad Atkins, the founder of REEF.org, reef environment educational foundation, spoke about the dangers of lionfish.

Pterois Origins

The lore around how lionfish were introduced into the Atlantic waters once pointed to Hurricane Andrew, which had smashed a large aquarium, situated on Biscayne Bay. Some of the fish which escaped were later retrieved,

Another theory was the lionfish escaped a Miami home aquarium that had been destroyed in the hurricane. Some believe they were simply released by aquarium owners who were distraught by the destruction of the aquarium life by a lionfish introduced by an unwitting individual. You can imagine it: a guy goes to a local aquarium store, sees this stunning fish, pays $80 for it, brings it home and drops it in his tank; an hour later all the other fish are gone. Then the guy thinks, shit, either I get rid of this thing or my aquarium is now just a glass cube with this fish inside. A couple weeks later we decide to release it into the bay. 

The observation of lionfish in waters around Florida as early as the 1970s suggests that it was not that singular event, at least not just Hurricane Andrew, but it could have been all of these contributing factors. What's interesting is that when the lionfish were first observed in  Florida reefs by marine biologists in the 1990s, they didn't remove them because they wanted to see if the species could coexist, that is, if the biodiversity of the reefs would improve with lionfish. And there are other non-native species that exist in Florida waters, which currently do not cause utter pandemonium. 

Another theory is that eggs or larvae were carried in ballast water from their native habitat and dumped in the ports of the US. 

A recent study showed that lionfish taken from the Gulf of Mexico and northeast Florida have homogeneous DNA, suggesting that a small group of ancestors as well as very little adaption as the population has spread.


With the average female spawning 27,000 eggs every three days, Pterois spp. have spread throughout the Caribbean, as far south as Brazil and colonized as far north as the Carolinas. As water temperatures change due to seasonal stream changes, populations can be found as far north as New York. They can inhabit water as shallow as a few inches and have been found as deep as 350 meters, over 1,000 feet.

Models of currents predict a future expansion of the lionfish domain, which can carry eggs and larva to distant places, such as the recent introductions to the Bahamas. At present the Bahamas have responded with their own derbies to try to forestall the population explosions of the invasive species. The colonization in the Bahamas confirms what the genetic analysis of populations of the east and west side of Florida suggest. But the prediction of ocean currents as a conveyance for Pterois is only one of the tools that bares bad news. The models of climate change, and increased water temperatures only makes matters worse. One study predicts, "the effects of warming temperature on lionfish pelagic larval duration and dispersal and predation rate, it was found that increased temperatures set the perfect stage for an invasion to thrive." Predictions expect a full 1-degree increase in water temperatures; with warmer waters, their range increases, but the larval stage is also shortened, permitting even faster rates of reproduction and growth. Waters at 10 degrees Celsius are lethal to Pterois spp. and feeding stops at 16 degrees C. With warmth spreading north and south, more species will be impacted permanently, and greater numbers of seasonal lionfish temporarily depleting native groups. 

In tandem with tools that predict further expansion are unexpected spread of lionfish. As the problem has garnered more interest and concern, increased monitoring and research has found lionfish adapting to deeper depth, and cooler waters, than previously believed. Individual lionfish have been found at reefs as low as 1,000 feet deep. It’s not clear if this is an evolutionary adaptation or simply a trait that was not recognized.

The spread of lionfish is also occurring in distant, unconnected locations. In 2012, colonies of lionfish began to appear around Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, Tunisia. In the cooler waters of the Mediterranean, procreation is not expected to occur at the same rate as at the equator. Rather, their presence is a bioindicator of the nodes of globalized trade.

Not only do these derbies have a direct impact on the coral reefs, they are also used to gather data on the life and biology of lionfish. When each teams’ fish are counted, they are also measured in order to get a sense of the age of the population. The fish are put on ice if they will be eaten as part of the event, sold for consumption, or further analyzed. Researchers have used these catches as opportunities to examine the stomach contents of lionfish, which form statistical analyses that would be otherwise prohibitively expensive for research teams to conduct. From these studies, researchers have shown the dramatic breadth of what lionfish may eat, as well as the unexpected capacity of their appetite. Collectively, these analyses are the foundation of the hysteria around the lionfish invasion, but they also demonstrate a relationship between humans and marine life, a relationship that is quantified and driven by data. This may not seem remarkable unless its juxtaposed with how we thought of marine life a half century ago. Popular knowledge would be informed by television shows like Flipper (1964-1967) or The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (1967-1976), also scientific understanding was informed by the technologies built that Cousteau developed, such as the Conshelf 1, the underwater habitat for humans. Even within a decade from the airing of Sea Hunt (1958-1961), which was essentially an underwater police show, and Cousteau, the focus has shifted from people underwater to the lifeforms found underwater. While Sea Hunt may continue the military origins of the SCUBA equipment, Cousteau continues the ontological pursuit of Melville’s Moby Dick. While Melville’s 1851 classic follows the unknown movement of a singular white whale, we can only imagine how the book would read in today’s context in which marine life is tagged and tracked with technologies that extrapolate the lifeforms’ relationship to the ocean and how we may mitigate our impact on those species. 

I was surprised by some of the data shared at the kick off event: some reefs lost as much as 95% of marine life; on average a reef loses 45% when lionfish are introduced. While I was surprised and appalled, the rest of the audience had mostly heard the presentation, which I took as a bad sign, since that equated to their experience. The only rise from the audience came when Lad solicited remarks on what it was like to be stung by a lionfish. One man shouted out that he cried like a baby, as if he were confessing his trespasses. We met a team that had won 11 tournaments and included the inventor of the Zookeeper, the standard container to hold lionfish. I spoke with a PhD candidate who had been researching the human influences on environmental systems. One thing that was clear: we were in over our heads.

20190817 Lionfish Derby | Lionfish Tasting

The similarity to the Redneck Fishing Tournament–a grassroots organized event aimed at merging sport fishing with environmental causes–was too good to pass up. Marine conservationists, such as Reef.org and Coastal Watch Alliance, have partnered with dive shops throughout Florida to encourage scuba divers to compete in lionfish derbies. Scuba diving and spearing the lionfish is the standard, and most effective manner to remove the species from the water. But it's time intensive, and costly, since scuba diving itself is a niche activity with time limitations of how long a diver can stay underwater. 

The State of Florida has encouraged the removal of lionfish through derbies as well as an online raffle and harvesting competition. Divers register as recreational or commercial harvesters and confirm the statistics of size and number of fish by simply taking a photo of the catch with the fish on display and upload to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's website. Cash prizes and sponsored-donations of gear create tiers that attract more participation. And people in Florida generally like to kill things, probably because life thrives so easily in this climate.

The derby idea is pretty simple: cash prizes for the most lionfish and/or the largest lionfish, as well as the smallest lionfish. In Pompano, the cash prize is divided by those who have paid to ride the chartered boat owned by South Florida Diving Headquarters, and those who own or operate a private boat. Strangely, this blatant conflict of interest, i.e. the use of tax-payer funds to divert profit to a local company is tolerated. The rules stipulate that only fish caught during the period of 4am-4pm on the day of the event are eligible to be counted, and the fish must be in its entirety to count as a fish. At least one team member must attend the educational event held on the Friday before the event. 

On the boat, there were about six or seven teams made of pairs. Henry, whom I met on the Aqua Zoo and had convinced to team up to form MI-NY. No introductions, no nametags, no co-mingling. These people came to win. 

Henry and I chatting with a photographer from Shipwreck Park and the dive master, Dave, but there was very little friendly chit-chat, compared to the scheduled dives before the competition. I couldn't tell if the reluctance of the other teams to mingle was because Henry and I were outsiders or because everyone was too focused on getting in the mood to hunt. The location of the dive was not disclosed prior to departure, but we were told we’d head to an artificial reef off Commercial Street in Lauderdale By-the-Sea, but we learned on the approach that several private boats had already anchored up there so we headed for a reef instead.

When the boat finally came to a halt, teams started jumping into the water, with little or no discussion as to who would go in first or whether there was an advantage in going in first or last. To add to the confusion, there were two guys who were just diving for fun. 

Henry and I were last into the water and instructed that, if we came to the end of the reef, we should continue swimming north a few minutes and we would arrive at the next reef. We hot dropped down 45 feet onto the center of the field and soon saw another team scanning for lionfish. A nursery shark passed and several other fishes, but no Pterois. We had discussed taking turns spearing; this round was Henry’s chance, we had imagined each successful spear throw handing over a lionfish to me and I handing him the second spear, then I would put the bounty in the Lionfish Tamer. That was how it was supposed to happen, but the only problem was that we didn't see any lionfish. I followed Henry as he searched over the landscape when we came to the end of the reef and swam north, over the featureless sand. Five minutes. Ten minutes. I attempted to direct us in the correct direction by using my recently acquired compass skills, but by the time I pulled us north we had gone so far west as to just swim parallel with the reef. I realized we would run out of air before we found any other lifeforms. A boat passed over head as we were ascending, and it sounded like a distant helicopter, almost hitting our dive flag on the surface.

The lost opportunity wasn't that detrimental. Few lionfish were brought up. One team pulled up two fish and a team in the back poured eight fish into an ice chest. I realized that their team appeared to be made of more than four people. The organizers had not instructed bringing coolers for the catch. One guy had cooler for lobsters but of the 14 plus people, supposedly in pairs, meaning seven teams, there were three coolers on the boat. Something smelled fishy. 

On the second dive I was hunting while Henry recorded. The new reef appeared equally desolate but by half my tank, I spotted a lionfish on the roof of a coral ledge. I moved slowly and brought the spear into position of less than a foot away, nearing it as I awaited any sign of movement before letting the Hawaiian slingshot fly. I handed the spear to Henry and took the new spear. What I learned was the description of where to find these fish was misleading. I had been told that Pterois volitans congregated at the edge of coral, but had I been told they were essentially seabats, nestled upside down on the roof of the coral overhangs, we would have found them earlier. Biologically it makes sense, since the coloration of the fish is dark purple and maroon, which appears like coral shaded from sunlight. Now, I find them at every ledge, but I got greedy. Each fish was in a pair, and I would locate them and waive Henry to bring the second spear, so I could get both, one in each hand, but the couple drifted into the coral maze, away from site or reach. This happened three times and I soon realized I was down to 500 psi and we had to surface.

At the end of the tournament, we tied for second on the chartered boat, but the winners had caught around 14 fish. At the docks we had our fish counted and measured. I stayed after to clip some venomous spines and noticed that the winning team had submitted their fish much later than everyone else on the boat. 

At the awards ceremony, the winning team on the charter boat not only had more fish than anyone saw them catch but their team included people who weren't even on the boat. A blonde with thick thighs and big, fake tits was on their team; the kind of person you can't miss in a sport that's predominantly middle-aged white men floating in the middle of nowhere. I knew she wasn’t on our boat. Their team had purportedly found and speared thirty fish. Where they came up with the other fish was either they had jumped on a second boat after the first, or they had looked multiple team catches together. 

Each landed fish was awarded a ticket that was entered into a raffle of prizes donated by the sponsors. The winning team won 8 prizes in a row, which was statistically improbable, but the fact that each winning ticket that was called occurred in the numerical order of the ticket confirmed my suspicion that this raffle, and probably the entire tournament, was rigged. I have never seen such blatant corruption and for so little money. It was pitiful. The winners took all of the sponsored prizes, even though their 30 tickets were a small fraction of the 600 fish caught and 600 raffle tickets.