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.