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.