wreck diving

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?