They came in droves, the spotters, the netters, the snarers, and the grabbers…….specialists all, with a common goal – to put as many tasty spiny lobsters into the pot for Friday nights annual Indian Valley Scuba Lobster Festival in Key Largo. This event is held each year, to coincide with the Florida Lobster Sport Season, a two-day hunt held the last contiguous Wednesday & Thursday in July. This mini-season precedes the opening of the regular hunting season, and is only open to divers, snorkelers, and netters – no commercial take is allowed.
Team IVS arrived on site Tuesday evening, and set right to work prepping the gear for an oh’dark-thirty departure in the moming. Final checks, calibrating the gauges, making sure the snares worked smoothly, trying on the new gloves, installing new batteries in the lights, and the oh-so-important task of making sure the zipper on your lobster bag was nice and closed – all important tasks necessary to ensure our team would do it’s part for lobster population control on the reef.
It’s three thirty in the morning and the alarm is ringing……yikes!..time to get up and get ready! Brush the teeth, grab a bagel and diet Coke, and start loading the boat at 4:15. Capt. Joe and First Mate Lindsey delivered the safety briefing at 4:30 and we pushed off into the darkness, with an air of anticipation of what laid ahead. Our team consisted of Ray Graff, Bev & Butch Loggins, Randy & Connie Rudd, Joyce & Charles Kichman, Tricia and Jeff Mento, Sue Douglass, Brian Laspino, Mike & Lin Gusenko, Terry Gibbons, Bob Benson, Wendy and Alex Lepore, and John Glodowski. For a few, this was not only their first ocean dive, but also their first boat dive, night dive, hunting dive and drift dive – what a way to get baptized in scuba, eh?
We splashed at the legal opening minute of the lobster hunting season in Monroe County, 5:48 a.m. Lights were shining back & forth, as the divers scurried about., looking to be the first to get a “keeper” in the bag! In order to take a lobster here, they need to be of a minimum length, which we measure with a gauge prior to bagging them, and they must also not be bearing eggs. Thus it is important to exercise caution and catch them in a kind and loving fashion, in case they fail to pass one of those tests, and we need to set them free, to grow (or hatch their eggs) and hopefully visit us again next season! This is also why we are careful not to damage the lobsters or break their spiny antennas, as they would have a difficult time defending themselves if they don’t end up qualifying for our dinner pot. We completed three ninety-minute dives this morning, each one better than the previous, and ended up with 21 lobster tails in the freezer by noon. Time for a quick lunch and siesta, and then we’ll head back out and do it again.
Our new crew, Captain Dan and First Mate Andrew, arrived, and we loaded up and headed out at 3:30 for the afternoon three-tank trip. Three great locations, three more hour-plus drift dives, and we were “on the meat” at every one! 36 more lobsters joined our growing collection in the freezer, making Friday’s night feast looking all that much better. Last splash was at 8:00, allowing one last hour of night diving before the season closed for the day at 9:10 p.m. We got back at 11:00, just in time to crash into our beds and get a few hours rest before the alarm clock rings again!
Just to keep things exciting, we decided to head out a little earlier this morning and try our luck up north a bit, around Carysfort Light. So we loaded up at 3:30 a.m., and cast the lines at 4:00 to make sure we didn’t miss a minute of hunting time. Well today our luck was not with us, even with the efforts of the ‘Lobster Charmer’ Tricia Mento, giving her best effort. Only 8 more bugs were added to the pot, so the pressure’s on for this afternoons team. Lots of mouths to feed tomorrow night! Maybe we should have them make some extra salad and dinner rolls at the restaurant!
Thursday afternoon found most of the rest of the gang showing up, including the rest of the Valaika clan, Brad Creveling, Rich Kessler, Keith Wallerman, Bill & John Zyskowski, Rob & Jen O’Donnell, Stephanie & Cynthia Shaeffer, Niki & Csaba Lorinczy, Steve Holak, Judy & Ron Monaco, June Malinowski, Beth Long and Alex Pulsilze. Local IVS-South instructor Dave Hartman joined the gang for the last lobster run this evening also.
Thursday afternoon also marked two very important milestones in the Indian Valley Scuba dive family – Tricia Mento celebrated her 100th dive this afternoon, and even cooler than that, she celebrated her fourth consecutive 29th birthday in the most wonderful way, diving for lobsters with Team IVS!
The boat returned at 10:30 and with 28 more bugs in the bag, the final lobster count ended up at 93, a few shy of last years record 106 bugs. We need to work on this for sure!!!
Friday morning and the weekend officially starts, with most of the group boarding the Amoray Diver for a run out to the reef, while our newest divers joined Dave and some of the IVS staff for a ride over to do our first two open water dives at Jules Undersea Lodge. The Amoray Diver headed enjoyed two reef dives in perfect conditions, and the group had a great morning. Meanwhile the Jules gang enjoyed some cool dives getting all those necessary skills out of the way, and preparing us to head out on the open seas after lunch.
The afternoon boat headed out at 1:00 and our first stop was the Coast Guard Cutter USS Duane. To say the current was “RIPPING” would be a gross understatement. It was truly smoking all the down to the wreck at 105 ft. Four teams of divers headed down and once on the wreck we had some great visibility and lots of large animals taking refuge in and around the wreck, so the sightseeing was great. Major gathering of very large horse-eye jacks kept circling the wreck and buzzing us – where’s my speargun??
Once back on board, we headed over to the Winch Hole site on Molasses Reef, and enjoyed a great dive with minimal current and super visibility, and just loving that 87 degree water! Back to the dock in time to freshen up, and head over the the Key Largo Conch House for our lobster dinner festival. Reservations for 48 were made earlier this year and our friends at the Conch House did not let us down a bit! From their award-winning lobster bisque, to broiled lobster tails, and all the fixin’s that go well with that, our group had a truly pleasant evening under the stars, chatting, dining, sharing dive tales, and generally enjoying the social interaction that is such a huge part of the dive life.
Saturday morning brought us another dose of the weather that entitles Florida to be called the Sunshine State – absolutely perfect, sunny, with clear blue skies. We laoded up and headed out to French Reef, the oldest of the reef systems that lay just offshore of the Keys. Our first location was Christmas Tree Cave, an area chock full of swim throughs formed by the mature corals growing over hundreds of years and fusing together on top of the reef, forming large open archways along the sand. These are great spots to find great numbers of smaller and mid-size reef fish taking refuge from the surge while enjoying protection from predators, and often you’ll also find some larger species also, such as groupers. They were all out in force today, and our divers were treated with turtle sightings, actively feeding stingrays, sharks, eels and all the rest of the usual cast of characters. Dive #2 of the day was just a few mooring balls down the reef, at the last dive site on French Reef, apropriately named North French Reef. Similar to the first dive, conditions just as nice, and the sea life just as abundant.
Back to the dock for a quick bite to eat, change tanks, and the ride back out to sea. Location #1 for the afternoon was the Spiegel Grove, and the seas were a’rolling, with waves breaking right across the deck of the Amoray Diver. We were almost wet enough to start counting our bottom time before we even got hooked up to the wreck. We tied into the port crane, and the current was as strong if not stronger than yesterday’s Duane experience. We organized into teams on the boat, conducted our group briefings, and slipped into the water. Pulling against the mooring line was something akin to swimming up a fire hose, with the water just about ripping our masks off and regulators out. What a rush indeed! Hand over hand, we made our way down the line to the wreck, hitting the top of the crane at 65 feet. Once on the wreck , we were able to use the ship to shield ourselves from the current and the diving conditions were superb. Every team was able to enjoy the dive to the level they planned, from simple sightseeing about the exterior to some of Dave Hartman’s fine deep, dark, interior tours. By the end of our dive, 37 of our 40 divers made it back to the Amoray boat – we won’t mention any names, but let it be known the Spiegel has a newly named mooring ball now, called the “Z” ball, in honor of couple of navigationally challenged IVS diving brothers and their fellow Polski sidekick.
After that it was a short ride to the Benwood for a good chance to see the wreck before we re-visit it for our night dive. It never ceases to amaze me how the sea life can change so greatly on a specific location, within just a few hours. And it does this every night of the year – amazing! Another hour in the water, and it was time to head back in, re-fuel, and load for the night dive.
Nighttimes on the Benwood are always a blast, and 17 of us descended into the inky black waters to check out the night life on the reef. Lots of cool critters, some octopus sightings, all the other great nocturnal attractions, and an 80 minute dive to boot! Laughter, brewskis and fun all the way home, and everyone gathered at the Paradise Pub for a thorough debriefing afterwards!
Sunday morning brought another perfect sunny day, and we headed out to visit some spots on the Elbow Reef. The ride out was a hoot, with 4 to 6 foot rollers breaking across the bow of the Amoray Diver and running down the decks – everyone grab your gear! The seas calmed down as we got to the reef, but the slow progress on the way out cost us first dibs on a spot on the City of Washington, so we settled for her next door neighbor, Mike’s Wreck. Final set of skills for our newest open water divers, with navigation patterns and bouyancy skills checked off to complete their National Geographic Open Water certifications. Congratulations to Jen & Rob O’Donnell, Anna & Alexis Valaika, and IVS Instructor Rich Kessler’s first two Open Water divers, Stephanie & Cynthia Shaeffer! We also managed to get our penetration reel work done, so congratulations to Todd Gibson and Brian LaSpina, our newest Wreck Specialty graduates.
Dive #2 was on the City of Washington, and wow was the sunlight and water clarity perfect, combining to make this picturesque wreck even more beautiful for this Sunday morning visit. Supersize Goliath Groupers and some nurse sharks joined us on the dive, swimming in and out of our group, looking for a handout. We completed a couple of REEF Fish Surveys on this dive, helping that great organization with their work on the fish population database programs.
Back at the dock, and I said my goodbyes to the gang as the family and I were headed down to Key West for some vacation and a visit to the Vandenberg, Florida’s newest major wreck. As luck would have it, the seas had turned, for the better, and the group headed out to the Speigel Grove and enjoyed nearly current-free conditions and fantastic visibilty – what a change from the last two days! After that, it was some deep reef exploring offshore from the Benwood, some swimming and cavorting on and off the boat, and a slow return to the dock as one engine had decided to take the rest of the day off – talk about timing, eh?
And speaking of milestones, this afternoon the face of IVS Key Largo, Dave Hartman, logged his 1,000th dive, of course doing it surrounded by the IVS gang! He marked this special celebration with a personal signing of commenorative Spiegel Grove t-shirts for his Ultimate Speigel Grove Deep & Dark Dive Tour Team.
With the boat down for repairs, any Monday morning dive plans went by the wayside, and the group headed to the airports for their rides home. Meanwhile, in Key West, I hooked up with Southpoint Divers, who had hosted Csaba, Niki, Bill & John earlier in the week, and set up a two-tank double dip on the Vandenberg for Tuesday morning. Woo hoo!
Tuesday morning came and I boarded the Southpoint boat at a nice late 8:30, for a 9:00 departure. What a difference it was to not be with Team IVS divers – it is just an amazing contrast as divers were asking how their computers worked, how to set up gear, were clueless on weight requirements, didn’t know how to set up a weight belt “because I only dive integrated weights”….geeeeesh!
On top of that, we are scheduled to do two back-to-back deep dives on the Vandenberg, and the only gas they have on board is air. Amazing. None the less, the crew is friendly, so we listen to the briefing and fire up the nice fast Newton diesels and make the 35 minute run out to the wreck. En-route, I get “insta-buddied” with Deb from Cherry Hill (the weight belt expert), and listen to her rant about the shop staff and how they would not refund her money for the trip since she work up with an ear ache and was not sure she could clear…..i am sensing an interesting dive ahead. Finally we’re on site, and we splash. Current is moderate so they had run a descent line down, and a tag line to the anchor. Only problem is the boat is about 46 feet long, and the tag line they used is about 150 ft long, so it starts at the mooring line, passes under the boat, extends about 50 ft past the boat, circles back on itself, and finally ties back into the descent line. What a mess of entanglement possibilities! I drop down and begin my descent and thankfully my buddy du jour is keeping up with me – so much for that ear clearing issue I suppose. As we approach the wreck the viz is terrible, maybe 20 ft at best, and we finally see the forward kingpost rising out of the murk. We drop down to the deck, and cruise about, as I attempt to get some decent video despite the gloomy conditions. The captain’s briefing, geared to the touristy crowd, was for a 20 minute dive, max depth 90 feet. That’s exactly why I bought my Cochran dive computer, so I could do profiles like that…..NOT! Forty minutes later I surfaced, and the crew was amazed – not in deco, still in excess of 500 psi in tank – geez, just a regular IVS dive! Of course all the other divers were back on board, looking nearly dry, so I figured they had a 20 or more minute head start on their surface interval.
During the break I am talking to some of the locals, and they are lamenting about this years lobster season, how they only got one dive in before getting “blown out’ by the weather. Seas were rough, they said, and it was dangerous, so they called it early Wednesday morning and never attempted to go out on Thursday. Wow, I say, where were you diving? Key Largo, they tell me! Hmmmmm….I guess that local perspective on sea conditions sure is different than ours!
Finally our magic 45 minutes of surface interval has passed, so it’s time to head back down with my buddy Deb for a second dive. During our break, however, the current had picked up and some wonderfully clear blue water had moved in, making the wreck visible from the surface. Sweet!! Of course, during that time, nothing was done about the excessive lengths of line in the water, so that mess of rope still had to be dealt with. I dropped in, and as I started to make my way forward, one of the locals with a huge camera system smashes right down on top of me……good to see such a display of excellent dive skills & buoyancy control! I firm up my grip on my own video system, brace for the rest of the divers to visit me, and pull myself down and out of the crash zone. As I head down to the wreck it is obvious how the viz had improved, and I can see well down the wreck in both directions from the mooring line. We drop down the kingpost again, and boogie down the port side of the wreck towards the stern, passing the one radar dish that had broken off during the sinking and is not tied in place with cables, past the one still attached, and past the rear stack. The ship protected us from the current on this side, and when we decided to turn back, we simply swam over the the starboard side and enjoyed the full effect of the current as we sailed back towards the bow – nice ride indeed! I managed to score some decent footage and snap a few shots of the wreck along the way, and finally, after another 30 minutes of bottom time, it was time to head on up. I enjoyed a leisurely ascent, clearing my 3 mintes of deco obligation along the way as I did my deep stops, and got up to the 20 foot mark for my final hang. I feel a nibble on my leg, and look down, and there is a juvenile file fish, maybe 3 inches long, biting my leg and using me to hang on in the current – very cool! He stayed with me during my entire hang, enjoying a break from fighting the current and some protection from predators at the same time. The DM is on the line, and she is indicating that she has 2 minutes of deco hang remaining, so I signal that I am OK and I’ll hang here. She signals me again that she has two minutes of hang, and again I indicate no sweat, I’ll stay with her. Well this goes on for another ten minutes, and I wonder exactly what kind of computer she is using. Turns out that like many things in Key West, the signals are a little different too! Her two fingers in the shape of a “v” meant nothing, just her way of saying “are you OK?”. Yes, strange but true. Reminds me of a certain instructor from Lake Sheridan, Wyoming…..but that’s another story all together! We finally surfaced, after fifty minutes, and headed in. Good dives, but I’d do it different next time for sure.
After that it’s another day or two of Key West, then up to South Beach for some more culture shock, before the Valaika clan head home Friday morning. Great couple of weeks in the Keys for all!
Filed under: Dive Trips, Florida Keys, Indian Valley Scuba, IVS South, Key Largo | Tagged: Florida Keys, Hunting, Key Largo, Key West, lobster hunting, USS Duane, USS Spiegle Grove, USS Vandenberg | 1 Comment »