RSWLiving - - Style - BY DOUG THOMP­SON

On the 20-minute boat ride out of Wig­gins Pass and into the Gulf of Mexico, stu­dent scuba divers show their ner­vous­ness in dif­fer­ent ways. A few are chatty, while oth­ers are quiet and deep in thought. Their dive in­struc­tors as­sure them all will be OK. Their dive train­ing has been thor­ough and they have passed all the tests. To­day is their fi­nal open-wa­ter dive con­ducted over the past two days, the last re­main­ing piece in earn­ing an open-wa­ter dive cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. The winds are calm as the 26-foot Dusky dive boat pulls up on the an­chor­ing spot where the divers will en­ter the wa­ter. “There’s an in­cred­i­ble amount of life out there,” ex­plains T.J. Jett, the shop man­ager for Naples Ma­rina & Ex­cur­sions, which of­fers NAUI (Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Un­der­wa­ter In­struc­tors) and PADI (Pro­fes­sional As­so­ci­a­tion of Dive In­struc­tors) cer­ti­fi­ca­tions. “Right off the coast is an en­tire world wait­ing to be ex­plored, and our in­struc­tors can teach you how.”

Once cer­ti­fied, divers can travel around Florida and the world ex­plor­ing the un­der­sea realm. Dive tanks can be rented and char­ter boats ar­ranged to take you to pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions. How­ever, when you live in South­west Florida, there are plenty of fab­u­lous dives in our back­yard.

Fresh­wa­ter sources such as the Caloosahatchee and Co­co­hatchee rivers flow into the Gulf and bring in nu­tri­ents and sed­i­ments. Tar­pon, snook, jacks, mack­erel, tur­tles and scores of other types of an­i­mals and fish know where these fresh­wa­ter flows are com­ing from, and hunt the smaller an­i­mals that are car­ried in on the flows. Shal­low-wa­ter dives also of­fer a look at a va­ri­ety of nudi­branchs, a soft, seago­ing slug that can be bril­liant in color.

Col­lier and Lee coun­ties have more than 35 wrecks and ar­ti­fi­cial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. They of­fer a wide va­ri­ety of fish, in­clud­ing im­pres­sive go­liath grouper that weigh up to 500 pounds, schools of fast-swim­ming am­ber­jack, mean-look­ing bar­racuda, South­ern rays with 4-foot-plus wing­spans and even whale sharks.

A pop­u­lar dive spot is the sunken USS Mo­hawk, a 165-foot Coast Guard cut­ter that is per­fectly upright and lo­cated on Char­lie’s Reef, 28 miles west of Red Fish Pass. The bow of the Mo­hawk faces due east, and the dive is 87 feet to the sand, and 32 feet to the ship’s crow’s nest. The Mo­hawk was in­volved in D-Day in World War II, and was sunk as an ar­ti­fi­cial reef in July of 2012.

“Go­liath grouper are one of the big at­trac­tions around here,” says Brent Ar­gabright, owner of Dean’s Dive Cen­ter in Fort My­ers, which he founded 24 years ago. “The Mo­hawk is a very good place to see these grouper and it’s a fan­tas­tic site. In ad­di­tion to grouper we see also am­ber­jack on that wreck, along with a lot of dif­fer­ent types of bait­fish.”

Bar­racuda also float as silent sen­tinels near the wreck, drift­ing in and out of the shad­ows, fol­low­ing divers around. The sleek fish of­fer an ex­tremely men­ac­ing ap­pear­ance with their cigar-shaped bod­ies and jagged teeth, but at­tacks on divers are rare.

“The bar­racuda don’t mess with you, but it can be a lit­tle hairy go­ing through a school of them to dive the Mo­hawk,” re­ports Capt. Steve Hern­den, a dive mas­ter and owner of Is­land Coast Ex­cur­sions, which takes up to four peo­ple on char­ter dive trips on a 24-foot Well­craft Walka­round. “It’s the best wreck to dive be­cause of the pro­file of it. You can get two dives off the wreck.”

The first Mo­hawk dive is a deep one of more than 80 feet, where divers can see the pro­pel­lers and rud­der of the ship, then travel along the length of the ves­sel and see the su­per­struc­ture. The sec­ond dive is shal­lower, and can in­volve ac­tu­ally go­ing into the ship.

“The su­per­struc­ture is mostly open and there are usu­ally three points of en­try,” says Hern­den, who charges $125 per diver for an all-day trip. He pro­vides a cooler with ice and stor­age for lunches and snacks. The run to the Mo­hawk takes be­tween an hour and a half to two hours from meet­ing ar­eas such as the Pineland Ma­rina or Punta Rassa Boat Ramp. “So it’s re­ally bright and light, not like a pen­e­tra­tion dive in the hull where there can be some re­ally tight com­part­ments,” Hern­den adds.

Ship­wrecks, ar­ti­fi­cial reefs and nat­u­ral ledges are the three types of div­ing lo­ca­tions avail­able in Col­lier and Lee coun­ties. Dive sites that peo­ple may be fa­mil­iar with in­clude other wrecks such

as the Pe­ga­sus, Fan­tas­tico and Bay­ronto, and the rub­ble from the old Edi­son Bridge, which was sunk in 1993 and is lo­cated about 16 miles south­west of the Sani­bel Light­house. Other types of struc­tures in­clude old cell­phone tow­ers that have been cut up and sunk.

“The ma­jor­ity of the ship­wrecks that are off of our coast re­quire an ad­vanced open-wa­ter div­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion,” Ar­gabright says. “Get­ting to that level takes some time and ded­i­ca­tion, but it’s def­i­nitely some­thing peo­ple can learn. Any­one can learn to dive un­less they have a phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tion, such as a his­tory of heart at­tacks or asthma.”

In ad­di­tion to all the ar­ti­fi­cial reefs and sunken ships, the lo­cal nat­u­ral coral heads at­tract bait and are a smaller fish hide­out, and that brings along the big­ger fish that feed on them. Divers, too, are at­tracted to these struc­tures be­cause that’s where the fish are lo­cated.

“Peo­ple dive in South­west Florida for what they can see, not for the wa­ter clar­ity,” Jett notes. “Be­cause of the rivers that flow into the Gulf, the wa­ter is not go­ing to be as clear as it is on the East Coast of Florida or in the Florida Keys. Still, when the wind lays down you and the wa­ter is right you can see 40 to 60 feet.”

For about nine months out of the year the weather and wa­ter is warm in South­west Florida, but dur­ing the win­ter months you are al­most al­ways go­ing to want to wear a wet­suit. When the cold fronts come down from the north, it can be as cold or colder as it is on land, and of­ten more dan­ger­ous be­cause of the winds. “When it comes to div­ing the wa­ter tem­per­a­ture here is a fac­tor, be­cause there is a swing of 85 de­grees in the sum­mer to 60 de­grees in the win­ter,” Ar­gabright states.

More than 10 mil­lion peo­ple are cer­ti­fied divers in the United States, ac­cord­ing to statis­tics from PADI, and learn­ing how to dive has be­come eas­ier over the years.

“The days of hav­ing to be a su­per hu­man diver are over—we have 10-year-olds that have learned,” adds Ar­gabright, a cer­ti­fied PADI in­struc­tor. “When I first got cer­ti­fied, you had to hold your breath and


swim 100 yards. That has faded away, be­cause one of the first rules in scuba div­ing is never hold your breath. The phys­i­cal re­quire­ments are not the same as they used to be.

“If you are an ed­u­cated per­son, and you trust your wits and are calm in sit­u­a­tions, it’s a very safe sport,” Ar­gabright continues. “And you are al­ways div­ing with a buddy. That is cru­cial. In April and May when the wa­ter gets warmer, the div­ing in South­west Florida only gets bet­ter.”

Be­com­ing a cer­ti­fied diver con­sists of six lessons taught in the class­room and in the wa­ter over sev­eral weeks, and the cost is around $150 for the lessons. Be­gin­ning divers start out in the pool be­fore go­ing out in the ocean or in a lake. Divers are also re­spon­si­ble for pay­ing a reg­is­tra­tion fee to NAUI or PADI, and buy­ing their own mask, snorkel, fins, weight belt and other dive ac­ces­sories.

Divers don’t need a boat to go div­ing, and some go right in the wa­ter off the beach.

“Venice is known as the shark tooth cap­i­tal of the world,” says Jim Joseph, who founded Fan­tasea Scuba Dive Cen­ter in Port Charlotte 22 years ago. “Peo­ple go in at the beach and look for fos­silized shark teeth, and they find a bunch of them.”

Cre­at­ing and cap­tur­ing un­der­wa­ter mem­o­ries, how­ever, is what most divers are af­ter. A shark tooth may make for a nice sou­venir, but see­ing big fish and other ma­rine life is some­thing most peo­ple will never for­get.

“We can do a cus­tom itin­er­ary for divers,” ex­plains Hern­den, who founded his char­ter boat busi­ness two years ago with his wife, Diana. “For ex­am­ple, we’ll go to the Mo­hawk, and also the Cap­tiva Blue Hole, which is about five miles away. That’s an all-day trip.”

The Cap­tiva Blue Hole is an an­cient sink­hole, with a lip that is about 90 feet in depth, and a cen­ter than drops to 150-feet deep or more.

“When you get out as far as the Mo­hawk and Blue Hole, the wa­ter clears up and vis­i­bil­ity im­proves,” says Hern­den. “When I first saw Blue Hole, and also the Mo­hawk just a few months af­ter it was sunk, I was in­spired to open my busi­ness. I re­ally feel like peo­ple need to see these beau­ti­ful dive spots. It’s re­ally that spec­tac­u­lar.”


Dive boat (top left) on point for Naples Ma­rina & Ex­cur­sions. Ramiro Palma and Kent Bucciere (top right) hold spear­guns on deck of the USS Mo­hawk, which was sunk as an ar­ti­fi­cial reef. Ship­wrecks (bot­tom) are also pop­u­lar dive spots.

An eel (top left) glides be­tween coral. Ramiro Palma (bot­tom right) peers into the Mo­hawk.

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