Groupers, not Groupies or How I spent my summer vacation.
So this past July my wife and I were able to travel Florida and spend some time with my 88 year old father as well as take a desperately needed vacation.
After spending almost a week just hanging out with my Dad and having a wonderful time my wife and I headed over to the West side of Florida which was new to me. Normally we travel south and hang around my old stomping grounds in and around North Palm Beach and Singer Island.
On the West coast we found a wonderful old ‘Florida’ hotel named “Sea Chest” on Treasure Island (Just below Clearwater), a great spot and reasonably priced, since it was right on the ocean, although it was a fair walk to the beach!
The water was warm and for 3 out of the 4 days we were there, very rough with awesome body surfing waves! LOVED IT!
We then traveled over to the East side and found another hotel on the beach on Singer Island. It happens to be the hotel that is very close to a reef I used to spend a lot of time on and was the spot where the Amaryllis washed up during a hurricane back in 1965. (Here’s a link to my blog about this)
The water was perfect! Clear, wonderfully blue, and only a tad bit on the cold side (remember, I’m from Florida and 80 feels cold to me!)
We did some snorkeling at Phil Foster park which is a new man made reef and found it very enjoyable as long as you remember to get there about 30 minutes before high tide which is when the visibility and current is perfect.
We talked about what to do the next day and I had toyed with the idea of doing a scuba dive off of Palm Beach but it had been many years (15 to be exact) since I had last dove. So I didn’t really think it would happen until my wife called me (I was visiting with a old friend from high school over dinner) and said that she was really enjoying the reef off of the hotel and that I should call the dive shop and go. Well, that was enough for me! I called the dive shop and made plans for the next morning at 8:00 AM!
As dives excursions go, you never know where you’re going until you’re on the boat. When I had made the reservation I mentioned that it had been some time since I had dove and that I didn’t want to go too deep. They said they had lots of boats to choose from and would put me on one that would do dives around 60 feet. Gulp…for some reason that sounded DEEP, but I agreed.
So I was up at 6:00 AM, and down to Dunkin Donuts (All scuba divers eat here, right?) I went for my coffee and two apple spice donuts..yum! (Side story: Dunkin Donuts actually have espresso machines but they can only do a limited selection of drinks and an American is NOT one! WHAT? I’ve had about 50% success with explaining how to make one and having someone brave enough to do it….so strange)
I then checked in at the dive shop and gave them my name and NAUI number which they looked up to confirm and said they couldn’t find it. (Funny, I just checked and couldn’t find it either. Guess I’ll have to update their records). They asked for my card and I said I had left it at home, which I had as I really didn’t think I would be able to do a scuba dive. They started getting suspicious. They asked if I had a log book…ah..no. Again I told them I hadn’t planned on doing this. They asked when I had been certified and I told them October 1972 (I know, I know..I’m OLD!) I was 16 when I got certified, just like my son. (But that’s another story for another time)
So they reluctantly took my credit card and gathered all the equipment, however they were still suspicious and when they brought over the regulator they handed it to me and asked that I put it on. AhHA! They’re testing me! Well, I was a little nervous as it had been sooooo very long, but I acted as though I knew exactly what I was doing and successfully put it on while three of the store employees watched. After tightening it, but not too much, I turned on the air and it leaked! Uhoh..I blew it I thought…dang! But what I said was, “Oh, must have a bad O-ring”. The one who had taken my credit card said, “No, that wasn’t it, we check all the O-rings!” So he took the harness and put it on himself and turned the air back on….SSSSSSSSHHHHHHHHHHHH..it leaked. (HA! SEE!) No, I didn’t say that, but I wanted to!
So they brought another tank over and had me place it on and sure enough it worked. Whew! I think they felt a little better about me after that.
By this time it was 7:30 and I had to load everything up and get over to the boat dock. After paying the parking meter I walked over to the boat and dropped off my equipment then went over to the back of a pickup and handed the Captain my pass and filled out some paper work. In the spot where it asks about how many hours I had….I just put “Novice”. The Captain read it and looked at me and asked when the last time I dove? I said, “Well, it’s been a while.” “How long?” he asked, I said, “Oh, a couple of years”…gulp. He just looked at me and said they’d be leaving in 5 minutes.
Once on the boat I watched very carefully what everyone else was doing and just mirrored what they did. I was so nervous they were going to find out I was a FAKE! Well, not really a fake but it had been such a long time I probably should have taken a refresher course and next time I WILL!
We slowly traveled through the inter-coastal and headed out the Port of Palm Beach inlet. It was a perfect morning, completely clear sky, not too hot (yet) and the ocean was as flat as a pancake! As we passed the inlet marker I recalled the time I was with a friend and we dove the channel looking to spear a few fish. We entered the water from the rocks on the North side of the inlet and got out to the base of the channel marker. Sheepshead were weaving through the legs of the marker and I took a shot and wound up with TWO of them on one spear! I had to reel them in quick and put them inside my fish bag before the local barracuda’s decided to take a bite out of them.
On the way back to the edge we came across a small anchor and since my friends Dad was building a boat I decided to pick it up and bring it back to him. So I grabbed it, added a little air to my BC (Buoyancy Compensator) and continued on. We were probably only 50 yards away from the edge when I noticed my air wasn’t shooting into my mouth like normal. I looked down at my gauge and I was almost out of air! I quickly decided the anchor was not all that important and inflated my BC with the last of my air and shot up to the top where the dive flag was. This was a busy inlet so I was very nervous about all the boats but the dive flag did its job and no one ran me over!
So as our boat made its way out of the inlet they gathered all 7 of the divers around and told us we’d be doing two dives of around 60 feet off the Palm Beach Breakers and one other spot. There were three of us that were using normal tanks and two that were diving with NITROX and two that were using Rebreather’s. There were two crew members and the Captain. The boat was just the right size, with lots of room for all of us and our equipment with lots of room to roam.
There were two dive masters and both were very helpful and could tell I was a bit nervous. Again they asked how long and how many dives I had been on and I again was a little vague but said I would appreciate any advice they could give since it had been a while.
When we were 10 minutes out from the 1st stop the Captain let us know and we quickly got into our wet-suits and gear. I was careful to watch exactly what everyone else was doing and mimicked them step by step.
One area I was nervous about was how much weight to put on as I had forgotten what I had used in the past. So I did ask one of the dive masters what he recommended and he asked my weight and looked at my body type and said between 14 and 16 pounds. Another diver, one about my age, suggested 16. I decided to go with what the dive master said and took two 4 pound weights and two 3 pound weights and placed one of each in my weight pouch’s which then slide into my BC vest, which I thought was a VAST improvement over what I used back in 1972.
In 1972, the equipment was expensive, just like it is in 2013, so back then we made our own weights AND the backpack that held our tank. How you might ask? We borrowed a backpack from a friend, put car wax all over it, then used fiberglass and resin and slathered it all over the waxed covered backpack. Worked like a charm! We even put color in it, powder blue; to match the resin covered weights! Sure wish I had some pictures of that! But in 2013 this BC vest was slick and with 7 pounds in each pouch I was all set.
I was starting to feel nervous as the boat stopped and the captained yelled, “DIVE DIVE DIVE”. We all waddled over to the back of the boat and I watched as one by one everyone jumped off. I kept fiddling with my mask and looking at all my stuff hanging down, and finally one of the dive masters came over and checked me out. Whew..just what I was hoping!
My dive computer (that’s new) was hanging down so she clipped it onto one of the rings. Then she noticed by BC vest wasn’t hooked up to my tank! Oh brother! What a goober! That would have been very upsetting if I had gotten into the water and tried to inflate it only to find out it wasn’t even hooked up! I’m not even sure if I could have blown it up manually without the air hose plugged in. I would have sunk to the bottom!
They played it off as no big deal. I was distracted and forgot. Ah..no…I JUST DIDN’T REMEMBER I WAS EVEN SUPPOSED TO DO THAT!
Yikes, my confidence was falling fast! Not that I had much of it in the first place!
Finally it was my turn to jump in and all these memories are flying through my head. “Do I jump to the left or right of the last diver? Do I jump or just kick my leg out and fall? Do I hold my mask or my crotch?” AHHH!! JUST GO!!!!!!! WOOHOO!!!!!!!!! I jumped!
It wasn’t the prettiest entry as I led off with my right leg and as I was half jumping and half falling my left leg kind of slipped off the boat. The entrance must have looked rather comical as both dive masters told me to JUMP on the 2nd dive. :-} (This is how it’s SUPPOSED to look)
But here I was in the water, just where I wanted to be! It was cool, but not cold and the 3 mill wet suit was just right. I swam over to the dive flag and waited till we were given the sign to start heading down. This is where I really struggle, getting my ears to clear. I don’t recall having this problem when I was young but the last few times I’ve gone I’ve had difficulties getting my ears to pop without a LOT of pain. I started down by letting all the air out of my BC and remembered what one of the dive masters had told me about holding my nose and ‘lightly’ holding my breath and pushing my cheeks out. He also mentioned tipping my head back and blowing out from my nose and moving my jaw around. I did all those things and still my left ear was really paining me. I stopped heading down due to the increasing pain by adding a little air to the BC. I waited there, maybe even floated up a little until the pain eased a bit. Kept doing this and finally I was able to get down. I looked up to see if I was the last one down and I wasn’t so I thought I’d done okay.
This was a 60 foot drift dive, meaning, they dump you off and then you drift with the current for 45 minutes or so and then pop up and hopefully you’re near where the boat is waiting. So being the experienced diver that I was….I followed the dive master….closely! Which turned out to be a good thing! His name was Alex and he was from Jamaica and he was very good about pointing out all the different and interesting things to see, as well as writing on the underwater tablet as to what we were looking at.
The visibility was pretty good and you could see about 50 feet and there was hardly any current at all. At 60 feet the color is muted a bit so everything has a rather bluish haze to it and colors don’t really pop out at you. But it was still beautiful! It wasn’t cold, no current and lots and lots of stuff to look at. This dive had ledges and one bowl and most all the ledges had lots of life, including lobsters, moray eels, basket sponges, fans, banded coral shrimp (Had to really search to find those as they are tiny), and tons and tons of beautiful fish!
I supposed the highlight of the 1st dive was the large Loggerhead Turtle that we were able to watch. As we came around one of the fingers of the reef sitting on top with its head slightly hidden under a sea fan was a LARGE turtle! Its head was huge! At first I thought it the size of a basketball, but upon further reflection (and because I can’t seem to find any pictures of these kinds of turtles that show that size) I am reassessing and will say its head was as large as a volleyball. Either way, it was BIG!
I was one of the first ones there and was able to get within 10 feet of it and since there was very little current was able to watch with little effort. One by one the rest of the divers gathered around and started taking pictures of this old female turtle. (Back on the boat the dive master said it was female due to the small tail and that it was perhaps 35 years old). It was such a joy to watch this larger than life animal just snoozing on the ocean floor unaware that 8 divers were gathered around watching it. But after a short while it did wake up and slowly looked from side to side. It didn’t seem alarmed or startled, just slowly woke up and swam away. Just beautiful to watch! (Yes..I WISHED I had a camera!)
After scooting along looking at all the beautiful creatures and sea life my 45 minutes were up and my air was down to 900 PSI so it was time to head up. I told the dive master my air was low and I was heading up and he gave me the okay sign. I followed the dive flag string up and stopped at 15 feet and stayed there for 5 minutes to make sure I followed the decompression rules.
Once I came to the top I looked around and saw the boat. I inflated my orange tube they had given me and waited for the boat to come over to pick me up.
I was exhilarated by all the sea life we’d seen and by the fact I completed the dive without any major issues. I did noticed that on my way back up my left ear gave me a fair amount of pain, and once on the boat I tried to clear it and do what I could to help the relieve the pain. It eventually went away.
We stayed on the boat for about 30 minutes before moving to the last location. The two divers who were wearing the re-breathers stayed down and would navigate to the new location on their own. Their dive time would be a solid 2.5 hours compared to our two 45 minute stops and 30 minute surface time, AND since there are no bubbles when they exhale the fish have a tendency to come right up to them! Might have to look into the re-breather option.
At our second dive sight I was much more comfortable having worked out all the kinks of not having done this in many years and even managed to execute a somewhat more graceful entry into the water. I continued to have issues with my left ear as I headed down to the bottom, again, around 60 feet. I was able to get down a little quicker, in fact I was probably the 2nd one down and once I was on the bottom I looked up and watched as the other divers were still descending. So cool watching these wet suit cladded people slowly making there way down from above while the sun sent streaks of light spreading out in all directions. It was a great sight!
The current at the new location was very strong and required a lot of effort to avoid crashing into the reef or each other. I attempted to be conservative with my air but I noticed I was breathing a little faster and deeper due to the extra effort needed to stay in one place.
This dive was similar to the 1st one as there were a number of ‘finger’ reefs and we zigzagged our way in and out of the fingers. The visibility was a little lower here due to the current and finding stuff to look at was a bit more of a challenge as you would need to hang on to something to stay in one place long enough to even notice what was what. And since I had no gloves I didn’t hang onto anything, and actually, I don’t normally do that anyway as I don’t like damaging the reef.
And speaking of that, I was a little dismayed at two of the divers who were oblivious to their hanging computer and air gauges smacking against everything! At one point I thought of going over there and pointing it out, but thank goodness the dive partner realized what was happening and fixed the issue but not before a good size piece of basket coral was broken off…errr!
Now to the entire reason for this rather lengthy post….. The Grouper……. Are two grouper’s called groupies?
We were told before we started the 2nd dive that on the last finger of the reef there is a large ledge and many times there will be a large grouper hiding there.
When someone says, “large grouper” I’m assuming 3 or 4 feet long, perhaps a hundred pounds or so..you know..large. What the dive master SHOULD have said was, “GIGANTIC! ENORMOUS! MAMMOTH! JUMBO! MONSTROUS!!!! Even “BROBDINGNAGIAN!!” (Yup, that’s a word, had to look that one up)
In any case, it is the LARGEST DANG fish I’ve EVER seen my entire life! And to be THAT close!! Woh.
There was a diver in front of me who spotted one of the Groupers and I sidled up next to him and watched as this extremely large fish watched us. There was a ledge and slanted down a little so I was having a tough time getting a good view so I swam above and over the ledge and came down on the other side. As I descended to just below the back of the ledge I was greeted with the largest tail I’ve ever seen! It was huge! The fish sensed I was there, raised its dorsal fins and slowly (probably as fast as a big fish can) turned to warn me off! HOLY SMOKES! HIS MOUTH WAS HUGE!!!!!!!! I swear his mouth was a wide as my shoulders! AND THERE WERE TWO GROUPERS!!! Oh my GOSH! Just amazing! One was looking straight at me and the other was watching the other divers who had joined the 1st one. Both had their dorsal fins up and I think were a little spooked. I know ‘I’ was!
As the Grouper and I looked at each other I was laughing and yet scared at the same time, and slowly started to back away. I had inadvertently gotten within 5 or 6 feet of it due to the current so I moved away as quickly and smoothly as I could. I didn’t want to appear that I was being aggressive or give him/her any reason to come after me. But man oh man, what a sight! To be that close to fish that big…just amazing!
I SOOOO wished I had a camera then! So I’ve looked around the interwebs trying to find a few pictures that would capture what I saw, and although I didn’t find exactly what I wanted here’s a few that hopefully helps you understand what I saw and what I felt:
Grouper under a ledge and a diver close to it: Here
And another one: Here
This one I like as it shows the dorsal fins standing up: Here
Now this is probably what you ‘think’ I saw: Here
This is what my memory thinks I saw: Here
Now that brings up a question I will cover in my next post;, “Can a grouper swallow a diver?”
You’ll have to stay tuned for my next installment as this one has gone on..and on..and on.