Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Mini-Season: Day One

Welcome to the Two-Day Florida Sport Season for Lobster, otherwise known as Mini-Season!

As you've read in our previous articles, Mini-Season is the last Wednesday and Thursday of July here in Florida. The two day extravaganza allows sport divers the opportunity to pick up a few lobster for the official lobster season begins the first week of August.

Divers are limited to a total of 12 lobsters per day throughout Florida, with the exception of the Florida Keys, which limits divers to just 6 lobsters per day.

Since Mini-Season starts on Wednesday and Wednesday itself technically starts at Midnight Tuesday night, the waters off the coast of Florida were filled with boats and divers armed with lightsticks and flashlights last night. My buddies and I decided that night diving for Mini-Season was going to be a bit much work this year, so we opted to go out at 6am Wednesday morning instead.

As we were preparing to leave the dock, some of our midnight diving friends were pulling into the dock. Looking a little tired, they boasted 16 lobster with 4 divers. It's not limit, but it's a far cry better than I did last year during our midnight dive. We made our assessments of proposed depth and headed out of Port Everglades.

Part of our group wanted to dive shallow and two of us were holding out for deep water. We two deep fans opted to stay on the boat for the first dive and let the rest of our party of 8 splash in about 30 feet of water to start. At the end of their first dive, they had about a dozen bugs between them - not bad, but not great either. By the way, the term 'bugs' is diver slang for spiny lobsters because they're just so darn cute.

My dive buddy and fellow deep enthusiast, Pat, and I were all too happy to try our hand at the third reef. The reef itself is about 45 feet in the center with about 60 feet on the West side and 60 to 100 feet on the West side, depending on the area. We splashed in at about the center line and worked our way East. We were joined shortly thereafter by the second wave of divers and worked our way back and forth across the reef.

Pat and I came upon a nice ledge with 6 bugs beckoning us onward. All 6 were keepers - no eggs and no shorts. By the way, if the lobsters are females with eggs, you are not permitted to take them, and of course, the rest must measure up in size as well. We continually worked our way East and West across the reef as the current pushed us Northward. I picked up another lobster nearby and then it was slim pickings for awhile. There weren't many places for the bugs to hide in this particular section of reef, but our patience paid off as the edge of the reef became more defined.

Pat and I picked up 3 more bugs in one den (lobster hole) and then spotted another den a few yards away. Pat pushed his lobster snare in through one side of the hole to spook them out in my direction. When he did, a chubby little 2-foot nurse shark came scurrying out of the hole right past me. By this point, we were both running a little a low on air, so we decided to surface. Pat landed a total of 7 on this dive and I landed 6 - not a bad first dive.

Needless to say, the rest of the group was now convinced that deeper was the way to go. My long-time dive buddy, Randy Docks, spent a good 15 minutes wrestling a monster bug out of a deep crevice. It was so far back in the hole that he had to actually remove his gear to get far enough in to loop the lobster. Here's a photo of Randy with his prized lobster - the largest of the day from our boat.

For the record, Randy is by far the most successful lobsterman that I have had the pleasure with whom to dive. He and I have been on the same dive on the same reef where I didn't even see a bug and he limited out. Today, he was apparently going for quality over quantity. Nice Lobster, Randy!

Pat and I decided to stay deep for our second dive of the day, and again, we were rewarded. Pat picked up an additional 2 bugs and I landed 6 more bugs, a nice Danforth anchor, and a 20-inch mutton snapper as an added bonus.

My first dive ranged from 40 to 70 feet and my second dive was almost entirely at 70 feet. I achieved my limit of 12 bugs for the day and will be back out there tomorrow to see how well the lobster gods smile down upon us.

Our boat with 8 divers landed a total of 53 bugs; not a bad first day! We only saw a few shorts (lobsters too small to keep) and probably a dozen or so females with eggs. I was the only one on the boat to limit out and Randy took home the prize for the largest bug of the trip.

Best of all, the weather cooperated, seas fluctuated a bit, but never spiked over 2 feet; everyone came home safely, and nobody went home empty-handed.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Florida Keys Launches DiveALIVE

Speaking of dive skills, the Florida Keys has announced a new program called DiveALIVE. The program focuses on helping divers brush up on skills before getting back into the water.


A - Air
L - Lose the Lead (drop your weight belt)
I - Inspect Your Gear
V - Verify Your Dive Plan & Skills
E - Escape (stop, think, breathe, and act - don't panic)

Although it's short notice, they are offering a Diving Rodeo & Expo today at the Florida Keys Community College's lagoon on Stock Island (just North of Key West). It's being offered from 10am to 7pm. They will be giving divers an opportunity to refresh their skills and also learn lobster tickling techniques in anticipation of this week's Mini-Season. Some of the skills to be reviewed are mask cleaning, controlled emergency swimming ascents, and weight dropping.

Did you know that, in most cases, when divers are recovered after an accident, the vast majority of them are still wearing their weights?

According to an article in the Miami Herald today, over 20,000 visitors are expected in the Keys this week for Mini-Season. The article also mentions that a 2001 study estimated that there are over 1.9 Million dive trips in the Keys each year. That's a lot of dives and a lot of divers!

Here's a link to the article:

Skills and Training/Calling a Dive

Only YOU truly know your skill and comfort levels.

As most of us know, diving is not an inherently a dangerous sport. It is not without dangers or risks, but proper training, properly maintained equipment, and updated skills all play a part in minimizing these risks. No sport that I'm aware of is completely without risk. Even if you're just playing billiards, a ball can get launched off the table and whack you on the foot... or worse, whack some big burly dude on the foot who proceeds to whack you with a pool cue in return.

In football, players wear an assortment of pads and a helmet. In baseball, the catcher wears pads, a metal cage around his face, and has an oversized glove to fend off the ball while the batter wears a helmet. In hockey, the players also wear helmets, face masks, pads, and gloves. But in all cases, the players spend a great deal of time practicing and honing their skills. You won't see players taking a month off to relax before playing the Stanley Cup Finals, the Super Bowl, or the World Series.

While it's not likely I'll ever sell tickets to anyone wanting to see me backroll off a dive boat into the Atlantic with a speargun in my hand, there's a good deal of preparation and ongoing study that goes into each dive I do. From the meticulous way that I always pack my gear bag to setting my computer and my pre-dive safety checks, I'm always checking and double-checking before it's dive time. Most of the time, nobody even notices what I'm doing because it's just second nature for me, but you can bet every piece of my gear has been inspected before I splash.

In fact, most divers have no idea that I have watched how comfortably they've gotten their stuff together or that I've actually spun their tank valve to make sure it was on while they were sitting on the gunwale. The casual way I rattle off the pre-dive makes it sound like I'm talking to the fish, but you'd be surprised how often it reminds someone that they need to put in their weight pockets or set their computer to Nitrox. If they don't catch the hint on their own, I'll be a bit more direct like, 'Are you diving without your fins today?'.

Unfortunately in scuba diving, it's not uncommon for a certified diver to dust off his/her gear after a year of non-use, load up the boat, and jump in the water without having reviewed anything other than the Weather Channel to check on the day's conditions. It's not uncommon, but it should be.

While the diving industry essentially polices itself with regard to certifications, there is no law enforcement agency responsible for making certain everyone who giant strides or backrolls off a boat into the ocean is certified or even knows what they're doing. On commercial dive trips, dive shops and dive boat operators ask divers about their experience and certification levels, ask for dive logs to verify the date of the diver's last dive and experience level, and of course, having skilled personnel on the boat to conduct safety reviews and dive plans.

On private boats and beach dives, it's up to the individual divers themselves to ascertain whether or not they're properly prepared for the dives they're about to do. Perhaps the most difficult task is taking one's ego out of the equation and making an honest assessment of skills, equipment, and comfort levels. I've been on dive trips with divers who talked a great game, but were completely inept in the water. As a trained Divemaster, I can recognize some of the problem signs and can intervene where possible, but we can't be everywhere all the time.

For example, I was once on a charter as a paying diver. One of the other customers had apparently faked his dive log to get on the deep-water dive. He was on vacation from West Virginia and talked a lot on the way out about all the places he had been diving. However, once we were under water, I could tell something wasn't quite right by the way he was handling himself. His buoyancy was off and his fin kicks were awkward. I kept an eye on him and decided to intervene. We had initially descended to 100 feet and were coming back up across the reef to 60 feet on a guided tour. I swam up to him and gave him the signal for a gauge-check. He shrugged his shoulders and pushed the gauge console toward my face. At 60 feet with no apparent intention of ascending, he was already down to 300psi. Bad form - time to go.

I signaled to the rest of the group that this diver and I would ascend together. I grabbed onto his BCD and started our ascent. I put my alternate air source in my mouth and handed him my regulator (I don't use an octopus). As he put it in his mouth, he reached across to check my gauge. I still had 2,000 psi, so he signaled for us to rejoin the group and continue the dive. Needless to say, we did not. When we got to the downline, I stopped to do our 3-minute safety stop at 15 feet. I checked my air and we were already down to 750psi. Then, without warning, he looked me in the eye, smiled, waved, dropped the regulator, and free ascended to the surface. Brilliant!

Back on the surface, I informed the captain and the divemaster of the multi-faceted fiasco. Within a few moments, he chuckled that this was indeed his deepest dive ever, that he hadn't been in the water in over a year, and that perhaps he 'fudged' his dive log just a little. They politely advised him that he would not be making the second dive, nor would he be invited back on the boat. I have no doubt in my mind that had I not intervened when I did, he would have breathed his tank dry and then free-ascended to the surface; probably getting bent or suffering an air embolism in the process.

In short, never be afraid to call a dive because you're uncomfortable. I say this on most of our dive trips and really do mean it. I don't care what you're uncomfortable about - the depth, the profile, the plan, the current, the waves, the visibility, the way your gear just doesn't seem right, the cheesy shark flick you watched the night before, or even the way that seagull appears to be sizing you up. If you're uncomfortable - call it!

I know that people can sometimes peer pressure their friends into trying some new things, and divers are no exception. But it's up to each of us to know when to bow out gracefully. Simply put, if you are uncomfortable with the conditions, the dive profile, or just uncomfortable in general, don't make the dive. There's no shame in admitting that maybe you're not as confident with your skills as you would like to be or that perhaps you would rather do a few shallow dives to polish your skills before making a more advanced dive.

Of course, if you're not properly trained for a particular dive then you shouldn't be doing the dive in the first place. Take the time and make the effort to not only get the proper training upfront, but also to maintain your skills along the way. If it's been a year since you've been in the water, at the very least, you really should be diving with a professional, and preferably, you should be taking a refresher course before you get on the dive boat.

Refresher courses are inexpensive and could actually save your life. Even if it's just review, if you pick up one thing or it helps you remember that the first thing you do when you're in trouble is drop your weight belt, then it was well worth the time and expense.

Spare-time divers often forget the basics and skilled divers sometimes push the envelope a bit. But all of us can use some extra time dedicated to brushing up on our skills, properly maintaining our equipment, and always diving safely.

Remember that the life you save could be your own.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Ghost Traps

A note about 'Ghost Traps' - this is the common term for lobster traps that have been lost at sea. The loss could be due to a storm or something as simple as having the marker buoy cut off by a careless boater. It is my personal belief that ghost traps do nothing but harm the environment. Any lobsters caught in a ghost trap are surely doomed to a slow and inhumane death by starvation. Plus the loose line hanging off the trap usually wraps itself around surrounding reef, which causes long-term damage to the ecosystem.

Please note that tampering with an active trap in any way is a serious crime in Florida. Go to jail, go directly to jail, do not pass Go, and do not collect $200.

While I am not certain about the legality of doing so, if I happen across a ghost trap that is CLEARLY a ghost trap on the bottom, I take a few steps to minimize its impact on the environment.

First, I open the hatch and help any of the critters stuck inside to freedom. You will frequently find fish, crabs, and other species inside a trap if it's been there long enough.

Second, I remove the hatch from the trap and place it inside the trap as securely as possible. The hatch hinge is usually made of material - canvas, leather or something similar. A quick cut with a dive knife usually does the trick.

Third, I stuff any free-hanging line into the trap to keep it from banging around the reef. If feasible, I will then turn the trap upside down in a sandy spot so that nothing else can get in and the rope can't get out.

Make sure you're not damaging any coral as your doing all this stuff, by the way. It takes coral about a year to grow 1/4-Inch, but only a split second to kill it.

If the trap is connected by a running line to other traps, I do NOT cut this line. This gives the proper owner of the trap the opportunity to retrieve the entire string of traps in one shot if he/she has properly marked the group on a GPS and comes back for them in the future. Each of these traps represents a considerable expense to the commercial fisherman and thus, destroying the traps beyond repair is generally just a nasty thing to do - especially if there are other options available to you as detailed above.

If there are any commercial lobstermen reading this, I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on this issue. While we don't come across ghost trips every week, we do certainly find them from time to time. Write me at:

As always, thanks for reading.

All the best,


Thursday, July 5, 2007

Lobster Mini-Season

Ah, Yes... the sweet smell of July in Florida! For many of us die-hard Floridians, April, May, and June are more than just the Spring and beginning of the rainy season - it's a time of frozen food and a longing for mini-season.

Florida's Spiny Lobster Season officially runs from August 6th to March 31st.

So, April traditionally begins a time of sadness for most Florida divers since it marks the end of lobster season and the beginning of digging into the freezer for the remnants of bounty from days gone by. In fact, I know divers who braved the 4-6-foot seas of March 31st in order to get one more zipper bag of lobster into the freezer before the great lobster famine began. (Yours truly included.) I found myself actually doing the math to figure out how often my wife and I could enjoy a lobster dinner before the next opportunity for fresh lobster would be upon us.

Luckily, Florida Wildlife has found it in their hearts again this year to maintain the two-day sport season, or what we locals call 'Mini-Season'. Traditionally, mini-season is the last Wednesday and Thursday of July (July 25 & 26th this year). Mini-Season is an event in itself.

I have a buddy here in Fort Lauderdale that actually negotiated with his employer to have the last Wednesday and Thursday of July off from work EVERY year. Further, he negotiated them as regular paid days off - not as part of his vacation days, sick days, or otherwise. In fact, he refers to them as his 'High Holy Days'. His boss happens also to be a diver, which may explain why they don't find him in the office during these days either. Needless to say, we Floridians take our diving very seriously.

As most Floridians know, the last week of July is traditionally a bad time to go to the Florida Keys. Every yahoo in the tri-state area with a boat and a crawfish permit is out on the water from daylight to dusk on both days. By the way, a 'crawfish permit' is the state sticker on a Florida fishing license that enables you to try to catch lobster. Notice I said 'try'. It's an art as much as it is a science.

Unfortunately, many of these folks are once-a-year divers and there are almost always fatalities - on the road and in the water. The Florida Keys are well-prepared for the event, which brings in millions in tourist dollars to the Florida economy each year. For me, I stick to the reef I know the best - Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, and Pompano Beach. I use the off-lobster months to scout new areas, add secret spots into my GPS, and study how the lobster are reacting to various water conditions and temperatures. Many of my buddies and I spearfish year round, but we've always got an eagle eye open for good lobster habitat. For example, just the other day we came across a spot that.. oh wait.. if I tell you, it won't be a secret anymore. Nevermind.

Mini-Season is a short two-day sport season when ONLY sportsmen are permitted to catch lobster. Commercial lobster boats and traps cannot begin harvesting until the official season begins on August 6th. The idea is that sportsmen have 2 days of unhindered lobster hunting before the commercial guys come in and pick up the lion's share of the bounty.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against commercial fishermen. I think that everyone has a right to make a living. However, I do feel that there are, as in all things, a few bad apples that ruin it for everyone else. Poaching, overcatching, and ignoring limits hurt all of us in the long run. As far as I'm concerned, we all have a responsibility to protect the environment that has obviously been so good to us and continues to support us. As such, I've developed some lobstering rules to live by...

Branon's Top 10 Lobstering Rules:
1. Always have a fishing license with lobster permit, and an approved measuring device. You never know when that megalobster will be staring you in the face.

2. Never take more lobster than you need or intend to actually eat - and certainly no more than the legal bag limit (6 per person per day).

3. Check a lobster as closely as possible BEFORE you attempt to catch it - if it looks too small it probably is. Also, if you see eggs or the tell-tale sign of eggs (curled tail with cleaning claspers in 'hold' mode) don't disturb the lobster. If you disturb it, it will just be that more jumpy next year when it's bigger. :)

4. If you inadvertently catch a lobster that is short or that has eggs, promptly let it go with as little stress and inconvenience to the lobster as possible. I generally try to even point in back in the direction of its hole so it's not out in the open an easy prey for other predators.

5. REALLY good lobsterers will even release the lobsters with the tar spot on their bellies (black spot on the underside near the tail that looks literally like road tar) since it means that the lobster is female and has already been fertilized, but has not yet dropped her eggs.

6. Minimize the trauma to ANY lobster you catch. If you rip all the legs off trying to get it out of a hole and it turns out to be short or have eggs, you've just signed a little lobster death warrant for not only that lobster, but all the future lobster it might have mothered along the way. Lobster Loops, as they're called, are fantastic. I've actually caught lobster with a loop that never realize they were caught until I was holding them in my hands measuring them. Slow, deliberate finesse is key - again, lobstering is an art. Swimming at full speed headlong into a reef with both hands grabbing at a lobster isn't just stupid, but also you are likely to damage the reef, lose the lobster, and probably damage yourself in the process.

7. Measure EVERY lobster you catch EVERY time - UNDER WATER WHEN YOU CATCH IT! 'Barely legal' is still legal, but do you REALLY want to be the guy on the boat with the shortest lobster? Size matters, no matter what GQ or Cosmo says these days.

8. Re-Measure EVERY lobster when you bring it onto the boat. This is your last chance to toss it back before the lobster is too traumatized to make it in the wild... and before Florida Wildlife, the Sheriff's Office, or the Coast Guard can write you a nasty citation for undersized lobster and start confiscating your stuff.

9. Bathtubs, washing machines, and concrete blocks should be properly disposed of - and not sunk in the open ocean to create 'lobster hotels' or other artificial habitat. In addition to being an environmental issue, there's also a HUGE fine involved - even if you're just diving on someone else's artificial habitat.

10. Leave lobster traps alone! Taking lobster from a trap is Stealing! In addition, there is a VERY HEFTY fine involved, including possible jail time. You wouldn't want someone to steal from you at your job, why would you do it to someone else?!

Okay... here's a bonus rule:
11. If the hole is big enough for a lobster to live in, chances are it's big enough for an eel or other critter to live in as well. Before you go sticking your hand (or your arm) into a hole, you might double check to see if anyone else might be at home. Yes, moray eels bite and they're not usually very polite about it. Just ask my buddy, Three-Finger Mike!

Here is the official information from the state website regarding lobster season and bag limits:

"The spiny lobster sport season will fall on July 25th and 26th for 2007. The bag limits are 6 per person per day for Monroe County and Biscayne National Park, and 12 per person per day for the rest of Florida.

The possession limit on the water is equal to the daily bag limit, and off the water is equal to the daily bag limit on the first day, and double the daily bag limit on the second day. Possession limits are enforced on and off the water.

Spiny lobster has a minimum size limit that must be larger than 3" carapace, measured in the water. A reminder that possession and use of a measuring device is required at all times, and night diving is prohibited in Monroe County (only during the sport season). A recreational saltwater license and a crawfish permit are needed for harvest.

Regular spiny lobster season is August 6 through March 31. The bag limit is 6 per person per day. Harvest of lobster is prohibited in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park during the sport season. Harvest is also prohibited during both the 2-day sport season and regular season in Everglades National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, and no take areas in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. "

Happy Lobstering!

All the best,