Friday, November 21, 2008

Hollywood Diving - Outfall and Second Reef

Unable to find another last minute diver, my buddy, Ty, and I decided to do a little anchor diving. It was the first decent wave weekend day in quite awhile, and we wanted to make the most of it. We left the dock around 9am and made our way to our first dive site. Unfortunately, there were several dive boats trolling across the wreck, so we opted for a shallower dive elsewhere.

We anchored up near the Hollywood Outfall, which is located just North of Hollywood Boulevard right off the beach. Just in case you're not familiar, an 'outfall' is a nice way of saying sewer pollution disbursement pipe. There used to be dozens of these up and down the Florida coast pumping millions of gallons of near-raw sewage waste into the ocean every day. Most of the municipalities have since shut them down, but there are several that are still active including the City of Hallandale Beach and one up near Pompano and Boca, but I don't specifically know who operates it.

If you've never been diving on one of these sites, it is certainly an eye-opener. Having accidentally come across the Hallandale Outfall Pipe some years ago, I would never dive one of these active sites on purposes. Picture a large round pipe with a plume of thick smoke pouring out into the water, except that instead of smoke, it's dark, stinky sewage. The reef life around it is usually dead, but the fish life is usually pretty abundant with some of the largest Bermuda Chubs I've ever seen in my life swimming in schools through the plume of effluent. YUCK! Needless to say, I immediately started swimming upstream.

Installing one of these now would NEVER make it past the EPA, let alone the reef protection groups, etc. Unfortunately, neither of us had an underwater camera or I'd be happy to post photos. The pipe is a HUGE steel pipe, some of which are larger than 3 feet across. However, it is weighed down to the sea bed by way of a matte of interlocked concrete blocks. They make almost a road bed along the bottom. The sad part is that they laid these blocks across whatever happened to be in the way - including coral heads and rock formations.

In the years since, some of the steel rods that hold the blocks together have rusted through, usually where there is a lot of stress on them such as a lump created by laying over a coral formation. This creates small perforations in the matte that create a crevice, which allows fish to swim in and out at will. In some of these sections, there are caverns that are several feet wide, a foot or more high and dozens of feet long - perfect habitat for a variety of reef fish who gather in these areas now.

The Hollywood Outfall Pipe, now inactive, has simply become part of the habitat. On this particular day, most of the fish life was gathered on the North side of the structure, perhaps to be on the lee side of the North-flowing current. I saw a nice dog snapper slip into one of these crevices, so I lined myself up and waited. Within a few minutes, it emerged again and found itself on the end of my spearshaft. I repeated the process twice more. Three snapper on the stringer; not a bad dive. I also saw a very large yellow jack and a just-over-legal king mackerel, but both were out of range. Ty picked up two lobsters hiding amongst the matte.

I had promised Ty to show him a spot that two of my other buddies and I had found a few months earlier. On that trip, we landed 11 lobster and several fish on one dive. After a little trial and error, we located the area and dropped in together. Ty dives with a scooter, so he tends to cover a lot more ground than I do, even with my Omer Millennium Longfins. I prefer to take it slow, cover less ground, but take more time to see everything I can. On this trip, it paid off.

I was on the bottom for all of about 45 seconds after following the anchor rode down to the bottom. Grouper will frequently move toward an anchor when it hits the bottom; perhaps to check out the commotion or the poof of inevitable sand. We had anchored in a sandy spot right next to the reef line. Rather than follow the reef line, however, I saw a small outcropping over the top of the edge. I swam toward it and spooked a grouper. He shot off across the reef light a lightning bolt. I kicked hard to try to catch him, but knew that if he kept up the pace, I'd never get close.

His first burst of energy subsided and he paused just long enough for me to take a long-range gill shot, which hit its mark. A perfect shot, he had little opportunity to escape as the flopper on the Hawaiian Shaft I was using on my Riffe C3XS had opened on the other side. He thrashed toward a coral head, which I thought meant a bent shaft for certain. Instead, he turned a somersault and I was able to grab him before any damage was done. Ty showed up behind me just as I was locking the red grouper onto my stringer. I did a little happy dance to which Ty rolled his eyes and kept cruising.

I continued scouring the reef looking for more fish. My wife had sent me on a mission as our freezer was nearly empty. Too many bad weather days left me no previous opportunity to replenish our seafood supply. I was a little disoriented because the clouds kept going in and out obscuring the sunlight. However, the first lobster I found were sitting in a small cave that I had found on that previous dive trip. You can see video of the cave - full of lobster - here on my YouTube page:

As soon as I saw the sponge, I instantly had my bearings and knew where to find more fish and lobster. I picked up a total of 6 lobster, the 24-inch grouper, and 2 nice Spanish Mackerel before getting a little chilly and deciding to head back to the boat. God had shown us abundance today, and I thank him as I made the 100-yard swim back to the boat, compass in hand. The scenery had been amazing, the seas calm, the water a little cloudy, but perfect for spearfishing. If the water is too clear, the fish see you well before you either see them or before you could get in shooting range. Most importantly, both divers returned safely to the boat without incident.

All in all, another great day diving in paradise.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Key West is NOT the Marquesas

My buddies, Randy Docks, Ann Scutti, and Matt Doty, and I were all set to compete in the 2008 Spearboard Open Spearfishing Tournament. We had what we thought was a rock solid charter booked out of Key West going to the Marquesas with Captain Daniel Zier on the 'Second Nature' charter boat out of Garrison's Bight on Key West. Originally, the trip plan was to arrive in Key West Friday night, sleep on the boat while motoring overnight to the Marquesas, with the diving starting at dawn on Saturday. According to 'Capt'n Dan' (using my best Forrest Gump character voice) he would be putting us on big fish all day, and in fact, would be 'pushing black grouper out of the way so you can shoot the bigger ones.' A sales pitch of course, but his website photos seemed to back up the claim. Turns out that many of the 'spearfishing' photos on his website are actually from commercial line fishing days with the occasional shot of him with some fish he shot personally freediving.

Unfortunately, he didn't live up to the hype. In fact, the boat and it's crew were ill-equipped and untrained to accommodate divers. No dive platform, a plastic ladder thrown over the side of the very tall gunwales, and a mate that was not trained in helping divers either get geared up, get back on the boat, or stow their gear without causing potential damage. We ended up assisting each other most of the time getting the tanks into the boat, among other things. In fact, the mate was on the flybridge chatting with the captain a couple times when we were getting ready to dive.

The dive platform was obvious upon our arrival, but at 6am the day of the tournament, our choices were pretty limited. The Marquesas trip we paid for turned into a multi-dive outing always within sight of land of Key West. To add insult to injury, the captain and mate did some freediving during our surface intervals on a shallow spot that was nearby the spots we dived. The water had great visibility and oddly enough, the captain bagged a 10-pound mutton snapper, a 20-pound black grouper, some hogfish, and a couple nice triggerfish; interesting, since I didn't even see a mutton snapper all day.

Advice: if you have the opportunity to charter with Captain Dan Zier on 'Second Nature' in Key West... Skip the Trip.

Dive 1:
90-115 feet of Water, Hard Bottom
Expected: Huge snapper and grouper
Viz - 15-20 feet (if you're lucky, looked like diving in watered-down milk)
Fish Seen: 2 HUGE African Pompano (can't shoot 'em), 1 Goliath Grouper, lots of little yellow tail snapper, 1 small yellow jack
Fish Boated: NONE (NONE?!?)

Dive 2:
80-95 feet of water, Wreck: Cayman Salvager then Reef nearby
Viz: 20-30 feet on the wreck, 15-20 on the reef
Expected: Huge amberjack, huge grouper, huge mutton snapper, maybe big hogfish
Fish Seen: 1 legal black on the wreck that was too spooky to get close to, 1 decent yellow jack, few small hogfish, a couple mackeral (not on the tournament list)
Fish Boated: 1 decent yellow jack (see photo)

Dive 3:
45-75 feet of water, reef ledge
Viz: 10-20 feet depending on depth
Expected: Huge grouper, huge snapper, huge hogfish, ANYTHING!?!
Fish Seen: Several black grouper, spooky lane snapper and schoolmaster, smallish hogfish, several mackerel
Fish Boated: 1 black grouper (see top photo), 2 legal hogfish

Dive 4: (Repeat of 3rd location)
45-60 feet of water, reef ledge
Viz: 10-15 feet and declining
Expected: Grouper
Fish Seen: Several black grouper, spooky lane snapper and schoolmaster, smallish hogfish, several mackerel, 30lbs Nassau Grouper, 1 Triggerfish
Fish Boated: Nice Trigger Fish (see photo below), 1 small snapper

If we had been diving out of our home ports of Pompano Beach or Fort Lauderdale, this would have been a decent day if we had done two dives instead of four. However, having paid for a Marquesas trip and having received a near-shore Key West trip, we were all extremely disappointed. So much so that none of us took our fish up to New Port Richey for the tournament weigh-in.

About the grouper:
Matt and I were covering some very interesting coral formations around 50-60 feet, criss-crossing across what I would call 'mushroom forest'. There were lots of holes and even tunnels for fish to traverse. The black grouper came out of a hole and shot across the reef. I followed it around and over several coral heads and took the 'Hail Mary' shot on the far end of my speargun's range. I thought a body shot might actually stick at that distance, and it did. The fish swam, with shaft in place, under one coral head and through another. So, the one big fish of the trip came at the expense of a hardened steel Riffe shaft, which was thoroughly bent in the process. Nice fish!

Note to readers:
While you certainly shouldn't believe everything people tell you or even show you on website photos, you should have a certain level of expectation when booking a professional charter. First and foremost, the captain and crew should be EXPERIENCED with divers and be properly equipped to handle them. As many charters as we've booked between us, it never dawned on us to ask the captain if his boat had a dive platform and swim ladder. You just assume (bad idea) that anyone who is chartering divers will have these two essential items. Of course, none of the four of us will make that mistake again. Also, please note that all divers on this trip have advanced training and Nitrox certifications. Never dive beyond your skill or training level, don't push your personal limits, and of course, plan your dive and dive your plan!

On a positive note (finally, I know), the seas were calm, the weather was nice, the water was warm, and all divers returned to the boat safely after each dive. While we were all tired from the driving and the full day of diving, we were all prepared (mentally, physically, and with regard to skills/training) to do this trip.

The highlight of the trip for me was seeing a 30-pound Nassau Grouper for the first time. I've seen lots of 3-5 pounders, but never one this massive. The two African Pompano on the first dive were also amazing. They swam straight up to me within a minute or so of hitting the bottom. As they swam away, I snapped the bands on my speargun and they turned around and came back for a second look. Both times, they were within 10 feet of me. Very cool!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Diving Off Hollywood & Dania Beach

Randy Docks with Black Grouper
My buddies, Randy Docks, David Docks, Ann Scutti, and I decided to try some deep diving today since lobster season is gone for another season. The seas were a whopping 6 to 12..... inches... and the weather man was correct for a change. We scooted South out of Port Everglades past the Dania Pier and decided to drop in for a look around. We ended up a bit deeper than 80 feet, but it was well worth the dive.

Our bottom time wasn't that impressive, but Randy skewered (literally, no pun intended) a 34-inch Black Grouper, that promptly cut his 400-pound monofilament shock cord and swam off. Luckily, Randy was able to track and subdue the catch as well as retrieve the spear shaft.

Just a short distance away, I picked up an 18.5-inch Yellow Tail Snapper. This was actually my first yellow tail as most of the fish we get close enough to are usually just at the legal mark. I'm too lazy to clean small fish, so I tend to let them swim on by. However, this one looked like it would be a nice meal or two. For the record, the Grouper in the photo is Randy's, I just borrowed it for a photo opportunity. :)

Our second dive was just burning off what was left of our first tank on some patch reefs off Dania Beach. Ann picked up a few nice hogfish, and we saw the largest Black Margate I have ever seen. He had to be 10 pounds or larger - nice fish! I'm not a big Margate fan so he's still out there.

Ann and I did a third dive on the Donal McCallister and the grouping of wrecks around it. There was no current whatsoever - What A Treat! We were able to hit all of the wrecks in the group and then go back to the McC to enjoy watching the monster Goliath Grouper who was hanging out inside the pilot house.

All in all, it was another fantastic day of diving here in South Florida!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Spotted Eagle Ray Kills Keys Tourist

**Reprinted from the Miami Herald** We don't usually add non-diving related stories, but I'm sure a lot of folks will want clarification about this one. This was NOT a diving death and the woman was NOT stung by the eagle ray. The eagle ray happened to jump out of the water while the boat was going by and it happened to run into her and knock her head against the boat. Obviously, this was a freak accident that no one could have either predicted or prevented.

Eagle ray's leap into boat kills tourist in Keys
A Michigan tourist died Thursday when a ray flew out of the water, knocking her head against the side of the boat.
Posted on Fri, Mar. 21, 2008

MARATHON -- A morning fishing outing ended in tragedy Thursday for a family of Michigan tourists when a 75-pound spotted eagle ray leaped into their boat and caused the death of a 55-year-old woman.

Judy Kay Zagorski, 55, of Pigeon, Mich., who was fishing with her sister and parents, died Thursday morning of apparent blunt force trauma.

The exact cause won't be known until her autopsy is performed Friday.

Officials of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission say they can't remember a similar accident in the Keys happening in at least 20 years.

''It's so unusual, so rare, so bizarre,'' FWC spokesman Jorge Pino said. ``We see them jump out of the water all the time, but [have] never seen them impact a human being or cause a death.

``She was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.''

Spotted eagle rays are capable of leaping completely out of the water when pursued or trying to shake off scavenger fish that attach themselves to the ray.

This ray, which died from being out of the water too long, had a remora -- known as a suckerfish -- attached to its fin.

The rays swim gracefully through the water via the undulation of the pectoral fins.


''They naturally jump out of the water, like porpoises do,'' Dube said. ``It's natural to them and quite spectacular to watch.''

Investigators said Zagorski had injuries to her face and head. They did not find evidence she was pierced by the ray's toxic barb.

''To lose a child just leaves the parents numb,'' said neighbor Marcia Corcoran, who knew the family from their annual visits to Marathon. ``I can hardly believe it myself.''

The Michigan family left the dock of their pink rented house on Fifth Avenue Ocean in Marathon just before 10 a.m. They were traveling on a rented 25-foot fishing boat to the deeper waters of the Atlantic Ocean via the Key Colony Beach Channel near Vaca Cut.

The boat was traveling about 25 miles an hour when the ray jumped into the air and on board. The ray struck both sisters, who were sitting in front of the console.

Zagorski's sister suffered a bad bruise, and she was treated and released from Fishermen's Hospital.

Investigators say the force of the ray likely caused Zagorski to hit her head, possibly on a metal rail on the side of the boat.

''There was a lot of blood on the boat,'' FWC spokesperson Bobby Dube said.

CPR was performed while Zagorski's father drove the boat to a dock just a block from their vacation rental. Neighbor Jim Corcoran called 911 and said rescue emergency personnel arrived within minutes.

But it was too late.

Zagorski, wearing a bathing suit and her wedding ring, was already dead.

Her husband, Steve, had died in 2005 at age 53.

At the time of the accident, a third sister was on a plane to join the family, unaware of what had happened.

Corcoran said the spotted eagle ray was so big it took up about half of the front of the boat.

It's not the first time a ray has caused injury in South Florida. In October 2006, a spotted eagle ray stung a Broward County man, piercing his chest with its toxic barb.


The 30-pound stingray leapt into James Bertakis' boat while he was near Lighthouse Point with his granddaughter and one of her friends. The foot-long barb stuck into Bertakis' chest and entered his heart chamber.

Bertakis, now 83, has made an almost full recovery, according to son Jim Bertakis. After several weeks in intensive care followed by in-patient rehabilitation, the elder Bertakis is ''90 percent'' better, his son said. He even has been back on the water in his 16-foot boat.

''Dad's doing great. I just saw him three days ago,'' Jim Bertakis said Thursday from Michigan. ``It's a miracle he survived. We smile every time we see him.''

Miami Herald staff writer Evan S. Benn contributed to this report. Photo by DETECTIVE MARK COLEMAN/MONROE COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE.