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!