Sliding down the descent line the wreck slowly comes into focus. I reach the top of the wreck, ironically the bottom of the overturned ship, and notice one of the other divers calling me over to the edge; clearly he’s found something that I need to see. I let go of the line and swim across the 30 feet or so to the edge of the hull. Peering over the side I see the cargo of the ship – large cement pipe sections – and then the reason for my buddy’s call. Baby was headed right at me and she didn’t look all that happy.
Baby is a six foot long Morey eel that is a resident on the wreck of the Sea Emperor. The ship was purposefully sunk along the south Florida coast several years ago as part of an artificial reef project. It capsized during the (not so) controlled ditching and now rests in 75 feet of water just a few hundred yards off the coast of Pompano Beach. The cement pipe sections that were initially loaded into her cargo compartments spilled out as the boat sank, creating the basis for a decent artificial reef near the wreck. The site is home to several “special” treats, including a couple of Goliath Grouper (~300-400 pounds), rays in the 10 foot range and Baby, along with many other “regular” reef fish typical of the region.
Like most dive trips that I’ve done solo, the first 30 minutes or so on the boat are critical. That is when you meet the others who are out diving and get paired up with a buddy for the trip. I met Kyle and a couple of his buddies (bringing donuts certainly helped break the ice) and we chatted a bit. Eventually we agreed that I could tag along with their crew which turned out to be a great opportunity.
Kyle & company were quite experienced divers and very comfortable underwater. That was good news in more way than one. They had brought along some frozen baitfish for the dives, figuring that it would help ensure more lively interactions with the sea-life. They were certainly correct on that front. Having the fish helps us coax a couple spiny lobster out of their coral hideaways and also helped bring Baby out into the open water. It also brought a reef shark out for a passing view, but the shark chose to leave us alone. Only Baby really took the bait, so to speak, interacting quite readily with us during the 20 minutes or so we spent on the wreck. She was certainly not shy about trying to get at the lunch being offered and didn’t seem to care too much who was holding it; she came after all of us for it.
Seeing a six foot long eel swimming right at me, teeth bared, was quite a shock. I actually freaked out enough that I somehow managed to wriggle out of my weight belt – a very dangerous proposition while 50 feet below the surface. Fortunately my training kicked in, I remembered that the weights were more important than just about anything else and I managed to fin down to where they had fallen and grab them, stabilizing my position in the water. The bad news was that I was now seventy feet below the surface with my camera in one hand, by weight belt in the other and an eel swimming at me with its teeth rather prominent in the whole scene. It was also at this point that I truly realized the good fortune I had to be diving with these guys. One of them had seen my weights drop and was already moving into position to help keep me underwater. Plus they were the ones that got Baby into the open. Well done on both fronts.
The dive on the wreck was actually our second dive of the day, though it was intended to be our first; when we got out there initially it was too crowded with other divers so we did our dives out of order that day. Or first dive was on a small reef system called Crab Cove. The reef system runs north/south along the coast with scattered coral heads and a sandy bottom. There were lobster, angelfish (a favorite of mine) and even a blowfish among the coral but the colors were rather subdued, similar to what I’ve come to expect from diving in Florida.
More significantly of note on our boat was a group of divers from Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (S.U.D.S.). This is a group focused on helping amputee veterans remain connected to the world through diving. The group was truly amazing, both the guys diving and the woman who organized the trip for the group. One of the divers was a very recent amputee – it has only been a couple months for him – but they were out there having a phenomenal time underwater just like I was. It didn’t take much for them to fit fins onto their prosthetic limbs and get out into the water, and they were truly enjoying the experience. It was rather uplifting to see that scene. I now have a new charity to support as I was incredibly impressed by the whole bit of what they were doing.
Diving in Ft. Lauderdale means picking either a dive shop or a boat operator. In many cases the dive shops just pay for your space on the boat if they don’t have a boat of their own so it may be that you are diving with a wholly different operation. It pays to do a bit of extra research when choosing a dive shop/operator to make sure that you understand exactly who you’ll be out on the boat with and who is actually responsible for what is going on. In my case the dives and the boat, operated by South Florida Diving Headquarters out of Pompano Beach, were OK, but neither was particularly great and there were enough rough edges that I’d be willing to find a different operator next time. Getting yelled at for mis-navigating a reef where we went exactly where they told us to go wasn’t particularly fun, nor was the fact that my rental gear almost didn’t make the boat.
South Florida may be most famous for its sun and surf, but the underwater experience is lively as well. There are natural and artificial reefs running from Miami to Boca Raton with enough options along the way to keep anyone busy for several weeks of daily diving. With a half day to spend underwater I only experienced a couple dive sites, but it was enough to make me appreciate the options available in the area and certainly enough to whet my appetite for future dives in the area.
Never miss another post: Sign up for email alerts and get only the content you want direct to your inbox.