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Divers and Depths

Posted on: 07/30/2012 [6 year(s)1month(s) ago]
Posted by: South Florida Dive Journal
4 Comments

Our boat was 3 miles from shore and the Gulfstream had been running about a mile off shore. The Stream and this area off Jupiter had a rich history with fisherman and other old-timers who had worked these waters for 50 years. They said this place could make you rich or it could kill you. Sort of a "Las Vegas of fishing", it had both the promise of filling a big boat with fish, or of swallowing the boat whole. Rogue Wave or Leviathon, fisherman had some great stories.

An old-timer who plied these waters just after WWII, told a friend of ours about a night, during a full moon, 60 years ago. The oceans were even more wild back then. The fisherman knew this area was primitive. Sharks here were large as some fishing boats but with an insane hunger. Fall in the water from a missed step and you would never step again. Sharks were just the sheriffs of the reef. Below them were cattle and car sized fish everywhere. Fishing back then was high speed work. Lines would run nonstop. There was more to do than time to do it in, and a fisherman that was fast was someone you would pay to have on your boat. Even a bad night back then was better than the best nights nowadays. The best night ever was what the old guy talked about. The day he got rich, but almost died.

As his story was passed to the divers about a certain night in the fall, a night with an enormous full moon, the divers realized this may be the Full Monty, the once per year mating aggregation. This was an event unseen by human eyes, and only guessed about by marine scientists. This could be the needle in the haystack, the right night, the right time, the right place.

The night was dark and the ocean menacing. Ten foot waves and sheets of rain were like blindfolds worn by the passengers and crew of the dive boat. Twin diesels below deck, raged against the onslaught, blocking out both human voice and screams of wind.

The divers huddled together, and held tight to steel. One seemed fascinated by the power of the storm, and had perched and braced at the bow, where he faced each wave crashing over it, as if he and the boat were in this fight together. In due course, the vessel reached it’s destination. They anchored at a shipwreck long since pledged to the ocean bottom, now an Eden for some of the largest and most imposing marine life in the hemisphere. The storm was unwelcome, but ignored. The divers were in a war of sorts. The mission was to bring back information on an Endangered Species, the Goliath Grouper. This fish had been hunted to the brink of extinction just 20 years ago. Now it had recovered off of Palm Beach, but it’s recovery was threatened.

I moved to my place at the rear of the boat and looked over my gear. All around me divers were scurrying and busy with last minute preparations. The group included some divers that were excited, some scared, and somewere hiding whatever emotions were riding them in the last minutes before the plunge. This would be a man’s dive, not in the sense of gender per se, but in the sense of absolute commitment to a mission and to using years of training and preparation to “Live” the dive. This was a place we would feel electricity the instant we hit the water. We would be falling like sky divers and we would be entering a realm where we were small and slow. There would be no protectors or guides, we were our protection. We would find our own way.

We fell through a passage, a moving river of water. It was 100 feet deep and running at over 3 knots. When you perform a hot drop like this, it’s funny what you feel and what you think about. I was thinking about the stings of ice water that were seeping into my wetsuit…I was thinking about how easy the air was flowing into my lungs. It was cool and sweet and tasted like air back home in the ski belt of western NY, cleaner and better than any air you could ever breathe in the tropics. Then I was thinking of intersecting courses. There were targets all around, all going somewhere, and for me to reach them, I would have to figure out which way to head pretty damn soon. Big life was everywhere and often surrounded by baitfish. Silverside minnows were packed closely to dozens of nearby Goliaths and seemed to be worn like clothing.

I dropped to within 2 feet of the sunken stern. Time stopped, or at least the current did where I rested. Twenty feet to my right I could see a 400 pound behemoth, wearing 3 feet of silversides, swimming at a 45 degree angle to the current. Obviously headed some place, even he fought with the current. I wanted video of him, so I launched myself with my Scooter, into a current no man could expect to swim against. I was trimmed flat, I was inches off the bottom, and I gave the scooter every advantage I could. I was wearing big DiveR Freediving fins, stiff and fast and capable of insane bursts of speed to a diver with the legs and mission requiring this. Together, the Gavin Scooter and the DiveR’s brought me along side with the monster fish and his minions. My video would show the world the ritual behavior and dominance these monster fish exhibited in the hour of their Spawning. Five seconds of adrenaline and wild video would feel like 30 minutes. I found myself too close, and the monster showed me he had no real fight with this current. In an instant, 400 pounds exploded like a Quarter Horse headed for the first barrel. What had been clear blue deep water, was now a silt storm, and the Goliath was 40 feet away, watching me. Jim Abernethy, my dive buddy, aimed his scooter to a different structure. We could not follow directly up-current, not with the Goliath watching us and posturing.

We were in a fish-tank of sorts. It was a 3 dimensional world where too much was all around you to see everything

Some divers had so much to see that they had trouble seeing, period.

A diver who once rode the bow, challenging the night, now hid behind a large slab of concrete. He willed himself into invisibility and hoped that the Leviathans would notice other prey, and leave him to his own demons.

Ten other divers were spread around 3 football fields of shipwreck, some found their way into the midst of intense action, with more life around them than any could comprehend at the time. A few others waited for the more docile to visit them, and relaxed with a Zen and a oneness, and found a place they had never known before.

Maybe 70 to 100 Goliaths were all around us. They owned this wreck, they were the gate keepers. They made this known to all that would enter without the deference owed to them.

Jim and I scootered into a 10 foot triangle of a hole in the side of the ship. As the insides became bright with our video lights, the Goliaths were visible all around us. I don’t mean this in a metaphoric sense. I mean they were 6 inches to one side, 5 inches to another, and as close on top and below. Jim laughed through his full face mask, and made some sounds that had me chuckling. This actually seemed to get the attention of the fish

We wanted video, and to get it we had to push the big fish gently with our hands, and move them at least a couple of feet away from our cameras. We were 100 feet down, at midnight, and now a bus length inside this cave like structure, once part of a freighter. It was eerie and exciting at the same time. We had to stay quiet in the water column, to avoid silting up the video or scaring or annoying the big fish. Docile now, there was over 20,000 pounds of cattle-like stampede we could unleash on ourselves with the wrong move.

We did great for about 4 minutes straight, getting video we had never dreamed we could get, when Jim or I…or something, made a wrong move, and the whole world around us erupted in silt and eddies. We were moved little more than a few feet in this explosion, but it had a truth and a nature to it that we felt far more than the bumping. This WAS Nature showing us the Life and Death friendship which is part of existence in this world that man could rarely even glimpse.

There was contentment, then curiosity, and this changed to a serious and instant awareness faster than the eye could follow. This is how these creatures survive the sharks and the other threats. They evolved a switch, one that is on or off. For 4 minutes, it had been switch off, and then suddenly their world changed. Maybe one among them sensed a large bullshark, involved in its night time hunting. Maybe it was not even fear, but a mating instinct, and no one wanted to be odd man out. Whatever the cause, the dive was bringing us closer to our mission. Decades of training for a dive like this felt like dating, and this was the Big Event... I checked my pressure gauge, not sure 5 minutes or 5 hours had elapsed. My breathing had remained slow, thanks to a lifetime of underwater adventures, though none could compare to this. As Jim did the same, we both decided we needed to film the actual spawn releases, and this meant being at the right place, and the right instant. We would see the big fish gathering, then colliding and the frenzying hordes of silverside baitfish which had swelled and become insane with the collective thought of feeding on the spawn. Jim and I scootered sideways to the current, headed for an outside structure with several big fish running along it’s length. All hell was breaking loose around them, with the baitfish trying to match the charges of the Goliaths, and marauding schools of Jacks trying to reach the baitfish, but clearly fearful of the Goliaths. We had become insignificant to the Goliaths. This was the big event for them, the one time in the entire year they would have a chance to mate, and have a chance to keep themselves and their ancestry in the gene pool. They did not know this, they felt it. It was driving them beyond day or night behaviors.

There was no longer a fear of bullsharks or attention to divers. There was electricity….they were all coursing with it, and we felt it in every muscle of our own bodies.

One moment they would run 3 abreast, 2 males tight to one female, driving along a tunnel like passageway, then suddenly they would seem to have been launched upward, or out of the tunnel, and the hordes of fish following would be momentarily lost. Seconds later there would be impact with the bottom. Silt would kick up like bombs had fallen into a residence. Suddenly you could see only silt. Then the big fish would blast out of the silt cloud, and the hordes following would attempt their reengagement. Had we known where they would come down, and where they would burst out, our video footage would have captured something no man had ever seen before. Jim and I guessed, we came close, but the actual moment for these Goliaths escaped us. This time. The trip will commence once more in 2012, in the fall, on a full moon, late at night. If you want Nature and truth and to be alive… If you have trained long and hard to enter this world not made for men, it is my suggestion you begin the "planning" of this today. I am at dan@sfdj.com if you want more on doing this.

Dan Volker – South Florida Dive Journal Entry 2012-100

If you have not seen the video, here is the link :
http://youtu.be/qeQp5aqy2_s?hd=1

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