West Palm Beach: Tropical Dives on the Atlantic Coast

I recently journeyed to the other coast of Florida, to experience tropical diving in the Atlantic. The results far surpassed my expectations.

During the short two-day trip, I went on two afternoon dives, two night dives, and two morning dives. Most of the dives were on natural reefs in less than 60 feet of water, although I also explored the deep end of the reef at 80 feet and a collection of artificial reefs, known as the “toy box”.

The amount of biodiversity present was outstanding. The abundance of fish, sea turtles, and invertebrates such as brittle sea stars and long spined black urchins all indicated a healthy marine ecosystem.

However, I also found signs of significant human impacts on the reef. During the night dive, I cut up and collected at least two yards of lime green monofilament fishing line strewn all over the reef. Fishing line can entangle passing fish, sharks, sea turtles, and other species, resulting in strangulation or drowning. This line also poses a threat to divers, who may become inadvertently entangled.

If you find such fishing lines on reefs, it is important that you try to cut it up or collect with, while also taking care not to place yourself or other divers at risk.

Perhaps the biggest threat I found was the abundance of lionfish. Lionfish (Pterois volitans and P. miles) are an invasive species from the Indo-Pacific, entering the U.S. initially through the aquarium trade. In 1992, it is thought that Hurricane Andrew caused some to escape from an aquarium in Biscayne Bay. Lionfish also make popular aquarium pets for their exotic look, but tend to outgrow their aquariums and behave aggressively towards other fish. Aquarists may have released these unwanted pets into Caribbean and Gulf waters.This species has no natural predators in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, or Tropical Atlantic. Their long, poisonous spines and aggressive personalities have allowed them to invade and take over tropical ecosystems from the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary to the Florida Keys and even reaching the tropical Atlantic, as pictured above.

On each of my six dives, I observed at least two or three lion fish, primarily adults although there were some juveniles. The Dive Masters on board were equipped with spears to kill this invasive species, although none were killed during my dives.

In fact, Lion Fish meat is actually said to make a good seafood dish, once the poisonous spines are removed, of course. Next time you’re diving in the area, look into ordering some at a local restaurant or catching them yourself!

Amongst the array of biodiversity, the abundance of endangered sea turtles stood out. Hawksbill, Green, and Loggerhead turtles could be seen on every dive, especially at night!
As I was wandering wayward around the reef, separated from the group, I came upon a perfectly smooth rock. I dropped down beside it, only to discover that the “rock” was a large Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caret). Loggerheads are listed as endangered by the IUCN but are found all over the world. From April to September, the Atlantic coast of Florida becomes a crowded with nesting Loggerhead sea turtles. In fact, over 90% of Loggerhead nesting sites occur in Florida!
This trip marked the first time I had ever seen sea turtles in the wild – it was an incredible experience to swim alongside them. Despite their large size and substantial weight, they glide like gentle giants… perfectly buoyant in the water column.
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Other indicators of a healthy coral reef were also present. Colorful Stoplight Parrotfish (Sparisoma viride) grazed on algae and coral.

Spiny lobsters (Panulirus argus), important reef scavengers, peeked out from their burrows.

Large French Angelfish (Pomacanthus part) and other beautiful reef fish decorated the natural landscape of corals and sponges.

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On the artificial reef, sponges dominated the landscape and macro fauna swam by in a flash. Within the first five minutes of our dive on the sunken barge, a Nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum), a Southern stingray (Dasyatis sabina), and a Spotted Eagle Ray (Myliobatis aquila) glided past our small group. The encounter was so brief that the photographs are but faded evidence of the sighting.

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It is unfortunate that such a bounty of marine life and healthy reefs remain unprotected from human impacts. Unlike the marine sanctuaries I have visited, trash and fishing impacts were present throughout these sites – a testament to the growing anthropogenic threats to this area.

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However, it seems that with research and community support, protection for this area as an important sea turtle nesting grounds is possible. Onboard our charter was a local marine biologist studying Hawksbill sea turtles and tracking those that have been tagged. It is possible that certain sponges in the area provide an important food source for these endangered animals, adding to the significance of the site and the urgency to protect it.

I would like to thank Pura Vida Divers for six fantastic dives on beautiful natural and artificial reefs alongside the West Palm Beach coast!

General Site Conditions

Dive Site: Breaker’s Reef

Date: 9 June 2012

Max depth: 62′ on the “shallow” side ; 87′ on the northern “deep” side (patch reef)

Temperature: 77 F

Visibility: 15 – 30′

Dive Site: Toy Box

Date: 10 June 2012

Max Depth: 63′

Temperature: 77F

Visibility: 20 – 30′

Overall, the conditions at both sites were good. Light winds, relatively flat seas at the surface and no surge present at the dive site. Each dive was a drift dive, so there was a decent current traveling throughout the sites.

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