Unlike its tropical neighbor, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico is not known as a prime diving site. Most divers shun its unpredictable weather, its poor visibility, and its dead zones. Diving in the Gulf brings to thought images of oil rigs, pollution, algae overgrowth. And it’s true that these environmental threats persist throughout the region, but they have yet to dampen the amazing array of marine biodiversity found throughout its waters.
I have discussed the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary at length in my previous entries, so I would like to highlight some local diving sites that promise adventure and an impressive array of life to those who visit.
Dive Charter: Blue Water Explorers
Captain Bob Eskew and his crew at Blue Water Explorers should be noted for their professional and safe charter services to over 100 different dive sites out of Sarasota/Bradenton, Florida. I started diving with this charter in November 2011 and have not been disappointed since.
The reefs are primarily artificial, either construction debris or shipwrecks, although a few natural reef patches can be explored as well. Colorful encrusting sponges, sea whips, sea fans, and natural corals decorate the otherwise dull metal and wooden structures.
An array of tropical and subtropical fish live on the site, from small spider crabs to large Goliath groupers. The occasional angelfish quickly darts by, obscured by shadows before the camera can fully capture its presence.
Atlantic Goliath groupers (Epinephelus itajara) are listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. These normally timid creatures can grow up to 8′ long and weigh around 400 pounds when mature.
Hidden in the sand, flounders could be found throughout the site. Gulf flounder (Paralichthys albigutta), like the one pictured below, are a popular target for recreational and commercial fishermen, as well as spear divers. There is no current management scheme for flounder, making the species vulnerable to overfishing.
Atlantic Spadefish (Chaetodipterus faber) are another popular target for commercial fishermen. These fish, similar to angelfish in appearance, can be found in schools in shallow waters off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. They can grow to medium to large sizes, making the fish a challenging catch for recreational fishermen. There is no current fishery or management scheme to monitor the status of this species, which could put it at risk to overfishing.
A Sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus) peeks out from an old tire, likely placed there in the hopes of building more reef. Car tires were falsely believed to be good support for artificial reefs. Due to their lack of weight underwater, and ease of mobility, they fail to provide the firm substrate necessary for successful reef building. Sheepshead are similarly colored to the Spadefish, with silver and black vertical bars and generally a medium-sized fish. Found throughout the Gulf, sheepshead are another popular catch for recreational fishermen.
The presence of commercially and recreationally important fish, endangered Goliath Grouper, and fragile corals and sponges are a testament to the success of this artificial reef, and its importance as a site for robust biodiversity and a thriving marine ecosystem.
General Site Conditions
Dive Site: Old Skyway Bridge
Date: 15 June 2012
Max Depth: 31′
Temperature: 82 F
Dive Site: Three mile artificial reef
Date: 15 June 2012
Max Depth: 34′
Temperature: 82 F
Overall, the conditions at both sites were good. Light winds, relatively flat seas at the surface and no current or surge present at the dive site.