Category Archives: Underwater photography

Photographs taken of various marine animals and habitats while SCUBA diving.

Diving with Sea Pups: Punta Loma, Argentina

Punta Loma Sea Lion pup

Punta Loma lies to the east of Puerto Madryn, beyond the Ecocentro and the beaches. Like El Doradillo, it is a popular destination for adventurous backpackers looking for a nearby bicycling or hitch hiking destination.

However, unlike my trip to El Doradillo, I arrived to Punta Loma by sea.

Punta Loma

For land-goers, a dirt road leads to scenic overlook of the Gulf and one of the region’s growing South American sea lion rookeries. Since the 16th century, these gregarious marine mammals were hunted by European colonizers for their warm fur coats, meat, and oil. By the late 19th century, many sea lion rookeries had disappeared from the Patagonian coast.

Puerto Piramides Sea Lions

Sea lion hunting is no longer widely practiced in Patagonia, allowing these marine mammals to begin recovering. Rather than being targeted for their attributes, sea lions may be incidentally caught in fishing nets, or even shot by fishermen who view their growing abundance as a pest problem. As a result, populations in Uruguay and Chile continue to decline. Even though some hunting and incidental capture occurs on the Argentinian coast, its local population is actually growing as much as 5.7% annually.

Puerto Piramides Sea Lions

On their own, South American sea lions do not attract many tourists. From a distance, they are a clump of brown and black spots on the rocky outcroppings of Puerto Piramides or Punta Loma. During my surveys with visitors, respondents consistently listed sea lions as one of the last (or least favorite) animals to view in the region. Many tourists told me that they could see sea lions in their home cities of Mar del Plata or had seen them before in other parts of Patagonia.

In fact, when I last visited Peninsula Valdes in 2010, I only recall briefly seeing sea lions in Puerto Madryn or Playa Union. They were hardly advertised or even featured as an element of the region.

Yet, some enterprising entrepreneurs found a way to even make a buck out of the overlooked local sea lion population. When I arrived to Puerto Madryn in June 2013, I could not escape the advertisements for SCUBA diving trips with sea lions. By far the most expensive diving trip offered (nearly twice the cost of a normal two-tank dive!), dive shops gloated of a unique interaction surpassing even the best experiences with sea lions in the Galapagos.

Punta Loma

I couldn’t imagine how diving with sea lions could possibly be more fun, or interactive, than my experience in the Galapagos. One cold morning, I decided to sign up and give it a try.

Even the mate and 7 mm suits couldn’t keep us warm that morning. At 7am, it was raining, and the lack of sunlight and slight ocean breeze sank deep beneath the neoprene into our bones. A few whales, unperturbed by the weather, passed by as we took a small boat to the dive sites. On the horizon, we could see a mast jutting through the surface of the slightly rolling water. This abandoned ship would be our first dive.

Punta Loma

Somehow, even the water felt warm compared to the wintry surface conditions.
Punta Loma

We navigated a quick, 20 minute dive through the ship’s interior, exploring the most closed and overhead environment I had ever been in. Our fins easily kicked up the silty bottom, but, otherwise, the visibility was clear.

Punta Loma

A plethora of microorganisms, starfish, anemone, and kelp flourished on the wreck’s dying body. A few fish lurked in the shadows, none venturing close enough to identify.

Punta Loma

After our brief shipwreck adventure, we took to shallower waters in search of the sea lions. Although only 6 – 12 ft (2 – 4 m) deep, the diving gear helped us stay just below the surface and keep our eyes open for curious pinnipeds. The turquoise blue waters were crystal clear here, making it easy to see the fast moving forms get closer and closer.
Punta Loma

Within minutes of entering the water we were surrounded. I felt a tugging at my fin – a young sea lion was biting at it! Cautious and inquisitive, the young sea lions dashed and twirled around our clunky, scuba-laden bodies.

Punta Loma

The matriarch of the litter was by far more bold and brazen. Like a labrador retriever, she would playfully bite our hands and snorkels, let her belly be rubbed, and swirl around us.

Punta Loma

It was exactly like playing with a litter of puppies – underwater. They seemed to enjoy the interaction as much as we did, but I had to wonder if this was adversely impacting the sea lions in any way. The activity was relatively new and minimally regulated. There were strict time limits on dive time in the protected area, and supposedly a vigilant guard armed with binoculars and a timer, but otherwise little oversight or regulation.

Punta Loma

When I later spoke with marine biologists at CENPAT, I discovered that my concerns were not unfounded. They too are beginning to investigate the human-sea lion interactions and find ways forward to support the conservation of this recovering population and the local livelihoods dependent on this new, and lucrative, tourism activity.

Punta Loma

The day, like many days in Patagonia, ended under a full sun and blue skies. Onshore, my newest travel companion, a street dog I would later adopt, was waiting for me. I enthusiastically stripped off the layers of neoprene insulation and returned to the daily routine of research. There were few tourists around, and I made sure to take advantage of the situation and survey the two other divers in my group.

I was still a few weeks away from the Argentine winter vacations – two weeks in July when whales and tourists abound the coasts of Puerto Madryn and Peninsula Valdes. For now, I would continue to explore the town and the development of tourism in the region.

Punta Loma

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South of the Equator: Galapagos Day 6

Day 6: Cousin Rock

Sunrise South of the Equator

Our diving in paradise quickly came to an end, and we started the journey south. Crossing the equator, we awoke to a different world. Restful marine iguanas and alert Galapagos penguins shared the sun spread across the rocky side of the island. In the shallow waters, illuminated by the sun, we could see hundreds of sea turtles seeking that sacred warmth.

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The Dive masters recommended a heavier wetsuit – our days of tropical diving in the Galapagos were at an end. Bracing ourselves with hoods, gloves, and 7mm suits, we jumped into the icy waters.

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The world had changed. Yellow hard corals stood out amongst a desolate landscape. The colors were duller and the animals were scarcer. Clinging to an anchor, a few sea horses. ‘Hopping’ through the sand, hardly distinct in color, a batfish.

Mola mola

And then a dark shadow. Obscuring the sun rays, we looked to see the quickly retreating form of a mola mola. In this low visibility, and with its speed, I found that, unlike the whale sharks, catching up with these large, bony fish would be a waste of precious air. Fortunately, with patience, we continued to see these huge, and incredibly strange, creatures. Occasionally one would pause, turning on his side with his mouth towards the surface, in hopes of attracting fish to participate in this “cleaning station”.

Galapagos Penguin & Iguana

As we neared the island, a quick flash of movement passed us. And then another. Black and white. These little penguins were too fast to capture in camera, much less within the limits of our human vision.

Flightless Cormorant

Another flightless bird also investigated our strange group of bubble-breathing humans. The flightless cormorant, a special variety of a common marine bird which has lost its ability to fly in an attempt to venture the seas among penguins and fish.

Blue-footed booby
Although not endemic, the well-known Blue-footed Booby is another symbol of the Galapagos Islands. We found them decorating the island rocks as we took a short tour in one of the zodiacs, catching our first “top-side” glimpses of marine wildlife such as seabirds.

Mexican Horned Shark

Certainly, the loss of warm waters was made up for by the strange assortment of creatures here, many endemic to the Galapagos Islands.

Seastar

A Paradise: The Galapagos Day 5

Originally Written October 2012

Day 5: Wolf Island, Shark Cove and Landslide 

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How do you describe paradise? How can you accurately describe a fleet of eagle rays gliding in perfect formation, as schools of hammerhead sharks pass overhead and a turtle accompanies you?

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How can you begin to imagine the sensation of diving alongside a mammoth whale shark, following her into the vast blue, your air supply depleting as your tired legs and lungs gasp for air, only to find yourself surrounded by nothing more than schools of fish and pure emptiness? How do you describe such an immense amount of biodiversity filling your field of vision?

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What does it mean to playfully roll about in the surf, with Galapagos fur seals as your companions? Their large eyes holding a curiosity equal only to your own.

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Here, even the fish hold their own vanity in showing off their bright hues and fantastic displays of fins and scales. Like dancers of the sea, they are.

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The clear, blue water allowed us to see for meters in any direction, allowing us to accompany as many as 12 whale sharks on a single dive. Throughout the dives, the incessant chatter of dolphins distracted our ever-searching eyes, hopeful for the sight of any kind of macrofauna. Our search was not in vain, as we were rewarded with a show of marine life that put the most impressive aquariums and marine collections to shame. As pods of dolphins played overhead, and even below, a constant stream of hammerhead sharks could be seen in almost any direction. The friendliest Galapagos Sea Turtles also made an appearance, gently gliding alongside our cameras for some photographs before departing into the currents.

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What we saw at Wolf Island during a day of diving goes beyond any expectations, or even dreams, of what we hoped to see.

Dive Plan

Max Depth: 25 m / 80′

Dive Time: 60 min

Visibility: 8 – 12 m

Temperature: 22 – 24 C

A World Within Itself: The Galapagos Day 3, Morning

Originally written October 2012

Day 3: Wolf Island, Shark Cove

Hammerhead Sharks

“Diver’s Paradise.” “The Golden Grail of Diving.” “One of the best diving sites in the world.”

These phrases, among others, have been used to describe the underwater experience associated with Islands Wolf and Darwin.

Both sites are world renown for dense schools of Scalloped Hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini).  As you can see from the photo, these guys pose a minimum threat to humans. They tend to be shy and would often dissipate into the surrounding blue whenever we, a group of noisy bubble-makers, tried to approach.

This apparent abundance can be deceiving – these creatures are listed as endangered and are threatened by shark finning and by becoming entangled in nets meant for other fish. Fortunately, these sharks, among other species of sharks, were recently protected at the CITES conference in Bangkok this past March 2013.

Spotted Eagle Ray
Other members of the shark and ray family filled the site. Schools of Silky Sharks, Galapagos Sharks, huge stingrays, and even fleets of spotted eagle rays crossed our paths. Spotted Eagle Rays (Aerobatus narinari) can be found in the Gulf of Mexico and other tropical seas. Their dark coloring with white spots distinguish them from all other types of rays. Like other rays, they eat mostly crustaceans, shellfish, and other creatures that can be found on the sea bottom. Their strange looking snouts even help them dig in the sand in search of food!

While the undulating bodies of the hammerheads seemed graceful against the ocean blue, and the gentle ‘flying’ of the eagle rays made them appear like flocks of birds, the almost militant march of the silky sharks was both heart-stopping and intimidating. As I lay against a rocky outcrop, I watched as a formation determinedly swam in front of me, less than a meter away. Minimizing my breathing, I hid against a rock waiting for the silkies to venture closer.

Silky Sharks
I eventually did have a close encounter with Silky Sharks, needless to say I felt less brave without the ‘protection’ of my noisy scuba gear.

Dive Plan

Max Depth: 30 m / 100′

Dive Time: 50 min

Visibility: 10 – 18 m

Temperature: 22-25 C

Gulf Diving: “The Ledge”

Originally written September 2012

Sometimes, the best things in life are right in front of you. After a summer of diving all over Florida’s coasts, I discovered a hidden gem of a dive site practically right off of the coast of my parents’ home in Palm Harbor, Florida.

Clearwater, Florida

Dive Charter: Tanks-A-Lot Dive Charters

Bent Knife - natural reef ledge out of Clearwater

Hidden an hour or two from a bustling suburban setting lies the “Bent Knife” ledge – one of the few natural reefs I have explored along the greater Tampa area coast. Halimeda algae covered the site, proving that algae can sometimes be an important substrate and habitat in marine ecosystems. Hard and soft corals grew amongst the algae, all supported by a rocky ledge stretching for a good distance. One could travel along the top of the ledge, searching amongst the Halimeda for nudibranchs and tropical fish, and then return alongside the ledge, peering into the nooks and crannies for urchins, anemones, and toadfish. A lucky diver may even find an oddly shaped frogfish or batfish on the site.

Florida Regal Sea Goddess (Hypselodoris edenticulata)

When I descended upon the ledge, I bubbled in excitement at the sight of this royal blue and gold nudibranch, known as a Florida Regal Sea Goddess (Hypselodoris edenticulata). After further exploration, it became apparent that this nudibranch was actually quite abundant on the site. I had never seen one before, so it was amazing to see so many at this site. The dive charter explained that this is a fairly new occurrence. There was a time when nudibranchs were scarce, but, fortunately, they have been making a comeback over the past few years and are now regularly found at the ledge. Perhaps, this speaks to the health of the water. Invertebrates tend to be more susceptible to changes in water quality and temperature. An improvement in such conditions could spur the abundance of delicate nudibranchs.

Anemone and sea worms

The site was also covered in anemones and small sea worms, appearing to be translucent fans. In every small hole in the side of the ledge, one could discern the tentacles of a Warty Sea Anemone (Bunodosoma cavernata). Anemones are a type of cnidarian, which makes them related to corals and jellyfish. They are generally sedentary, staying in one place and using their mouth and tentacles to capture prey and for defense.

Long spined urchin (Diadema antillarum) and Warty Sea Anemone (Bunodosoma cavernata)

Another important invertebrate abundant on the site was long-spined sea urchins (Diadema antillarum). Sea urchins are grazing herbivores that eat algae, thereby preventing it from overgrowing the reef. Their removal of algae creates a patch of space that allows corals and other benthic animals to grow and flourish. In 1983, a mass mortality event of long-spined sea urchins occurred throughout the Caribbean waters. It is believed that this massive die off resulted in algae overgrowth in the coral reefs, further exacerbating the endangered status of hard corals like Staghorn and Elkhorn. The die off was due to a water-borne pathogen, to which the long-spined urchins were extremely susceptible.

Abandoned stove

During my dives in the Keys, I hardly observed any invertebrates, which seemed an odd contrast to the abundance at this site just outside of Clearwater. Perhaps this further speaks to their fragility and susceptibility to coastal run off, human collection activity, diseases, and changes in water temperature. Whereas the dive sites in the Keys were very close to shore and frequently visited, this ledge was much further from the coast and seemed to be hidden from divers and human activities. Except for the occasional stove… which looked to be obviously dumped at the site as either trash or as a failed attempt to create artificial reef habitat as a means to attract fish that would be good for fishing.

Spotted sea hare (Aplysia dactylomela), thank you Capt. Heidi for finding this guy for me!

One of my favorite invertebrates is the sea hare. Previously, I had found a few of these strange sea slugs washed on shore, the Atlantic Sea Hare to be specific. During my second dive on the ledge, I was delighted to see a Spotted Sea Hare (Aplysia dactylomela). Although not a pelagic like the Atlantic Sea Hare, both share common features of appearing rabbit like and inking as a self-defense mechanism when startled or trying to escape a predator (or a diver carrying said Sea Hare to a location where I could then see it).

Spotted batfish (Ogcocephalus pantostictus)

Another bizarre creature happened across my path, the Spotted Batfish (Ogcocephalus pantostictus). These benthic, “legged” fish are especially adapted for life on the bottom. They are distinct from frogfish, another legged benthic fish, in that their body is laterally compressed, giving them a similar appearance and shape to rays.

Toadfish
This site, hidden off the coast of Bradenton, Florida, demonstrates the beauty that lies beneath Florida waters even north of the Keys and the need for further protection of these natural reefs.

Diving Paradise: The Florida Keys

Since I became certified, maybe even before, the talk of the town, the prime dive destination for the entire Gulf of Mexico, was the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. How could I spend an entire summer in Florida without seeing it? And so began the eight hour long journey, via my antiquated Volvo, to explore it.

Florida Keys: Key Largo, FL

Dive Charter: Quiescence Diving Services, Inc. 

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary covers the length of the Florida Keys, protecting 2,900 square nautical miles of coral reefs, mangroves, and sea grass beds. The reef is the world’s third largest barrier reef.

The sanctuary is a prime example of multiple use management. This means that some sites are open to recreational fishing, snorkeling, and SCUBA diving, while other areas are closed off completely. Some areas, for example, may be open for indirect uses, such as snorkeling and diving, while others are open to direct uses such as spearfishing and recreational fishing.

In 1960, long before the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park was established as the world’s first underwater park. This designation set a precedent for protecting key areas along the Florida Keys, such as the 1975 designation of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary and the 1981 designation of the Looe Key national Marine Sanctuary. Finally, in 1990, after signs of deterioration and growing human threats became apparent, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was established to protect the entire region, incorporating the two previously designated sanctuaries.

By designating the area as a national marine sanctuary, it is protected from oil exploration and development, excessive or large shipping traffic, anchoring, and other extractive activities (coral collecting, certain types of fishing, fishing in certain areas, fish collection, etc.).

Unlike the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, the Florida Keys has shallow water reefs. Most of the dive sites are less than 35′ in depth, which is great for visibility and important coral growth. Unfortunately, this also means that storms and other weather events can significantly impact your diving experience.

When I arrived on Friday, I received a call from the dive resort informing me that all weekend dive trips had been cancelled due to weather. Driving across the bridge, I could see white caps on the waves and knew that conditions could be rough further out from show.

Nonetheless, I called another dive charter in Key Largo and booked myself for a day of diving.

Brain coral and Christmas tree worms (Spirobranchus giganteus)

On Saturday morning, the dive charter, Quiescence Diving Services, was the epitome of responsibility. Due to the 6-8′ waves, no snorkeler was allowed onboard. All divers were informed, multiple times, that the conditions would be challenging at best. Insistent, I boarded their small vessel with five other divers (max occupancy of six divers per boat). The captain skillfully took us out into the ocean, with waves rising as high as the boat at times. He assisted each diver with putting on his or her equipment… and then we back-rolled into the sea.

Despite the strong surge, pushing us forward and backwards, the visibility was perfect, allowing the sun to shine down and highlight the colorful corals. Browsing through the photographs above, one can see that the site is dominated by soft corals – sea fans and sea whips. The corals swayed gently back and forth with the sage, like trees swaying in the wind.

Hard corals, like the brain coral, also covered the site, providing the strong and stable support necessary for reefs. Hard corals, also known as stony corals or hexacorals, are the primary reef building corals. They build reefs through the secretion of calcium carbonate “skeletons”, which, once the coral ages and dies, provides a solid foundation for continued reef building and growth.

Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata)

The Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), pictured above, is a prime example of a reef building coral. In the photograph, the vibrant orange branches of Elkhorn are growing on top of and branching from the purple-gray hued skeleton of previous Elkhorn coral.

Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis)

Elkhorn coral and Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) are two of the most important reef building corals, and also two of the most endangered. Even though both corals are hard corals, they form via a delicate branching structure, which can easily become broken from passing, careless divers, or from natural events such as hurricanes. Coral bleaching and disease also threaten these species. 

Boulder star coral (Montastraea annularis)

Boulder star coral (Montastraea annularis) is another important reef building coral, due to the massive and solid structure it creates. It is easily recognizable by its “star shaped” coral polyps. Although it is one of the most abundant reef building corals, it is listed as Endangered by the IUCN and is threatened by coral disease and bleaching, damage from humans and natural events, and over-grazing by Stoplight Parrotfish.

Stoplight parrotfish initial phase (Sparisoma viride)

Stoplight Parrotfish (Sparisoma viride) are colorful, large, and distinctive reef fishes, and one of my favorite! The Stoplight Parrotfish appears above in its initial phase, with dominant red and black/grey colors. As it ages, it becomes shades of green and blue. Parrotfish can be found in reefs grazing on the coral and algae, making them both important but potentially threatening herbivores. Parrotfish may over-graze coral, leading to its destruction, or graze on algae, which allows coral to flourish in its place.

The reefs revealed other important indicators of a healthy and safe coral reef ecosystem.

IMG_1780Endangered Nassau Grouper (Epinephelus striatus)

The Nassau Grouper (Epinephelus striatus) is listed as Endangered by the IUCN due to heavy overfishing over the years. I have never seen one alive, so this was a really exciting find! He did not seem to enjoy being photographed, but I managed to snap this shot before he disappeared into the reef, dark stripes fading to blend the entire fish into the sand.

Foureye Butterflyfish (Chaetodon capistratus)

Butterflyfish are considered another important biological indicator for reef health. Foureye Butterflyfish (Chaetodon capistratus) are a common species found throughout tropical waters. Although their diet is varied, some butterflyfish feed specifically on coral, using their narrow mouth to gently nip the polyps, without significantly damaging the entire coral. When a reef is not healthy, and, consequently, coral becomes less abundant, it is suspected that butterflyfish whose diet primarily consists of coral will also become less abundant. Those remaining, on the other hand, will become more territorial and display such signs of aggression.

Adult Hogfish (Lachnolaimus maximus)

This trip further marked my first sighting of an adult Hogfish (Lachnolaimus maximus), a fish named for its hoglike behavior and it pokes around in the substrate with its snout in search of a meal. They are a colorful species, with a range of patterns and colors. Generally, a darker patch covering the forehead distinguishes the males from the females. Hogfish are actually a type of wrasse and are targeted by recreational fishermen and spear divers due to their large size. Although there are limits on the size of the fish and type of gear used, Hogfish are listed as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN. In the unprotected waters near Tampa, juvenile species were common but I never once saw an adult. I thought it interesting that my first sighting of a full grown adult occurred in the protected Florida Keys waters.

Broken Staghorn Coral (Acropora Cervicornis)

Despite the challenging conditions, eight foot waves and a strong surge, the overall dive experience was enjoyable. For the first time, I could visualize the significance of the Elkhorn and Staghorn corals as reef builders, I could understand both from papers and from experience the appearance of a functioning, healthy reef. Alternatively, I could also see that, while activities such as diving financially support an industry that protects fragile and ecologically important sites, it also causes damages. As I explored the reef, careful not to inadvertently damage any reef while attempting to capture its beauty in a photograph, I discovered areas littered in the shattered fragments of hard corals. Although the true cause of such destruction could not be determined, it represented the potential consequences of careless diving and other adverse human impacts. The slow growth of hard corals has led to the critically endangered status now placed upon Elkhorn and Staghorn corals, as researchers struggle to find ways to rebuild and maintain these corals. Hurricanes, overgrazing from parrotfish, and coral disease are just some of the natural threats these corals face, in addition to the impacts of fishing gear and careless divers.

French reef

Despite these apparent threats, the reefs were undoubtedly some of the healthiest I have observed in the Gulf, perhaps only rivaled by the protected deepwater reefs of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Although sanctuary status cannot protect from all harm, especially not ocean wide effects such as pollution and warming waters, it certainly helps to some degree, to allow reefs to flourish and yet still be explored by curious divers and snorkelers.

General Site Conditions

Dive Site: French Reef

Date: 21 July 2012

Max depth: 41′

Temperature: 84 F

Visibility: 25′

Dive Site: French Reef – “The Christmas Tree”

Date: 21 July 2012

Max depth: 35′

Temperature: 84 F

Visibility: 15-20′

Dive Site: Hard Bottom Cave

Date: 21 July 2012

Max depth: 43′

Temperature: 84 F

Visibility: 25′

Gulf Diving: Saint Pete Artificial Reef

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.

Saint Petersburg, Florida

Dive Charter: Blue Water Explorers

During the summer, I visited the Saint Pete Artificial Reef twice with Blue Water Explorers and the Canterbury Venture Crew. The purpose of our trips was to document the different types of species and habitat we observed at the site.

Saint Pete Artificial Reef is an expansive site that includes a handful of military tanks, a barge, and other rubble and pilings. On a good day, divers will encounter goliath grouper and schools of fish. Unfortunately for us, the aftermath of Tropical Storm Debbie was lingering. The entire month after the tropical storm, which stayed in the Saint Petersburg area for several days, visibility throughout the area in dive sites shallower than 40 feet was dramatically reduced.

Despite the challenging conditions, the entire group found an interesting array of life amongst the rubble, the tanks, and even in the sandy areas.

Starfish and black urchins, both a type of echinoderm, covered the site, serving as indicators of a healthy marine environment. Starfish function through an internal hydraulic water vascular system, which aids in movement and capture of prey. However, this system pumps un-filtered water throughout the starfish’s body, making the creature vulnerable to water pollution. Despite their seemingly sedentary state, starfish are actually voracious predators that can have a major impact on the benthic community. They primarily feed on mollusks, using their powerful limbs to force open the shells of clams and oysters.


This large starfish, over a foot in width from the tip of one leg to the other, could be seen moving relatively quickly across the benthic floor. It appears that the bristles extending from each leg assisted in its speedy locomotion. I observed this starfish in two different sites along the Gulf coast of Florida, but have yet to discover its exact species name.

Fragile corals and sea whips decorated the site, adding to the colorful display of sponges and fishes.

The most abundant and curious creatures appeared to be these small hawkfish. Based on their appearance, they seem related to the Redspotted Hawkfish (Amblycirrhitus pinos). Hanging suspended, one finger gently placed on a rock and the other hand gripping my camera, these fish would quickly approach me… sometimes even nipping my finger! Despite their curiosity, their quick movements allowed them to evade most of my photographs.

As I waited, perched on a piece of the wreckage that formed the base of the reef, a Sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus) swam by, grazing on the benthos covering the site. Sheepshead are a popular target for recreational fishermen, but there is currently no management strategy in place to monitor their population.

Most of the above photographs were taken during our second trip to the Saint Pete Artificial Reef, on July 25. Although visibility was poor, we were able to see a variety of life through a concerted and thoughtful effort to look at the small nooks and crannies of the reef and the edges of the structure.

During our first dive trip to the site, on July 13, visibility was significantly reduced, being a mere two to three weeks after Tropical Storm Debbie. At this time, it was late in the summer, which meant warmer water and subsequent signs of coral bleaching on the hard corals at the site. Compared to the previous photographs, the water in the above image is a darker green. Using my flash due to the lack of light, I created backscatter in the top portion of the photograph, highlighting the density of particles in the water. Warming ocean waters are also associated with increased algae production and growth, which may overgrow sites that lack the grazing herbivores to control it.

Nonetheless, this site still appears relatively healthy, with an abundance of encrusting and other types of sponges covering the site and tropical fish swimming all around.

 General Site Conditions

Trip #1, 13 July 2012

Max depth: 35′

Temperature: 81 F

Visibility: 3 – 5′

Trip #2, 25 July 2012

Max depth: 36′

Temperature: 84 F

Visibility: 5 – 10′