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The Florida Keys: A Fish Watcher's Paradise

Text and Photography by Stephen Frink©

Diving Paradise

A friend stopped by my photo studio recently to drop off the film from his dive vacation. He is a dive instructor here in Key Largo, and even though he gets to go diving locally six days a week, he had a longtime dream to dive the Caribbean. He'd heard tales of the crystalline water and had seen pictures of the deep drop off, so he saved his money and finally took his fantasy dive holiday.

I asked him how it all went, expecting a rave review given his desire to experience something new, different, and supposedly better. Instead he replied, "I guess it was okay but I spent way too much money and wasted way too much of my vacation time in an airplane instead of underwater. But the biggest thing that bothered me was that there were just no fish. The water was clear like it was supposed to be, and the sponges were nice, but there were no fish. The giant schools of grunt and snapper we take for granted here simply did not exist, and I didn't see a single grouper on the reef. I did see one schoolmaster snapper from a distance, but it bolted for dear life at my first glance. Forget getting close enough for an underwater photo!"

Christ of the Abyss

"Between fish traps, spear fishing, line fishing, and drift nests along the offshore banks, those fish don't have a chance. I'm glad to be back home here in the Keys so I can see some fish!"

His epiphany is one I too have had many times, not only in the Caribbean but throughout much of the diving world. I've seen too many countries with limited natural resources sell their fishing rights to the highest bidder, allowing factory fishing fleets to come in and decimate the fish populations with no regard to maintaining breeding stock. These same countries allow traditional, yet destructive and indiscriminate fishing practices like fish traps and gill nets. As the fish become more and more scarce, smaller and smaller fish become the keepers.

What keeps the Florida Keys from falling into the same trap? Fortunately, the United States has had the foresight to control their territorial fishing rights, and locally the Florida Keys have had a long tradition of preservation and reverence for its marine life.

Moray eel

Back as far as 1960, the marine life off Key Largo was protected from spear fishing by the creation of the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Pennekamp Park is under state of Florida jurisdiction, and as such only protects the marine life contained in the waters to three miles offshore. But the offshore waters along the fringing coral reef where most of the sport diving happens was likewise protected in 1975 with the creation of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lends its resources to the protection of 200 square miles of America's underwater wonderland, providing for mooring buoys to avoid coral damage due to misplaced anchors, enforcement for navigational errors involving ship groundings, prohibiting spear fishing and illegal fishing practices, and of course providing environmental education.

By 1981 the status of the Florida Keys as an ecologically enlightened destination was further enhanced with creation of the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary off the Lower Keys. Named for the HMS Looe, sunk here in 1744, the Looe Key reef is only 5.3 square miles, but contained within its boundaries is a rich biodiversity and amazing fish populations. Here it is illegal for a diver to take anything living or dead from the sea, and even lobstering, which is permitted within the Key largo Sanctuary, is prohibited for fear that divers may damage coral in their mad pursuit of the succulent crustacean. As yet another proof of the support for marine conservation in the Florida Keys, the entire group of 200 islands is now contained within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Specific zones of use are targeted to enhance the enjoyment of the underwater majesty and sustain populations of fish.

What does this long history of conservation mean to divers? Two things: First, it means that the fish are here in prodigious numbers and diversity. Second, that they don't associate divers with annihilation. This makes the marine life far more tolerant of a close approach, significantly enhancing the underwater photo opportunities. Among the things a diver is likely to see on the coral reefs and shipwrecks of the Florida Keys are the following:

Schooling Fish - The blue-striped grunt is the icon of the Florida Keys, typically seen schooling in large numbers around the protection of stands of elkhorn coral. French grunts are nearly as plentiful, and most reefs will feature congregates of small-mouth grunt as well. Yellowtail snapper are a favorite of local anglers, yet still seem to cruise the reef in astonishing numbers. Other Keys critters that typicially school in vast numbers along the reef include glass minnows, goatfish, gray snappers, Atlantic spadefish, horse eye jacks, copper sweepers, Bermuda chubs, and sergeant majors. Even fish that are normally solitary, like barracuda and blue tang, frequently school together on the reefs of the Florida Keys.

Reef Residents - The beauty and preponderance of reef dwellers along our coral reefs has made this the world's favorite dive destination. All manner of Caribbean angelfish and butterflyfish either breed here or are transported to these reefs by the warm and crystalline Gulf Stream current. Grouper are common, and even the Goliath Grouper population is beginning to rebound. Virtually every species of parrotfish found in the Western Hemisphere is found here, both grazing the reef during the day and sleeping in their mucous cocoons at night. Wrasse, spotted drum, stingrays, hawkfish, pufferfish, trumpetfish, and triggerfish can likely be spotted on any given dive, and the more vigilant fishwatchers will be rewarded with snook, tarpon, permit, flounder, jewfish, and lizardfish.

Predators - The Florida Keys have plenty of sharks, but a diver is unlikely to see them on most dives. I have encountered tiger sharks, great hammerheads, bull sharks, and of course scores of nurse sharks here over the years, but each was a rare and special experience. There are even great white sharks occasionally caught by sport fishing charters along the deepwater pinnacles off Islamorada. Far more common are barracudas and eels. Dive masters in some areas of the Keys have handfed these supposedly fierce predators, and made them far easier to approach than is typical in the wild. Pelagic Species - While most of the diving is done along the spur and groove coral formations that comprise the fringing reef, those who keep their eyes to the blue water farther offshore will occasionally be rewarded with sightings of eagle rays, turtles, and even on rare instances, whale sharks.

The Rare and Unusual - Our waters also provide preferred habitat for some unusual marine creatures. I have photographed the rare mola-mola (ocean sunfish) here, and it was off one of the world's most frequently dived sites, Molasses Reef, that I encountered a species of octopus (tremoctopus violaceus, blanket octopus) that had never been photographed in the wild. A vigilant eye and ample time in the water are the only requirements to delight a fish watcher, no matter where one chooses to dive the fabulous Florida Keys. Oh yeah, and bring plenty of film. With so much to shoot, those 36 exposures get used up mighty quickly around here.

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