One of my favorite dive spots in the upper Keys is Davis Reef, which is about a 25-minute boat ride from Tavernier. It has all manner of marine life, soft and hard coral and a nice, shallow ledge that is easy to navigate.
The abundance of life on Davis Reef is no accident.
The Florida Keys was an early leader in working to ensure the health of the ocean. In 1960, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was established off Key Largo as the world’s first underwater park. Continued environmental degradation prompted the eventual designation of Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary in 1975.
On November 16, 1990, President George H. Bush signed into law the bill establishing the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Davis Reef is located in a Sanctuary Preservation Area, one of 18 Sanctuary Preservation Areas in the sanctuary. The SPAs, marked by large yellow buoys, restrict fishing and harvesting of marine life, prohibit anchoring on living or dead coral and anchoring when a mooring buoy is available. (See http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/zones/spas/welcome.html)
The warm, clear water and the close proximity to shore of the many shallow reefs, including Davis, attract thousands of divers and snorkelers to the Keys each year.
According to NOAA, during 2007 and 2008 divers participated in 2.8 million days of diving in the Keys.
The continued high number of scuba divers visiting the Keys is good news for dive operators and related businesses, but bad news for the reef and ocean critters if the divers and snorkelers don’t take precautions to protect the health of the reefs.
Understanding this, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary established the Blue Star program, funded in part by a grant awarded from Mote Marine Laboratory’s Protect Our Reef Grants Program. The money for the grant are derived from the sale of the Protect Our Reefs Specialty License Plate.
Under the Blue Star program, participating commercial dive operators, who are committed to promoting responsible and sustainable diving and snorkeling practices, agree to educate their customers about proper snorkeling and diving etiquette to help protect the ecosystem of the sanctuary.
The program, which is completely voluntary, is similar to the “Clean Marina” program administered by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. (http://www.dep.state.fl.us/cleanmarina/)
Blue Star was developed with advice from dive operators and the REEF Environmental Education Foundation. (REEF’s mission is to preserve marine ecosystems through educating, enlisting and enabling divers and other marine enthusiasts to become active stewards and citizen scientists.)
Becoming a Blue Star dive shop requires initial and on-going education, standards of conduct and periodic evaluations.
There is even a complaint process if a diver believes a Blue Star dive shop is not following the rules.
All Blue Star dive shop employees must be trained on program standards by either attending the initial training workshop or through training in-house with materials provided by Blue Star.
They are also required to be knowledgeable about the coral reef ecosystem, proper diving and snorkeling reef etiquette, and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
After being successfully evaluated by a Blue Star representative a dive shop can become an official Blue Star participant by signing an agreement to voluntarily follow Blue Star program criteria. The shop receives recognition materials including a plaque for the shop showing that the it is a member of Blue Star.
Dive shops that are members of the program are required to offer at least one conservation-related activity such as an “Adopt A Reef” clean-up dive. They must also offer at least one conservation-related specialty course such as buoyancy control, REEF fish identification or underwater naturalist.
Blue Star boat crews are trained to demonstrate proper examples by using mooring buoys when available and anchoring in accordance with Sanctuary regulations. They must comply with all marine conservation laws and regulations and recycle engine oil. They are encouraged to recycle glass, plastic, cans and paper.
When you dive with a Blue Star operator, you will notice that the captain, mate or divemaster, in addition to reviewing safe diving practices briefs divers about: how to protect the reef by proper weighting and buoyancy control; precautions for hand placement and fin use; special rules when diving in SPAs, and interaction with marine life.
Dive shops are required to inform divers who are diving on shipwrecks or submerged artifacts that wrecks and artifacts should be left intact because they are part of our shared cultural heritage and protected by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
“Our Blue Star operators are well regarded for providing engaging experiences,” said Eric Raslich, Blue Star program coordinator. “Blue Star operators educate and support best practices in the sanctuary, providing a customer experience that is committed to diving in environmentally conscious and sustainable ways that ensure the resources will remain for divers in the future as well.”
Protecting the oceans is a job for all of us –not just divers, scientists, not-for-profit organizations and government agencies.
We must all work together to be good stewards for the oceans upon which we all depend for food, oxygen, climate control, transportation, medicine, the economy recreation and more.
By participating in the Blue Star program dedicated dive shops are helping to protect the marine ecosystem.
When visiting the Keys please practice responsible diving and snorkeling. If your skills are rusty, take a refresher course or maybe a new dive course that will help you to master your buoyancy control or help you identify the tropical fish that inhabit the reef.
When you are ready to dive, book with a Blue Star shop to help you responsibly enjoy the wonders in the Florida Keys. If you get an opportunity, visit beautiful Davis Reef. Besides an abundance of sea fans you might just see the statue of Buddha
For more on Blue Star, including a list of Blue Star operators see: http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/onthewater/bluestar.html
The details on Blue Star membership are available at: http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/onthewater/framework.pdf
Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 30 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier five years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers. He can be reached at [email protected].