Documentary targets invasive lionfish

A new documentary set to debut in Pensacola later this month looks at the growing threat invasive lionfish pose to Florida’s recreational fishing and seafood industries.

“Reef Assassin” explains how the colorful and venomous fish with lion-like manes of feathery fins have thrived in the waters off Florida since they were first dumped by aquarium collectors in the mid-1980s.

Three decades later, lionfish are a threat to most other species in waters stretching from the Caribbean Islands to the mid-Atlantic states of the U.S., said filmmaker Maribeth Abrams.

“It was very eye opening for me to be part of the investigation that we did for this project,” said Abrams, producer, editor and narrator of the Skyline Films project.

Abrams and her crew traveled throughout Florida and to Newfoundland, Canada, and Barbados while gathering information for the 55-minute film. Much of the filming happened in the Florida Panhandle — the region considered to be Florida’s lionfish capital because of the high numbers of the fish found in area waters.

More:Gaetz takes lionfish fight to federal waters

The film draws parallels between the collapse of Newfoundland’s cod fishing industry decades ago to the present-day threat posed by lionfish to native fisheries around Florida.

“Because of over-fishing, the fish that were being caught were not being replaced. We talked to people (in Newfoundland) who lived through the collapse, and they describe a very, very bleak situation,” she said. “We look at what happened when a culture that is dependent on fishing no longer has fish to catch.”

Among those interviewed for the project was Robert Turpin, Escambia County’s director of marine resources.

Turpin, who is helping organize Pensacola’s third annual Lionfish Roundup event on May 20 and 21, said some progress is being made in the lionfish fight.

Area spear fishermen collected more than 8,000 lionfish from Pensacola-area reefs during the 2016 Lionfish Roundup, he said.

More:From De Luna to lionfish, UWF videos highlight the Gulf

And, Turpin said, researchers are coming up with better ways to trap lionfish in deep waters.

Lionfish cannot be caught with a traditional rod and reel. The best way to remove them is through spear fishing, which is expensive and labor intensive.

“The traps have been a source of great optimism, at least in my mind, because they can more effectively remove the lionfish compared with scuba divers whose bottom time is limited by air capacity,” he said.

And traps can access deeper waters that are out of reach for divers, he said.

Also interviewed for the film was Candy Hansard, president of the Destin-based Emerald Coast Reef Association. The nonprofit encouraged the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to enact its Panhandle Pilot Program, which provides tags allowing divers who collect large numbers of lionfish to collect greater numbers of desirable fish like cobia and red grouper.

Hansard is also supporting efforts by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, to extend the program to federally controlled waters farther off the Florida coast.

But, Hansard said, the state and federal government should provide lionfish harvesters with even more tags for commercially desirable fish, including red snapper, trigger fish and amber jack. And the tags should be provided year round, not just when the season for a specific species is open, she said.

“What we are trying to do is to have our state and federal leaders wage an all-out war on the lionfish. In order to do that, we are going to have to recruit tens of thousands of divers to go out and slaughter fish aggressively, but right now there isn’t really any motivation for them to that,” she said.

ARCHIVE CONTENT:Lionfish Challenge puts dent in population

Hansard said rewarding lionfish harvesters by allowing them to bring in greater numbers of commercially desirable fish appears to be the best option for curbing lionfish growth, she said.

The lionfish, native to the waters of the Indo-Pacific region, is a voracious eater that lays millions of eggs and has no known predators in the Gulf of Mexico. Lionfish devour the fry of native fish species, including grouper, red snapper and trigger fish and juvenile shrimp and crabs.

“The crisis is so huge that if we don’t take very aggressive action very quickly, we are risking catastrophic damage to our native fisheries and everyone who depends on those fisheries, from charter fishing to commercial fishing,” Hansard said. “We are talking billions of dollars in economic destruction.”

The Pensacola debut of “Reef Assassin” is scheduled for 7 p.m. May 20 at Hagler Auditorium on the campus of Pensacola State College.

The filmmakers plan to film a panel discussion with questions from the audience following the film screening. Portions of that could be used in the followup documentary, the filmmakers said.

Is that a good way to learn?

Many beach resorts offer a few hours of scuba training, then a dive, which may seem like going from a crawl to a run. That being said, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t safe.

Ultimately, the safety of the course-then-dive offered at a resort depends on the quality of instruction and your comfort level with being underwater. Daylong resort intro courses don’t provide actual certification, just enough know-how to try things out, says Alex Brylske, Ph.D., author of The Complete Diver. Group dives are limited to a max depth of 40 feet and avoid “overhead environments,” like caves or shipwrecks. And the next vacation, you have to take the class all over again.

“Some people have great experiences” with starter-type classes, Brylske says. But currents and visibility can create danger, and shoddy operators are a risk. So if you go this route, ask if your outfitter follows Recreational Scuba Training Council (RSTC) rules.

A much better idea? Get your “C card” (open-water certification) before you go. “A typical course takes about 30 hours over six to 10 weeks, starting in a pool then moving to open-water dives,” says PA-based diving teacher Brett Galambos.

Sound like a lot of work? Consider the reward: a lifetime of diving reefs in Bonaire and shipwrecks off the Florida Keys.

Rebreathers have plusses, but know before you go –

The diver silently was hovering in the hazy distance — no apparent movement — no bubbles coming from his regulator.

The image came into focus as the group of newer divers I was guiding got closer.

The diver was Carsten Huppertz, head captain at Florida Keys Dive Center, who holds an impressive list of diving instructor ratings, decked out in a rebreather, shiny “bailout” bottle and stylish black dry suit.

My thoughts leapt to a scene from a secret agent movie where the hero climbs out of the water, sheds his scuba gear and dry suit and then walks into the bad guy’s cocktail reception with his hair perfectly in place and not a wrinkle on his tuxedo.

After the theme from the James Bond movies finished playing in my head, I checked on my divers flapping through the water and made the underwater turn back to the dive boat.

“Who knows, maybe I will get to see Halle Berry climb out of the ocean,” I thought.

In 1943, Jacques Cousteau and his partner Emilie Gagnan co-invented a demand valve system that supplies divers with compressed air when they breathe. The exhaust gas is discarded in the form of bubbles; this is called an “open-circuit” system, and has become synonymous with what many know as SCUBA, an acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.

The standard scuba setup has worked well since the advent of recreational diving.

It turns out, however, that rebreathers have been around longer than better known open circuit scuba gear. Henry A. Fleuss submitted a patent in 1878 and the rebreather was used two years later to close some crucial valves in the Severn River.

Since the days of Cousteau, most recreational scuba divers have used: a mask to enable them to see underwater; a tank containing compressed air (regular filtered air, not oxygen); a scuba regulator, which provides air at the appropriate pressure needed at different depths; fins to swim efficiently in the water; exposure protection (wet suit) to keep them protected and warm; a dive knife to be used as a tool – not a weapon; a depth gage and timing device (both of which are now available in underwater computers); and a compass for navigation.

Added to this are a buoyancy control device (BCD) to help divers float at the surface or to maintain neutral buoyancy underwater (like a fish), and lead weight to help counteract the buoyancy characteristics of their bodies and wet suits.

As Bob Dylan sang in 1964, “The Times They Are A-changin‘.”

With decreases in cost and difficulty of operation, rebreathers, once the realm of military and highly-trained specialty technical divers, are becoming increasingly popular with recreational divers.

A major benefit of a rebreather is longer dives, because a portion of the gas supply is reused, than when using open circuit scuba tanks.

Rebreathers are great for photography because they don’t frighten fish with exhaust sounds. And, they deliver warm, moist breathing gas and a more optimum gas mixture for divers on extended and deeper dives.

There are three basic types of rebreathers: oxygen rebreather, semi-closed rebreather, and closed-circuit rebreather (CCR). Some experts and manufactures differentiate the types into two or four. Halcyon, a dive equipment manufacture, lists oxygen, active addition, semi-closed passive addition and fully closed. (

The difference in the method rebreathers operate is the manner in which they add gas to the breathing loop, and control the concentration of oxygen in the breathing gas.

Generally, the breathing loop includes a carbon dioxide (CO2) absorbent canister, a way to add fresh oxygen needed by the diver, and a design to ensuring that gas circulates in one direction. A single fill of a small gas cylinder or cylinders and CO2 scrubber can last, depending on the model, from one to six hours; and, gas duration on a rebreather is nearly independent of depth allowing a diver to spend more time at the deepest portion of a dive.

Rebreathers can be more expensive to purchase and operate than a traditional regulator, BCD and scuba tank setup.

Additional training is also required to use a rebreather, even if you are already a certified diver.

Several dive organizations teach rebreather and technical diving. One of the oldest and largest is Technical Diving International (TDI):

Another, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), is the largest trainer of recreational divers. Its site relating to rebreathers can be found at:

The PADI Rebreather and Advanced Rebreather Diver courses use type “R” units to introduce divers to rebreather diving within recreational dive limits. These units are electronically controlled and provide a backup for all the major systems, which simplifies training and use.

According to PADI, type R rebreathers, which specifically are “suited for recreational diving”: will not operate or will warn the diver if the canister is missing; provide electronic prompts for the predive check; provide automatic set point control; estimate scrubber duration; and, have warnings for low or closed gas supply.

They also display low battery life and high or low PO2 (percentage of oxygen); include a “black box” data recorder functions in the electronics; and; have a display warning system in line-of-sight during normal diving.

PADI’s more advanced Tec CCR courses teach technical divers how to use type “T” closed circuit rebreathers beyond recreational dive limits. (For a list of requirements for type “T” rebreathers see:

The Keys is fortunate to be home to Georgia Hausserman, an expert in the field of rebreather training. Georgia is a member of PADI’s Technical Diving Division and Rebreather Advisory Team, and has helped develop an instructor and instructor trainer base for PADI’s rebreather and CCR programs.

Gary Mace, who with his wife Brenda own and operates Conch Republic Divers, holds rebreather instructor certifications with PADI and the International Association of Nitrox and Technical divers (IANTD).

According to Mace: “Rebreathers are a wonderful tool when used properly within a diver’s certification level and experience. I’ve got friends who have explored shipwrecks down to 340 feet for up to an hour using this technology, which would be very difficult or impractical on open circuit.”

As with any type of diving, when diving with a rebreather, you should make sure your gear is in good working order and properly checked before each dive. You only should dive to the limits of your training and be conservative in your dive(s). Don’t let the pressure of “getting one more dive” or another person’s urging influence your decision to dive.

Upper Keys dive shops providing rebreather training include Conch Republic Divers ( Rainbow Reef Dive Center ( and Horizon Divers (

A comprehensive list of diver certification agencies is available at:

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].

Ray Tried To Murder Laudineia

A spotted eagle ray jumped from Florida Keys waters and hit a Fort Myers woman who was operating a personal watercraft April 11.

Laudineia G. Neves, 33, suffered a “deep laceration” to her face that required surgery, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports.

“She’s recovering at home and doing much better now,” Rui Leite, her husband, said Tuesday. “They say it was a one-in-a-million thing.”

FWC Investigator Racquel Daniels reported that Neves was cruising on an 11-foot Bombardier watercraft in Lignumvitae Channel near Lower Matecumbe Key “when a spotted eagle ray jumped from the water and struck the operator in the face” around 1:45 p.m.

Neves received initial treatment at Mariners Hospital in Tavernier, then was taken by ambulance to South Miami Hospital for surgery.

Such incidents are rare but in March 2008 a leaping eagle ray struck and killed Judy Kay Zagorski, 57, of Michigan, who was on a moving boat off the Middle Keys. The 75-pound ray knocked Zagorski to the deck, causing a fatal head wound, the Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office reported.

“I would call these types of incidents an unfortunate accident,” said Kim Bassos-Hull, senior biologist with Mote Marine Laboratory.

“Spotted eagle rays tend to be very shy,” she said. “They’re not going to come and attack people.”

Eagle rays are well known for their ability to suddenly burst out of the water and soar several feet into the air before crashing back to the surface.

“They jump a lot, for a variety of reasons,” said Bassos-Hull, the lead author on a 2014 peer-reviewed study of eagle rays. “They can be escaping predation attempts by hammerhead sharks, or trying to shake off parasites or remoras.”

“If a swimmer or diver enters the water, an eagle ray tends tends to move away. They’re not curious,” she said. “Most divers have a tough time getting close.”

Spotted eagle rays, which can grow to seven feet across from one tip of its “batoid” wings to the other, are protected from harvest in Florida.

“They are lower in numbers than other more common rays like the southern stingray,” Bassos-Hull said. “They only have one to four pups a year and don’t mature quickly.”

Spotted eagle rays do have a stinger barb at the end of their tail but wield it only in a defensive reaction.

Mote Marine Lab seeks information on eagle ray sightings for an ongoing population study of their movements. File online reports at


Value of Keeping Sharks Alive


How much is a shark worth? That might sound like a strange question. To conservationists, biologists (like Ocean Ramsey) or people who love the ocean, it might be impossible to quantify the value of such a magnificent creature. For fishers around the world, the answer is probably more straightforward. But one thing is now clear: sharks are worth much more alive than dead in the state of Florida.

A new, independent report commissioned by Oceana found that live sharks provide significant economic benefits to the state of Florida. Divers and tourists travel from around the world to see sharks in person, supporting a tourism industry that depends on healthy animals.

Given the global threats to survival of sharks and the key roles they play both in nature and in some coastal economies, the report commissioned by Oceana, and research by others, highlights the need for Congress to pass the proposed Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act to enact a nationwide ban on the trade of shark fins.

The bill, introduced by Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Gregorio Sablan (I-MP), would remove the United States from the global shark fin market, which is driven primarily by the demand for shark fin soup in Asia.

Just like their vital role in maritime ecosystems, sharks live at the center of a financial network that generates both economic revenue and growth. But the potential value of a shark ends abruptly once it has been killed. A creature that could live for decades as a driver of economic growth is instead reduced to the sale price of its meat or fins.

As detailed in the report commissioned by Oceana, shark-driven tourism is booming in the state of Florida. Direct expenditures like boat rentals, food and lodging for shark-encounter dives totaled roughly $220 million and supported over 3,700 jobs in 2016. In contrast, the shark fishery in Florida generated only $960,000 in commercial landings in 2015. In fact, the value of live sharks in Florida significantly overshadowed the value of shark fin exports from the entire United States, which totaled little more than $1 million in 2015. In the long run, sharks can simply generate more revenue when alive and swimming in Florida waters than killed and sold for their fins.

The shark diving industry is popular in other states, including North Carolina and Rhode Island. Operators also work off the coast of California, with shark diving excursions available in San Diego and San Francisco. Ensuring healthy shark populations will help local businesses in these economies as well.

Another recent study conducted in the Bahamas demonstrated similar results: Sharks and rays helped create about 1.3 percent of Bahama’s Gross Domestic Product in 2014. Driven mainly by the shark diving industry, sharks and their relatives generate a total of $113.8 million in revenues each year for the Bahamas. Similarly, Fiji and the Maldives earn $42.2 and $38.6 million per year, respectively, from their shark diving industries.

In addition to their economic value, sharks are essential for healthy oceans. While some are apex predators, all sharks play a crucial part in regulating and maintaining balance in marine ecosystems through their places in the food chain. This role is threatened, however, because sharks are all too easily overfished. Some species are slow-growing and long-lived. They reproduce late in life and have few offspring compared to other fish. These factors make these species prone to overexploitation, and populations can take a long time to recover once they’ve declined.

A major threat to sharks comes from the demand for shark fins, which creates an incentive for shark finning – a brutal practice where a shark’s fins are cut off and its body discarded at sea, where it can drown, bleed to death or be eaten alive by other fish. Fins from as many as 73 million sharks end up in the global shark fin trade every year. And though the act of shark finning is illegal in U.S. waters, shark fins continue to be bought and sold in many parts of the United States.

Eleven U.S. states, plus the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and Guam, have already banned the sale or trade of most shark fins. But when these products are banned in one state, the market simply shifts to a new location.

In 2013, for instance, no shark fins were exported out of Savannah, Georgia. But after Texas began cracking down on the trade, the market shifted, and Savannah became the number one U.S. city for shark fin exports. The U.S. also continues to import fins, including from countries with no finning bans in place. In the end, only a national fin ban will stop the buying and selling of shark fin products throughout the U.S.

It may seem crude to ask, “How much is a shark worth?” But the importance of sharks to Florida’s economy demonstrates the tangible impact these animals have in the U.S., making the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act a necessary step to protect them. Together, we can make the U.S. a global leader in shark conservation and continue to enjoy the economic and environmental value that sharks bring to our seas.

Andrew Sharpless has led Oceana since 2003 as its Chief Executive Officer. Louis Bacon is the Chief Executive Officer of Moore Capital Management and Founder and chairman of The Moore Charitable Foundation.

Co-authored by Louis Bacon, Chief Executive Officer of Moore Capital Management and Founder and chairman of The Moore Charitable Foundation

© Oceana/Jason ArnoldOn March 16, 2016, Oceana went shark tagging off the coast of Miami, Florida with Dr. Austin Gallagher and Beneath the Waves.

Florida sharks worth more alive than dead, study finds

A live shark swimming through Florida’s waters is about 200 times more valuable than a dead shark, a new study has found.

The study, commissioned by the nonprofit Oceana in its bid to end the gruesome shark fin trade, found that divers hoping to see sharks produced more than $221 million in revenue for the state in 2016 and helped supply over 3,700 jobs. That compared to just over $1 million generated by the buying and selling of shark fins nationwide.

The study, Oceana said, is the first of its kind in the U.S. to try to calculate what conservationists have long argued about many imperiled fish: they’re worth far less on a plate than they are in the water.

Sharks are in trouble and one of the reasons they are in trouble is because of the demands for their fins.

Oceana campaign Director Lora Snyder

Sharks are in trouble and one of the reasons they are in trouble is because of the demands for their fins,” said Oceana’s campaign director, Lora Snyder.

Oceana is hoping the findings help persuade lawmakers to pass a nationwide ban on buying and selling shark fins, a trade centered in Asia but executed globally and blamed, along with longline fishing and overfishing, with driving down shark populations. Earlier this month, California Republican Rep. Ed Royce, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, reintroduced a ban that has so far gained 35 bipartisan signatures, Snyder said.

The U.S. bans shark finning, the process of chopping the fins off sharks and tossing them overboard, still alive, to sink and suffocate or get eaten by predators. Only 11 states prohibit importing and selling fins.


The number of states that currently ban the buying and selling of shark fins

“It’s important to know, once a fin has entered the market, did it come from an endangered shark or was that fin legally finned and got in the U.S.?” Snyder said. “Once it’s here, there’s really no way to know.”

To come up with the numbers, wildlife consultant Tony Fedler contacted 365 dive operators across the state and got responses from 237. Nearly all were small businesses. Only 42 qualified as large, with clients that included cruise ships or other tours. Fedler found that nearly one third of divers look for outings where they’ll likely spot sharks and one in five specifically look for encounters with sharks.

Fedler noted an obvious weakness in his study: the data was voluntarily supplied by dive operators who support shark conservation. However, he also pointed out that the total number of dive days he used to calculate his numbers is well below estimates by the Diving Equipment & Marketing Association, making his count more conservative. He also used expense data from a 2001 study which likely low-balled how much divers spend.

Still, dollars from dives clearly outpaces any revenue generated by the fin trade, Snyder said.

“As long as sharks remain alive in the ocean,” she said, “divers and their dollars will continue to support local economies.”

Fire Coral Bad

It had been a great dive on the USS Spiegel Grove, a large intentionally sunken ship off Key Largo, which is now a popular destination for advanced level scuba divers and all manner of sea critters.

One woman diver probably didn’t think the dive was so great. She ended up sitting near the front of the dive boat madly rubbing ointment on a red rash that covered the upper parts of both her legs.

When diving on the Spiegel Grove, most divers enter the water, pull themselves along a line attached from the boat to the mooring ball line and then descend the mooring ball line — very handy to use when there are currents and for safety stops to vent off nitrogen during ascents.

The downside of this is that some of the mooring lines attached to the Spiegel Grove have picked up a few passengers such as fish hooks and certain types of small fire coral and other stinging critters that can make a diver’s day very unpleasant if grabbed or bumped into by an unprotected arm or leg.

That is what happened to the woman diver. The current pushed her bare legs into the line during a safety stop. Ouch!

Fire corals have nematocysts (barbed, threadlike tubes that deliver a toxic sting) and some have sharp edges that cause lacerations or abrasions.

Over their diving careers many folks, including me, have experienced a sting or burning sensation from accidently touching or bumping into a fire coral. Most of these encounters are unpleasant but the sensation and embarrassment soon subsides.

A person’s reaction to fire coral depends on the amount of exposure to the toxins, extent of the abrasion for a hard coral and any pre-existing sensitivity — like some folks have for bee stings.

In some cases the accidental contact, besides symptoms of immediate stinging and burning, causes more pronounced skin reactions including red welts, blisters, and considerable itching.

The Divers Alert Network — a non-profit organization that provides dive safety information, emergency services, and insurance for the dive community — says it gets about 12,000 to 13,000 information calls each year. The good news is that it only gets approximately a call a week pertaining to someone who has had a run-in with a coral.

Fire corals are hydrozoans, rather than true corals, and are cousins to other hydrozoans such as the Portuguese man-o’-war.

Fire corals, which get their common name from the painful stings they inflict on divers, include colonies composed of tree-like branches, solid colonies that are typically dome-shaped, and colonies that grow on the substrate (surface or material on or from which an organism lives).

Fire corals live at depths up to 120 feet in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans and the Caribbean Sea.

According to reef experts Paul Humann and Ned Deloach the three types of fire coral in the Caribbean are branching, blade and box. Another type of coral, lace coral, lacks the “batteries of stingers” of fire coral. Lace corals can irritate sensitive skin but are not considered toxic to divers. The Florida Museum of National History says the branching and blade varieties are found in Florida’s waters.

Fire corals have different appearances. Some grow in small, bubble like patches on other corals. Some look like seaweed. Others grow in thin branches and may have small or large bubble shapes at the end of each branch. Certain fire corals appear like large, stiff leaves.

Reef-building fire corals may appear green, cream, yellow or orange. Species with branches have hollow cores that can be easily broken. Other types of fire coral form thick colonies capable of withstanding the movement of waves.

The stinging cells of fire corals are used to capture prey, which are then engulfed by the corals’ specialized feeding polyps.

Like other coral, fire coral also gets nutrients because of its special relationship with certain types of algae that live on it. The coral gets oxygen and food. The algae get a secure place to live and compounds for photosynthesis (the process by which green plants and some other organisms use sunlight to synthesize foods from carbon dioxide and water).

Reproduction is more complex in fire corals than other corals. The polyps reproduce asexually (without the union of male and female eggs and sperm) producing jellyfish-like medusa.

The medusa contains the reproductive organs that release eggs and sperm into the water. Fertilized eggs develop into free-swimming larvae that eventually settle on the substrate and form new colonies. Fire corals can also reproduce asexually by fragmentation. (

Fire corals face the same threats as other corals reefs including: poor land management practices that cause the release of sediment, nutrients and pollutants into the oceans; overfishing resulting in the increase of macro-algae; destructive fishing techniques that damage the coral; and, bleaching.

Many types of fire coral are brittle and can be broken by storms and unintentionally by scuba divers. But, sometimes the damage is intentional.

In Brazil, fire coral colonies are extensively damaged when yellowtail damselfish are captured for the aquarium trade. “They are often deliberately smashed and fishes hiding amongst the branches are ‘shaken out’ into plastic bags.” (See earlier site at

Because fire corals are important to the health of the world’s reefs they are protected in many locations. “All species of stony corals (scientific order Scleractinia), including fire corals (Genus Millepora), as well as sea fans of the species Gorgonia flabellum and Gorgonia ventalina, are protected from take, attempted take, destruction, sale, attempted sale or possession under Florida Administrative Code Rule 68B-4216.” (

All new divers are taught the importance of good buoyancy control to avoid placing their hands or other body parts where they may harm them, ocean creatures or the fragile reef.

But, as occurred to the lady diver at the start of this column, accidents do happen. It is a good idea, even in warm water, to wear a thin protective wetsuit and gloves if holding onto a mooring line is necessary. That said, some dive locations prohibit gloves to discourage touching or holding onto the reef.

There are some first aid treatments if you do happen to get stung by a fire coral.

▪  Rinse the affected area with vinegar or use a paste of baking soda.

▪  Remove any fragments taking care to avoid direct contact with bare fingers or hands – wear gloves or use tweezers if available.

▪  Hot water, heat packs, cold packs or ice may give some pain relief – do not place ice or unheated freshwater directly on affected skin. Rinse again with vinegar.

▪  Certain over the counter cortisone creams may be helpful but, if uncertain, check with a knowledgeable physician or pharmacist before applying the cream

▪  Notify a physician if you have a serious allergic reaction or develop a fever.

▪  Proper cleansing is very important. The most frequent complications from non-stinging coral scrapes are inflammation, which leads to poor healing and possibly a secondary infection.

The Divers Alert Network provides information on first aid for marine life injuries. The organization’s website is:

A quick reference for “The Dos and Don’ts for Treating Aquatic Stings” is:

An on-line source of information on fire corals can be seen at:

*Reef Coral Identification, authored by Paul Humann and Ned Deloach, founders of Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), is available from REEF through the organizations website ( or its Key Largo Store, 98300 Overseas Hwy | Key Largo, FL 33037



Scuba Diving In The Bahamas –

The Bahamas… if anyplace in the world is said to have multiple personalities, it would be the Bahamas. With over 3,000 islands and cays, there are many ways it can be different. The Commonwealth of the Bahamas is a part of the Commonwealth of Nations, formerly called the British Commonwealth. While they drive on the right-hand side of the road. The Commonwealth of the Bahamas and the British Overseas Territory Turks and Caicos inhabit the Lucayan Archipelago. The Archipelago is included in the West Indies, however, it is not a part of the Caribbean. However, most people including those from the Bahamas do consider it a part of the Caribbean. Many Bahamians look at their country as two distinct parts: the main islands and the Out Islands. Each with a different lifestyle and culture. For the tourist and more importantly the scuba diver two very different vacation experiences. The tourism industry is the largest employment sector with over 50% of the jobs being in this industry. Second is the finance sector.

Bahamas Main Islands

The Main Islands of the Bahamas are Grand Bahama Island and New Providence Island along with a few nearby cays and islands. The population of the Bahamas is about 400,000 and 80% of those people live in the Main Islands. Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, is located on New Providence Island. This island and the connected small Paradise Island is home to over 70% of the countries population. Nassau is also the center of tourism in the Bahamas. You will find casinos, luxury shopping and hotel chains here. Nassau is the busiest cruise port in the world and 70% of the countries tourist are cruise ship passengers. Grand Bahama Island is the home of the city of Freeport and about 10% of the population.


Darby Island and Rudder Cut Cay, Exumas Photograph by Christina Hawkins

Darby Island and Rudder Cut Cay, Exumas
Photograph by Christina Hawkins

Diving Bahamas Main Islands

Diving in the Main Islands is legendary. There have been so many underwater scenes filmed around New Providence Island, including iconic scenes in James Bond movies, it is often called “Underwater Hollywood”. Many of the best dive sites are on the western edge of the island and are near the area known as the Tongue of the Ocean. The Tongue of the Ocean is a

The Tongue of the Ocean is a deep-water trench that is between Andros Island and New Providence Island. The reefs around New Province Island are generally in the 60 to 80-foot range. Whereas the floor of the Tongue of the Ocean is between 3,600 feet (1,100 m) to 6,600 feet (2,000 m) deep. The reefs benefit from the deep water as nutrients are brought from the depths. Sharks and other pelagic also visit the shallow reefs. Expect to see sharks on just about every dive. Looking over the edge of the reef into deep water you may see some of them way below you. There really is some great wall dives here.

Meanwhile, Grand Bahamas Island also has a great reputation for scuba diving. The Underwater Explorer Society (UNEXSO) has been in business for over 50 years and is considered the pioneer in shark feeding. They introduced hand feed of sharks in 1993 and are still doing it. They offer a range of shark diving and also diving with dolphins.

The Out Islands – Family Islands

Once you exclude the two main islands and their few nearby cays, the rest are what is called the Out Islands. You will also see them call the Family Islands. Only one percent of these 3,000 islands are considered inhabited. Many of the “uninhabited island” do have homes on them, often a single residence for a wealthy individual. Andros is the fifth largest island in the West Indies and largest of the islands in the Bahamas, many times the size of both of the Main Islands together. While ten percent of the country’s population live on the island, it’s large size means great portions of it are not inhabited.

Eleuthera and the Exuma Cays are also destinations know for its diving. The Exuma Cays start about 35 miles southeast of Nassau. The archipelago of about 365 cays and islands are separated into three sections and they span about 80 miles north to south. Resorts here are more relax and do not have the commercialism you will find in the Main Islands.

The Bimini Islands are the closest to the US mainland and may be the most known of the Family Islands. Here you will find a mix of small resorts and large scale resort complexes. The area is also considered one of the best sport fishing destinations in the world.


deans blue hole bahamas

Dean’s Blue Hole on Long Island Bahamas. A short distance from shore the Blue Hole drops to 663 feet (203 meters). Photograph by Christian Afonso

Diving the Family Islands

Diving the Family Islands/ Out Islands offers such a range of diving opportunities it hard to believe it is all the same country. Eleuthera and the Exuma Cays are on the eastern side of the Bahamas with direct access to the Atlantic Ocean. This can create some robust diving conditions. However, the western side of the islands are protected and can have calm conditions. This area is a favorite for those seeking a liveaboard destination.

Andros provides the diver many different options. As mentioned the Tongue of the Ocean is between this island and New Province Island. On the Andros side of the Tongue, you will find what is called the Andros Fringing Barrier Reef. This reef system is 190 miles long and is considered one of the healthiest reefs in the world. It extends from near the shoreline of Andros to the Tongue of the Ocean. Some marketing claims it is the third largest reef system in the world. This is hard to confirm as the reef does not meet the definition of a barrier reef nor a fringing reef but is somewhat a hybrid of the two. The reef’s many dive sites both along the wall and closer ashore give divers many types of dives to choose from.

Another aspect of diving Andros is that it has the largest concentration of blue holes in the world. Some of these blue holes are located on land providing an experience similar to the cenotes of Mexico. Others are located in shallow waters and allow divers to drop beyond recreational diving depths. Caver divers will find many underwater cave systems to keep themselves challenged.

Sharks are one of the big draws to the Bimini Islands. Located less than 60 miles from Florida, it is on the deep side of the Florida barrier reef. This deep water is a migratory route for many shark species including hammerheads and great whites. Florida has made shark feeding illegal in the states waters so many of the Florida dive operators have relocated its shark feeding to the waters off Bimini islands. Other large pelagic are found here and the wall diving is incredible.

You can spend years diving the Out Islands and still be amazed what you can find. The many shallow coral reefs and cays have created thousands of ship wrecks many still waiting to be discovered. Wall dives, ship wrecks, caves, coral reefs, drift dives are all waiting for you.


Eagle’s Nest Florida – DEADLY?!

Anne Schindler is on your side. 2/2/2017

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“It’s a very primal, primal fear,” Dr. Andrew Pitkin says. “Being in a small space filled with water. It absolutely horrifies people.”

It’s a fear that Pitkin understands, but does not share. He’s grown comfortable in some of earth’s most inhospitable places: Underwater caves that are more than 300 feet deep and several miles from any surface opening.

Pitkin is part of a small fraternity of explorer-level cave divers. He and his colleague Brett Hemphill, with the nonprofit Karst Underwater Research group, have mapped miles of previously unexplored caves, scouting the Swiss-cheese architecture of Florida’s underground springs, all while pushing the boundaries of endurance and human imagination.

“It’s a deep dark place,” Pitkin observes. “The typical reaction is, ‘You would never catch me doing that.’”


On a warm winter morning, Pitkin and Hemphill sit on a wooden platform near the entrance to one of Florida’s most notorious and lethal caves: Eagle’s Nest. Its entrance – a placid pond – looks as benign as a Florida swimming hole.

Located deep in the woods of Hernando County, Eagle’s Nest claimed the lives of two experienced divers last October. Last month – just days after the men spoke to First Coast News – another diver was killed, marking the 11th known death at Eagle’s Nest.

“Whenever there’s a cave diving fatality, the general public will go, ‘Oooh, I would never do that! So close it,’” Hemphill notes.

The state did close the site between 1999 to 2003. It was reopened at the urging of divers. However, calls to close it again surfaced after the Christmas 2013 deaths of Darrin Spivey, 35, and his 15-year-old son. The October 2016 deaths of Patrick Peacock and Chris Rittenmeyer, both experienced divers, prompted an online petition urging Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to close or regulate it. And on Jan. 8, Charles Odom died while surfacing from a dive.

“How many more lives need to be lost for this place to be closed?” asks the petition.

“It’s natural to want to blame something – ‘the evil cave’ – for what happened,” Pitkin says. “But it’s not appropriate, any more than it’s appropriate to blame a mountain someone falls off.”

Pitkin notes that nearly 300 people have died trying to summit Mount Everest, but nobody is pushing to close that natural wonder.

“They say ‘It’s a mountain, what do you expect?” Pitkin says.


Deadly to some, Eagle’s Nest isn’t even all that challenging to the most experienced divers like Pitkin and Hemphill.

“It’s like a stroll in the park for us, really,” Pitkin says. “If you know what you’re doing, it’s as safe as any other cave.”

The problem, they say, is few divers really do know what they’re doing. Caves are not simply “next level” dives for the scuba-certified. The overhead environment of a cave like Eagle’s Nest means there is only one way out. That exit can be hard to find, even with a guide wire.

The caves are pitch black. And while some portions are so narrow divers must squeeze through, other sections are large enough to drive a tractor-trailer through. They are also full of rushing water, with currents strong enough that that divers use underwater scooters to pull them along. Every finstroke can kick up silt, turning the crystal-clear caves into blind alleys.

Take a timelapse tour through a portion of Eagle’s Nest, described as “the Mount Everest” of underwater caves. Video: Andrew Pitkin


Divers can also get out of their depth easily, and those using ordinary dive gear (open-circuit scuba) are at risk of nitrogen narcosis, which causes severe mental impairment. Even rising to the surface can be dangerous, so divers must decompress. If not, a quick ascent can cause air bubbles to bloom in the bloodstream, leading to paralysis or even death.

“The best way to explain it is if you have a two-liter bottle of pop,” Hemphill explains. “You shake it up, you never see the bubbles because it’s under pressure. But the moment you open the top, you see those bubbles form. We become those vessels underwater.”

To help with decompression, Pitkin and Hemphill use rebreathers, which recycle unused oxygen and add in helium. The so-called closed circuit scuba allows them to stay under for as long as 20 hours. Long dives come with their own hazards – particularly fatigue – and require extended decompression times. Every 15 minutes the divers spend underwater can require a full hour of decompression.

“A dive may only be two to three hours, but because it was two to three hours at 300 feet, we have to do another 10 to 12 hours or so of decompression,” Pitkin explains. “That’s a lot of sitting around not doing much, but it’s simple physics. We can’t change that.”

None of these tangible hazards even factor in panic, which some people begin to experience just hearing about these dives. Pitkin says a gradual and reasoned approach to diving helps them prepare for the unexpected.

“We have a healthy fear of the environment,” he says. “Fear may be a strong word, but profound respect.”

Experienced divers, Brett Hemphill and Andrew Pitkin explain why divers need to decompress


Do they have cave diving nightmares? Both men insist they do not, but some real life moments are close enough.

Because cave diving is so specialized and potentially hazardous, it’s beyond the skill-set of ordinary law enforcement dive teams. Both Pitkin and Hemphill are trained recovery divers. They are able to document a scene and bring bodies to the surface, according to law enforcement guidelines.

Hemphill has had to use that grim skill set several times, including at Eagle’s Nest.

“It doesn’t really affect you until you get home, and you go to bed and wake up and see your kids the next day,” Hemphill says. “For me, it’s helped me. I don’t want to be that person.”

The divers recover bodies at their own expense, which can cost thousands of dollars, depending on the length and intensity of the dive. Given the difficulty of navigating some cave passages, the work of bringing up a body can be both physically and emotionally taxing.

“You’ve also got to be a very competent diver to get to the place where those people are and sometimes that’s not a very straightforward place,” Pitkin says. “It may be very deep. It may be very far back. It may be in a very difficult part of the cave.”

Such was the case with the October deaths of Patrick Peacock and Chris Rittenmeyer, who explored a section of cave first discovered by Pitkin. According to the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, the divers made it 1,300 feet into the cave before running into trouble. They say Peacock shed his tanks – presumably because he got stuck – and the two men attempted to exit while ‘buddy breathing.”

“He had left his rebreather, his open-circuit scuba, and his buoyancy compensation, literally left it laying in the dirt completely intact, completely functioning,” Hemphill says. “At that point, they made an attempt to exit, with one diver 100 percent impaired.”

Their bodies were found 550 feet from the entrance, just shy of where they’d staged a spare tank of oxygen.

“They very nearly made it, which was one of the saddest things about the whole episode,” Pitkin says. “His buddy stayed with him, and tried to help him the whole way. And finally, they both ran out [of air].”


The reputation of Eagle’s Nest can make it a target for those who would like to close it. Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis says he’s familiar with the petition, but doesn’t favor it.

“I think it would be tragic if it was closed,” he says. “It’s alluring, much like mountain climbing, to be one of very few people who’ve ever seen that.”

For Hemphill and Pitkin, the beauty of the caves is certainly a draw, as is the thrill of exploration. But they are also at work. Karst Underwater Research maps caves and measures water flow, data they then provide to the state’s Water Management Districts. It’s information they hope helps protect the state’s fragile underwater caves, which are home to the state’s primary drinking water supply, the Floridan Aquifer.

“Everything we do – exploration, survey, documentation, photography, whatever it happens to be – that’s important information,” Hemphill says. “In the world we live in, truly the best way to protect something is to document it.”


Blue Star program helps guard our seas

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

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. (

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:

The details on Blue Star membership are available at:

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].




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