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LOCAL DIVING LOOE KEY A FLORIDA KEYS GEM Text and photos by Jim and Deb Garber After a week of diving Florida’s Upper Keys in rough conditions, we were encouraged by a forecast of diminishing winds and calming seas. The timing was perfect for a drive south through Marathon and over the Seven Mile Bridge past Bahia Honda State Park and on to Big Pine Key. The turquoise water and blue skies there are endless, and life slows to a true Keys pace. Colorful sponges and corals adorn the Adolphus Busch Sr., one of nine wrecks in the Florida Keys Wreck Trek. 36 | FALL 2016

The following morning we took a 30-minute boat ride south to Looe Key. As the first boat there, we had our choice of moorings and selected one at the west end of the reef. We were amazed by the conditions and initial sightings — a passing reef shark, a resident 400- pound goliath grouper in the shade under the boat and 90- to 100-foot visibility. It was a great start to some of the best diving we’ve had in the Florida Keys. Looe Key is a spur-and-groove reef with coral fingers that extend out to sea, separated by white-sand channels. Located 6 miles offshore of Big Pine Key and Ramrod Key, Looe Key is entirely submerged; the depth ranges from 7 feet to 30 feet. The reef is shallow, but that doesn’t preclude visits from large marine life such as reef sharks, spotted eagle rays, goliath groupers and big barracuda. Looe Key became a National Marine Sanctuary in 1981, following in the footsteps of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary that was established in 1975. Both areas were incorporated into the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which was designated in 1990. The Looe Key Existing Management Area covers 5.3 square nautical miles and includes the Looe Key Sanctuary Preservation Area (SPA) and the Looe Key Special-Use Research-Only Area. The sanctuary designation restricts spearfishing, lobster harvest and tropical fish collection and provides other protections for the reef. The research-only area is off limits to the public, giving scientists a controlled setting for studying the impacts of environmental change compared to those of human use. Good visibility is never guaranteed, but conditions were nothing short of spectacular during our visit. The reef’s coral fingers make navigating the site easy. The shallows are covered in fan and soft corals that undulate in synchronized movement with the surge. In deeper areas are stands of elkhorn corals shading schools of French grunts. These delicate, endangered corals are susceptible to disease and temperature stress. Corals thrive in a narrow temperature range, and coral bleaching can occur with sustained temperatures outside this range. Shallow reefs around the world, including Looe Key and others in the Florida Keys, are particularly susceptible to warming from higher ambient temperatures. We found transplanted nursery-grown staghorn corals along with star, brain and fire corals as well as small but pristine pillar corals. The reef is home to more than 150 species of fish. Grouper, parrotfish and hogfish are frequent customers at the plentiful cleaning stations. Abundant schools of sergeant majors, Atlantic spadefish, horse-eye jacks and midnight parrotfish pass through the reef. The inhabitants seem accustomed to divers, which is one of the pleasures of diving a marine protected area. The highlight of the day was a trio of spotted eagle rays that soared majestically just above the coral. We finished the day with a snorkel trip to American Shoal Lighthouse. The 109-foot-tall lighthouse, completed in 1880, sits in the middle of the sanctuary. Offshore of Sugarloaf Key, American Shoal stands in 5 feet of water and was the last of six lighthouses constructed in the Florida Keys to warn mariners of dangerously shallow reefs. The local birds, now the sole residents, aggregate on the structure to dry their wings in the sea breezes. In the flat sand and rubble beneath the lighthouse are the usual suspects: barracuda and Clockwise from upper left: Divers are often greeted by large goliath groupers waiting in the shade of dive boats. Large marine life such as reef sharks are frequent visitors to Looe Key, even in the shallows. A midnight parrotfish exits a cleaning station nestled in pillar coral. Schools of grunts huddle beneath large stands of elkhorn coral. ALERTDIVER.COM | 37