Under the seaPublished by news-press.com on September
Many years ago, during a mindless bar conversation
with a much more urbane guy than I'll ever be, I mentioned that the
best pizza I'd ever eaten was at a place called Palms Pizza in
The urbane guy looked at me as if I were a
hopeless hillbilly and said snootily: "You can't get good pizza in
Baltimore; the only place you can get good pizza is New
I often get the same kind of reaction when I tell
other scuba divers that some of the best diving I've ever done has
been in the Gulf of Mexico off Lee County.
"You can't dive in the Gulf," the urbane divers
snootily tell me. "The only good diving is in ____" (fill in the
blank with some world-famous dive site that has swimming-pool-clear
water and dazzling coral reefs).
Before debunking the "can't
dive in the Gulf" myth and explaining why diving Lee County is one
of the Top 12 Things to Do in Southwest Florida Before You Die, I
need point out, without being snooty, that I have dived at a lot of
cool, and famous, places, such as the Bahamas, Roatan, Utila, Cayos
Cochinos, Bonaire, Colombia, Cozumel and the Keys, and I still say
some of the best dives I've ever made were in the Gulf.
Anyhow, anti-Gulf divers have two main beefs with
First is visibility, or "viz," which is the
distance a diver can see underwater.
OK, sure, visibility in
places famous for diving often exceeds 100 feet, while anybody who's
dived the Gulf much can tell you about dives when visibility was
less than a foot. Gulf divers consider 10 feet or more good
visibility — it's kind of scary and kind of fun wondering what's 11
feet away from you when the visibility is 10 feet.
One reason for bad Gulf visibility is that the the
water stays shallow for miles off Southwest Florida, and strong
winds easily stir up the sea floor; another is sediment-laden runoff
So, the best time to dive Southwest Florida is in
the spring, after winter storms have stopped whipping up the bottom,
and in the fall, after summer rains and their attendant gunk have
stopped running into the Gulf.
For real Caribbean visibility, go way offshore,
where the water is deep and usually unaffected by wind and runoff.
Once, in 100 feet of water 50 miles out, I could actually read the
name of the dive boat on the transom — now, that's good
Another beef about Gulf diving is that Southwest Florida
doesn't have coral reefs, which is true — reef-building corals need
water that's warmer and clearer than we get here.
coral reefs, we have wrecks, artificial reefs and natural
Lee County's Division of Natural Resources has
created a system of artificial reefs at 17 sites in the Gulf and two
in Charlotte Harbor. Structure at the sites includes railroad box
cars, barges, 28,000 tons of concrete rubble from the old Edison
Bridge, 25-foot-tall radio towers, concrete culverts and junction
boxes, and a 77-year-old 110-foot steel-hulled tugboat called the
These reefs, as well as the ledges and wrecks, are
fish magnets; Lee County scientists and volunteer fish counters have
documented more than 100 fish species great and small on artificial
reefs, including redfish, bluefish, yellowhead jawfish, toadfish,
soapfish, bucktooth parrotfish and pygmy sea bass.
One of the biggest (in every sense of the word)
draws for local divers is the goliath grouper, which can be 8 feet
long and weigh 800 pounds — until 2001, goliath grouper were called
jewfish, but in a fit of ethnic sensitivity, the Committee of Names
of Fishes of the American Fisheries Society changed the
Overfishing, especially by divers with explosive
powerheads, almost wiped the species out in the 1980s, and killing a
goliath grouper has been illegal since 1990.
The big fish
have made a big comeback, and Southwest Florida is their center of
abundance (a scientific term meaning the place where more of them
hang out than any place else). It's almost impossible to make a dive
off Lee County and not see at least one goliath grouper.
Kevin Lollar / The News-Press
• Roused by a
photographer's strobe, a barnacle-studded loggerhead sea turtle
rises from the sea floor.
• Diver Dave Sommer comes eye to eye with a
goliath grouper at Lee County's ARC Radio Towers artificial reef
site. Lorraine Sommer says she shot this photo with a Sea & Sea
Motor Marine II with a 20 mm lens and a YS60 strobe.
• Mangrove snapper, spadefish and amberjack swarm
around a heavily encrusted Evan Thompson reef unit at the School Bus
No. 2 artificial reef site. Lee County marine biologists sank two of
the concrete-piling reef units 18 months ago in 65 feet of
KEVIN LOLLAR/ The News-Press
• Reporter Kevin Lollar unties a buoy line from a
reef ball June 11. The Lee County Division of Natural Resources
deployed 84 of the pre-fabricated structures at the ARC Barge reef
site, 15 miles off Sanibel in 60 feet of water
• The News-Press and NBC2 have teamed up to give
you the Top 12 Things to do in Southwest Florida before you
• Go online now and vote for the
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