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Under the sea

Published by on September 26, 2004
Information about Lee County's artificial reef program.

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 Baltimore.

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 York."

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 Gulf diving.

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 from shore.

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 viz.

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.

Instead of coral reefs, we have wrecks, artificial reefs and natural ledges.

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 Pegasus.

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 name.

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 water.

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 Die.

Go online now and vote for the final installment.

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