Saturday May 8, 2011 - Baggin' Some Bugs!
Welcome to my second blog of the 2011 season where I will be writing a few stories and showing some photos from this past weekend of diving with Olympus Dive Center (visit www.olympusdiving.com). Please refer to my previous blog and visit this link to learn more about myself: http://www.evolutionunderwater.com/Information/Biography
The season here is only just getting warmed up and business is not yet at full speed. Since there was not enough passengers to fill both dive boats, the "Olympus" and the "Midnight Express", it was decided to utilize the "Midnight" on Saturday and the "Olympus" on Sunday. Normally, I'm the captain of the "Midnight Express" with Olympus Dive Center but my boss, Capt Robert Purifoy, commandeered 'my' vessel on Saturday for the days charter. I was facing either the prospect of sitting behind my desk on a beautiful day at my computer editing photos, writing blogs and marketing my work or joining the "Midnight" for a day of diving. It was a no brainer decision. I sucked up my pride and accepted my demotion from captain to relief deck hand for the day so I could get out on the ocean and do a bit of diving. Alas the sacrifices we make!
|The "Midnight Express" and Olympus Dive Center.|
|"Bud" and the "Olympus"|
Once in a while we at Olympus try to schedule specialty dives. The dives this weekend were pre scheduled as lobster and spearfishing charters. On Saturday the plan was to deviate from diving the wrecks that are the popular draw here and head south to some of the ledges that line the seafloor. Despite what many people might think, the ocean floor is more than just silt and mud. There are plenty of rock ledges scattered all up and down the coast line that have prolific marine life that inhabit them. The ledges range in height from a few feet up to 15 feet off the bottom and if you head further enough offshore Spiny Lobsters can be found hiding within the crevices. With the right weather and sea conditions diving for Spiny's on the ledges is tons of fun not to mention a delicious meal that can be had for those who are lucky to bag one.
The "Midnight" left the dock with Capt Robert at the helm as scheduled at 0630 AM to start the long trek to the dive locations. As we proceeded south towards our waypoint the gentle northern wind we experienced in shore became stiffer and stiffer the further we ventured offshore causing the seas to build gradually. It did not help matters that a large ground swell coming from the south only turned the sea in to a Maytag washer machine. It was deemed by Capt Robert that diving the ledges today was not going to happen and in the name of comfort and safety the "Midnight" turned off and chose dive locations near shore where they would be protected on the lee of of land. The wreck of the Ario, AKA Hutton, was chosen as the first dive location. Lobsters would not be on the agenda anymore today but many of the divers were avid spear fishermen who would be seeking Grouper, Flounder and Sheepshead to fill there game bags.
|Captain Robert Purifoy at the helm of the "Midnight Express".|
The "Ario" was a US merchant ship that was sunk by a German U Boat in WWII and now lies in about 70 feet of water 10 miles from land. The US Navy during the War depth charged and wire dragged the wreck in order to knock it down due to it being a navigational hazard. Today the wreck is a 400 ' long twisted pile of metal making the numerous cracks and crevices a brilliant fish haven. When there is a wreck with plenty of fish on it you will find divers seeking out those fish for there dinner tables.
As with hunting on land for game, hunting underwater can satisfy the primitive instinct of catching your own food supply. Taking a trip to the grocery store is easy and in many cases much cheaper than having to capture your own food but it lacks the excitement and the fulfillment of hunter gatherer instinct that some humans still possess. In the hands of a responsible discriminate diver and when fishing laws and quotas are obeyed spearfishing is an environmentally friendly form of fishing. Some call it "release and catch" fishing rather than "catch and release". A diver can select his fish before hooking or netting it and eliminate unwanted fish or whats called bycatch.
The "Midnight" made its way to the Ario in good time and Danny, the mate jumped in to set the hook on the captains order. Danny secured the boat to the wreck and then reported on the com that there was about 25 foot of visibility with water temp around 68 degrees on the bottom. Not bad at all for a dive in May. Soon after Capt Robert was giving a dive briefing to the divers before letting them jump in. Our primary concern for everyone at all times is safety and we at Olympus go out of our way to make sure the diving is as safe as possible. Once all had been briefed it was time for them to make the jump.
One at a time they step up to the entry point and do a last minute check. Some grab their speargun and with the "killer" instinct on there faces. With a giant step they disappear underwater.
After about 45 minutes divers began returning to the boat many of which with nothing to show for there catch in the way of dinner. But that didn't seem to matter to most. Being there and making the effort was satisfying in its own way. It was a great dive and an even better day on the ocean.
|Divers returning from another great dive.|
Once all had returned it was my turn to make the jump. After debating for some time "should I take photos or shoot fish?" I decided to try my hand at fishing. I grabbed my gun and headed for the bottom. This was my first dives of the 2011 season and the shock of the cold water took a few minutes to wear off. Some of you might be saying "68 degrees is cold? What a wimp". I will admit after spending the last ten years working and living over seas in the tropics my blood had thinned a tad. I prefer the warm water when I can get it but won't avoid diving in cooler water when presented with a great diving prospect. So I donned the hooded vest, manned up and made the splash.
Once I made it to the bottom I had a swim around for a while and spotted some very large Sheepshead, a few Black Sea Bass (which are not in season until June 1) and a Trigger Fish or two to name a few. I bypassed all of them in search of my preferred catch a juicy Grouper. Unfortunately, they would elude me for today. I returned to the boat after about 25 minutes and helped get the Midnight under way.
|Mate, Danny jumping in to retrieve the anchor.|
|Danny splashing down.|
We moved only a few miles over to the next site, the wreck of the "Suloide", which was also a casualty wreck from WWII that is very similar in layout as the "Ario". " On this dive divers were able to score some nice Flounder that evidently weren't able to camouflage themselves so well. With a few nice fish in the cooler the "Midnight" finished the day up and headed back to the dock.
Even though we did not manage to get to the preferred dive location and try our hand at some lobsters most all had a great time all the same. I asked a few divers during the day "how was your dive?" and one answered "any dive is a great dive". That's an attitude to live by.
Sunday May 9, 2011
With the "Midnight" at the dock today, many of the same bunch of guys left over from the previous days charter (including myself) and a few new ones joined the "Olympus" captained by Robert Purifoy. The boat left the dock at 0630 again but this time with great weather that would allow us to reach our desired location "The Lobster Wreck". I hope no one asks me "why do they call it the Lobster Wreck?" because I don't think I could hide my cynicism when I answer them. "The Lobster Wreck" is over 50 nautical miles from Beaufort Inlet in Morehead City but well worth the drive considering the photos of giant lobsters caught there that have adorned the wall of the dive shop over the years. The wreck is also known for an abundance of marine life such as Groupers, Pompano and Cobia.
|Mate Bud Daniels preparing to set the hook.|
All the passengers found themselves a comfortable spot to relax and maybe even grab some shut eye during the three hour passage south west. The Olympus reached the wreck as scheduled and in no time managed to get the boat secured and the passengers briefed with the help of the mates "Bud" and Danny. The conditions were 60-70 feet of visibility until within 20 feet of the bottom and then the viz dropped to a mere 15-20 feet but no one seemed to care and all entered the water eagerly with game bags and spearguns in hand. This dive has a maximum depth of 120 feet with little relief so bottom times are cut a little shorter. Once again I stayed up with the boat and waited for the divers to return. As the first few made it back to the deck of the Olympus it became apparent that a great dive had just played itself out based on the 10-15 pound 'bugs' being pulled out of the bags. I took a few pics of the excited divers before they stowed there catch in the iced coolers up top.
|Catch of the day.|
For many divers the fun on the bottom was only part of the experience. While many were doing there safety stops under the boat a pod of Dolphins buzzed them coming within several feet on one pass. After more than 15 years in the diving business I have yet to see another marine critter like Dolphins that can reduce even the toughest person to childlike state of excitement at the site of them. "Oooooh Dolphins" the 250 pound tattooed diver holding a 6 foot speargun standing next to me says. Priceless! What's not to love about them though really? These sentient creatures with out a doubt are considerably more evolved than most species and maybe even ourselves.
|"Ooooh look Dolphins!"|
|Time to dry off.|
Considering the success of the first dive it was decided that a second dive on the "Lobster Wreck" was in order. During the two hour surface interval I jumped in for a dive carrying my speargun instead of my camera. I would be shooting at the fish with a different tool on this dive. Once I got to the bottom the first thing I noticed was an abundance of Lionfish inhabiting the wreck. Lionfish are an invasive species that have been causing much "hub bub" with marine scientists. This will be a topic of a future blog so stay tuned for more on that.
After swimming the length of the wreck I spotted a few small Grouper off in the distance but not much else. Capt Robert, who was also diving at the same time as I, must have been pleased as punch based on the nice size lobster I eyed clinging to the inside of his game bag when I passed him heading back to the anchor line. We both started heading up around the same time and ascended to about 60 feet when all of a sudden a large school of Amberjacks swam up for a closer inspection of the strange creatures emitting bubbles and making lots of noise. Right behind them was an even larger school of the Amberjacks cousin, the African Pompano. (see link http://www.championbass.com/encyclopedia/african_pompano.html) These highly reflective metallic fish are a stunning looking and even more so when traveling in large schools. It was quite a site to see at least two dozen or more of them gracefully swimming by. It gets even better though. Three large Cobia (see link http://www.championbass.com/encyclopedia/cobia.html) suddenly approached me from within the school of Pompano. Cobia are a tasty eating fish and I decided I would take one for the dinner table. The Cobia swam in pretty close and I managed to get a shot off easy enough but the hard work just started. After struggling for a few minutes I was able to string the fish up and get control of him. Knowing that Robert was looking on the entire time took some of the pressure off since he could assist me if there was any trouble. All went pretty smooth and then we looked out in to the blue water and spotted what looked like a Reef Shark snooping around curious about the commotion. It was time to ascend to the boat and get the bloody fish put on to some ice. Let it be said that I enjoy spearfishing and not because of the killing. That is the least fulfilling aspect of it. I have always had a deep respect for all things living and game fish are no exception.
|The one that got away.|
Due to the popular first dive, everyone kitted up for the second dive on schedule and grabbed the game bags and headed back to the "Lobster Wreck" to try there hand again at bagging a few bugs. The weather held out nicely and surface conditions were adequate. The divers returned one by one all with there own accounts of another fabulous dive and some even managed to land a few nice lobsters as well.
Mission accomplished. The Olympus pulled anchor and headed back to Morehead City with a bunch of jumbo Spiny's chillin' on ice and a 35 pound Cobia hogging up equal space. It was a great day on the Lobster Wreck.
|A thumbs up from this diver.|
|Another fun dive notched up.|
After loading up a few pounds of fish in the freezer with my handy dandy Foodsaver bagger I cooked up some fresh Thai style Cobia Curry over Bismati Rice and washed it down with a cold Corona with a lime wedge. Life is good!
Please visit www.evolutionunderwater.com to see Mike's complete photographic portfolio and excerpts from his documentary films.
Stay tuned for more dive tales from Mike Gerken and Olympus Dive Center.