September 9, 2011 - What Lionfish?

To all those who are new to my blog, to get the gist of it please read, "Welcome Aboard" from the May 1, 2011 posting and peruse a few of my other Dive Blog Reports from weeks past. See side bar to the right for a list of reports.

Visit to see video shorts highlighting the shark action from the 2011 season at Olympus Dive Center.  
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Olympus Dive Center in Morehead City, NC.

     Captain Robert Purifoy, the proprietor of Olympus Dive Center, had to make a tough decision over Labor Day weekend regarding wether or not to run charters on this busy last weekend of summer. On Friday, before the weekend kicked in, on September 2nd Robert ran a charter on the M/V Olympus less than one week after Hurricane 'Irene' tore through the region creating 25 foot seas over our beloved wreck sites. Needless to say the turbidity that such swells creates tends to ruin visibility on the wrecks for many days afterwards. The Olympus made way out to the wreck of the W.E. Hutton aka Papoose.  At 32 nautical miles due south of Beaufort Inlet, NC, the Papoose is the furthest from offshore we will venture on a regular days charter.  Captain Robert had hoped to find the best visibility available by running as far out as he could. Another possible advantage the Papoose offers is 30 feet of relief from the sea bed. When silt is stirred up, as it begins to settle out it creates a layer lower to the sea bed with better viz the shallower you go. Despite the effort, it was discovered by the Olympus mate, Bud Daniels, that the visibility on the bottom was less than five feet with not much better conditions up shallower. The Olympus then headed over to the next best bet, the wreck of the USCG Cutter Spar to try there luck there. The Spar is about 8 miles closer to the beach but also has at least 30-35 feet of relief from the bottom. As luck would have it they encountered enough visibility, at around 5-10 feet and maybe a little better at the top of the super structure, to tie up to the Spar and conduct a dive. Word came over the radio that the wreck of the German U-boat, the U-352 had less than one foot of viz on the bottom and was not diveable at all. So the Olympus stayed on the Spar and made two dives with a mixed reaction from the passengers. Some made the best of it and had good dives while others were understandably disappointed but appreciative of the effort made by Capt Robert and were glad to just be diving. What can be said was that Captain Robert pulled out all the stops and did his best to get divers offshore to do what they came here to do and that was to dive. On a side note, Hurricane 'Irene' moved the Spar 200 feet from her previous location with a 45 degree list to port where before she once stood straight up. The force of the ocean is incredible. With the Spar in a new spot and laying differently it opens up some new photo ops for sure.  
Annette Papa on the wreck of the Spar
prior to Hurricane Irene. (stock)
     As for the rest of the Labor Day weekend, it must have been a tough decision but, Captain Robert cancelled all the diving due to the low 'viz'. Trust me, it hurt us as much as it hurt you but customer satisfaction and safety are our primary concerns at Olympus Dive Center.  With this said, the 2011 dive season is not over. Hurricane 'Katia', which as of press time is forecasted to get pushed offshore and back to sea delivering some minor ground swell to the NC Coast. This coming weekend and beyond could be a go for both the Olympus and my boat the Midnight Express. Hurricanes and storms are nothing new to the Outer Banks and let me reassure you once the visibility clears up and the season gets going again you can expect some great dive conditions. So don't stash the dive gear away just yet. Give us a call, get the latest conditions and come out for a dive.

What Lion Fish?
     Once again, the Midnight Express has been stuck at the dock since the last Dive Blog Report due to open bookings and weather trouble so I have nothing new to report. This has given me the time this week to write about a topic that many of my passengers inquire about with frequency over the years. "Have you seen any Lionfish?", I get asked regularly. "What Lionfish?" I say jokingly. Since there discovery in 2000 off the coast of North Carolina, Lionfish have caused quite a stir with divers, the media and scientists. 
North Carolina Lionfish or Pterois.
Photo taken on 8/15/2009 on the wreck of the
W.E. Hutton, aka Papoose.

     Lionfish or the latin name Pterois is classified in to fifteen different species with only two of them located on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and the Caribbean. Previous to there discovery in the North Atlantic they were indigenous only to the Indo-Pacific Oceans. Lionfish are known for there long sharp spines that happen to pack a poisonous wallop if a clumsy handler or fish gets stung by one. I have never heard of any major injuries from those who had gotten stung but I had heard it can really ruin your day. No one knows how Lionfish came to be off the East Coast of the US and eventually all throughout the Caribbean. Some theorize they were released by aquarium enthusiasts in Florida and then hitched a ride on the Gulf Stream currents all the way up as far away as Rhode Island. Juveniles are often spotted there as well as Long Island, NY during the warm summer months. The other theory is they were stowaways in cargo ships ballast tanks. Ballast tanks carry sea water in place of cargo when empty so there hulls will ride deeper hence giving them better stability. The ballast water is flushed out when they prepare to take on cargo allowing whatever is in the water to be released.  If a Lionfish was carrying eggs, 'Voila' Lionfish Invasion! This article however is not a debate as to how they arrived or who saw them first. I'm merely reporting stories I have gathered from people who were there when they were first sighted and passing on my own observations.
North Carolina Lionfish or Pterois.
Photo taken on 8/15/2009 on the wreck of the
W.E. Hutton, aka Papoose.

     As for me, the first time I ever heard of a Lionfish being spotted off the east coast of North Carolina was in the summer of 2001 while working as a mate for Capt Robert on the vessel I captain today, the Midnight Express. I heard some talk on the VHF radio about Lionfish sightings on some of the wrecks but didn't pay much mind to the chatter. Eventually, I saw Lionfish on the wrecks with my own two eyes during that first season and, of course, I started to believe the rumors. As the years rolled on I began to see newspaper and television stories on the subject and continued to speak to divers over seas and at home who would talk of the Lionfish invasion. "Hey did you hear about Lionfish in the Atlantic" divers would say to me during small talk. I would brag of course, "I was there when they were first spotted". You see, anytime an invasive species is found in the world it causes a lot of understandable stress. Rabbits were introduced to Australia in the late 19th century and nearly wiped out farmers crops. Zebra muscles indigenous to eastern European waterways were introduced to the Great Lakes in the US about 25-30 years ago creating terrible damage to the fishing industry and to any structure that had plumbing or pumping systems by fouling up the intake pumps. So when Lionfish were discovered in the North Atlantic scientists started to take notice. "what kind of trouble could they cause?", was asked. Potentially they could do a lot of damage to commercial fishing since Lionfish have a gluttonous appetite and love to eat just about anything including juvenile Grouper, Snapper and many other commercially valuable fish species.
The first documented image of a
Lionfish off the Carolina
Coast taken on August 10, 2000.
Photo courtesy of Darryl and Trish Boyer
via Renate Edwards.

     The first documented sighting of a Lionfish was on the wreck of the Naeco some 36 nautical miles south of Beaufort Inlet, NC by Darryl and Trish Boyer while diving from the dive charter vessel Atlantis IV. They even managed to take a photo of the specimen and later have it confirmed by an aquarist at the Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium. It had been reported that Lionfish had been spotted in Florida prior to this sighting but I have yet to find any research on this. I had heard another story from Captain Robert himself that in 1999, a year prior to the Boyers sighting, that he had seen one on the wreck of the W.E. Hutton aka Papoose while searching for sharks teeth. He said to himself "Sometimes you see the darndest things" when he saw the Lionfish swim by. Unfortunately for him he did not take any photos or video nor did he even report the sighting to anyone in particular so it was never officially documented.
     Sometime in August or September of 2001, avid diver and fish collector, John Wisniewski went on a mission to recover the first known live specimen for scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for them to study. I was present on board the dive vessel Olympus captained by the late George Purifoy when John went in on the wreck of the Papoose to recover a Lionfish. He returned after his first dive with a live specimen and handed it over to scientist, Paula Whitfield of NOAA later that day and actually got paid a bounty for the fish. Paula to this day is one of the leading authorities on North Atlantic Lionfish. At this time NOAA's heads were perked up and they wanted to know which species it was and how the heck did it get there and with a live specimen they could certainly learn a lot more. I remember staring at this rather small fish in the cooler wondering "where did you come from anyway?" I had seen Lionfish before on many occasions while living and working in Mozambique, Africa in the year 2000. They were common on most reef dives. The first time you see a fish like this you are intrigued to say the least. The 500th time you see one the intrigue starts to wane.
North Carolina Lionfish or Pterois.
Photo taken on 8/15/2009 on the wreck of the
W.E. Hutton, aka Papoose.
    After these early sightings in 2001, every year there after more and more documented sightings had been made off North Carolina on more wrecks sights over a wider area. With this increase in population over several years it became apparent that Lionfish were really enjoying their new digs off the Outer Banks of NC and were thriving unmolested. It was also determined that Lionfish have no known predator combined with abundant food sources allowing them unlimited growth. "What to do about the Lionfish problem?", became the big question amongst scientists, commercial fisherman and anyone who stood a chance to be harmed by this invasion. 
    During these early years the Lionfish epidemic spread like wild fire throughout the Caribbean and is still going strong today and is taking a serious toll on the indigenous marine life threatening to wipe out fishing and recreational diving industries wherever they proliferate. Reefs in the Caribbean pretty soon were reporting to be inundated with Lionfish but lacking many other fish species. To combat this outbreak dive operators and scientists began trying different approaches to the problem. One of which was conducting Lionfish pole spearing campaigns through organizations such as, I Spear Lionfish where tourists armed with a basic pole spear were allowed to spear Lionfish during their recreational dives. I have heard reports of dozens of Lionfish being pulled off of small reef systems in a single day. Similar efforts are being made throughout the US where pole spearing of Lionfish is encouraged by dive operators. Lionfish Rodeos or Roundups are conducted where competitions are set up as to who can spear the most Lionfish. Divers are able to participate in an activity that is harmless to indigenous species and are having a good time doing it. In addition, restaurant chefs are being prompted to add Lionfish on the their menus.  (See this Link.) Apparently, Lionfish is a very good eating fish and tastes much like Black Sea Bass. No kidding! One such Facebook page called, Eat the Lionfish is dedicated to such a mission. If you look on there page it says, "They are dedicated to the mass slaughter and cooking of Lionfish on the East Coast". Their mission statement doesn't get any simpler and angrier than that. There are many other organizations like this from the Caribbean to North Carolina. Creating a consumer demand for Lionfish is an effective way to control and even decimate the species. Unfortunately, humans have done a good job of this worldwide to many other indigenous fish species such as North Atlantic Cod so why wouldn't it work for Lionfish?. I personally believe all these efforts to stem the Lionfish invasion are worth while and if you can even create an industry around the slaughter and consumption of a invasive species then lets go for it. At this point there is no way to completely remove Lionfish from the Caribbean and Atlantic Oceans. They are here to stay. At least methods are being established to control their growth and protect our natural fish stocks and reef systems.
     In 2009, after I returned from overseas to Olympus Dive Center to captain the Midnight Express, I was hired to take a group of NOAA scientists out to conduct research on them. NOAA had been doing studies steadily since 2001 but this was the first time I worked with them. I was instructed to pilot the boat to a set of waypoints that were small isolated reef systems only around 24 miles from the beach. The first few charters it seemed as though they were merely fish counting and locating ideal sights. After a few more charters they began going in and pole spearing as many Lionfish as they could from only half of the selected reefs and leaving the others untouched. I suppose the goal was to see how long it would take for them to repopulate these reefs while several other reefs were left unspoiled as a control subject. Once the season was over I never really found out what they discovered from this study but I do know that the winter water temperatures as far offshore as 30 miles dropped nearly to 50 degrees C hence killing off nearly every Lionfish within a 30 mile radius from land including, all of the Lionfish on the test reef sights NOAA spent a pile of money on the year before. Lionfish after all are a tropical fish species and will die off in cold water. During the course of the 2010 season very few if any Lionfish were reported seen within this distance. Once you reached approximately 36 miles from shore a diver could spot plenty of Lionfish though on the ledges and wrecks. I had heard NOAA was utilizing other dive boats in 2010 and traveling further offshore to locate and continue to study them. The following year brought yet another harsh winter for the Carolina Coast and once this years 2011 dive season commenced very few Lionfish had been spotted again within this 30 mile distance. As the season went on however more and more sightings were made and plenty were to be found on the offshore dive sights and even on those closer in. Lionfish are still there and if the next few winters are mild ones divers will be sure to see many more of them off the Outer Banks. 
    From my own experience, which is not a scientific one, I have not seen any difference to the fish populations on the wreck sights of North Carolina within the 34 miles radius of land. I continue to see large schools of Grouper and various species of Snapper, Black Sea Bass and Flounder on the wrecks and reefs. Earlier in the year in May we dived a wreck off the Wilmington Coast of NC which is about 55 miles south west of Morehead City on a wreck that is about 25 miles from shore. When I went in to explore the wreck I immediately noticed two things. I saw the largest size and quantity of Lionfish I had ever seen anywhere. I stopped counting basketball sized fish after two dozen and there were a lot more. The second thing I saw was the largest size and quantity of Black Sea Bass I had ever seen on a wreck as well as a healthy population of Snapper. I have no doubt, based on what I have heard, that the Lionfish invasion in the lower latitudes are having a much worse effect on indigenous fish populations but I'm not seeing that where I dive. Like I said though, I'm not a scientist or researcher. I am just making simple observations while diving.
    Whatever the future brings for the Lionfish is anyone's guess but when you leave Mother Nature alone long enough she works things out on her own terms. Humans can try to help and speed the heeling process up but many times we just make matters worse. Maybe we can focus our efforts effectively and make a positive difference in controlling these spiny maned pests and prevent these mistakes from happening again in the future or maybe its just wishful thinking. Time will tell that's for sure.

    I'm away from North Carolina right now on family business but the M/V Olympus will be running steady charters for the month of September. The Midnight express will be ready for action come next week starting on the 16th or maybe earlier with numerous charters scheduled until the end of the month. I hope to see you for some great Fall diving.

Happy Diving!

Mike Gerken

CREDIT: Thank you to Renate Edwards, John Wisniewski, Jeff Keuhn, Rick Allen and Robert Purifoy for their Lionfish accounts.

Photo Tip of the Week

    Having exceptional dive skills is essential to taking quality underwater photos. So, "What defines exceptional dive skills?", you might ask. The newest of the new divers should be primarily concerned with self preservation and minimize doing any task other than the basic ones required to perform a safe dive such as monitoring gas consumption, bottom times, ascent/decent rates, buoyancy control and navigation to name a few. Once you become more comfortable with your abilities and your surroundings then take up an addition underwater hobby such as photography. By all means if you are not sure if your ready then you probably aren't. Hold off and log a few more dives and sign up for additional dive training before grabbing a camera. I guarantee you that until you have the basic skill set down you will not be able to take even a simple snap shot with your camera. Photography requires a high level of concentration in order to do efficiently and if your focus is solely on your diving you will not be able to take pictures that are worthy of even showing a friend or posting on Facebook. In turn, if you are too focused on your camera and not your diving you are at greater risk of having an accident. That's common sense.  Once you begin to perform certain dive skills as though it were second nature you will be capable of paying more attention to your photography and turn out some really nice shots.
     The most important skill to master in order to become a better photographer is your buoyancy skills. Your ability to hover effortlessly over a subject without constant changes to your BCD is imperative. The alternative is to stand or kneel on the bottom and risk silting out your photos and even worse damaging fragile marine life. Too often I witness underwater photographers with terrible buoyancy skills with a very large expensive housed SLR set ups. They expend great amounts of energy merely swimming or trying to position themselves with their camera to get their shot. More times than I would like to report I would have to intercede to prevent a beautiful sea fan or hard coral fall victim to a careless fin kick. 
     Quite often photographers (like many divers) are grossly over weighted making it very hard to achieve neutral buoyancy due to the constant additions and subtractions of air to their BCD's. It doesn't help matters that this extra weight will cause a diver to swim with their feet down and head up while the natural position should be horizontal. It should be any divers goal, especially underwater photographers, to find what their absolute minimum amount of dive weight is required for them to obtain neutral buoyancy.  The skill for this is right in the open water course of any dive training agency but so few fail to heed it and too many instructors do not take the time to get the weight off their students before sending them out to dive on there own. The trick is to be relaxed when you jump in the water and exhale and not hold your breath while you are draining air from your BCD to descend. Once you are neutrally buoyant practice using your lungs for finite adjustments rather than adding or subtracting air. Once your tank runs down to under 500 psi at the end of a dive you should be able to float effortlessly at 15 feet with no air in the BCD. As for myself, when I dive with a 5mm wetsuit and an aluminum 80cft tank and my camera I require about 2-3 pounds of lead. With a 3mm suit I use zero lead. Most divers with high levels of experience can brag about the same skill. Remember, the less weight the better! I can't stress this more.
    When I started to shoot video and photo underwater in 2003 I already had over 1500 dives to my credit. It is in my belief that this was one of my biggest assets that got me on my way to producing quality images in such a short period of time. My ability to remain motionless and hover over and/or in front of my subject and focus on my photography without jeopardizing my safety, was crucial. The only way to build strong dive skills is to dive and dive as often as you can while taking as many training classes available. I'm not saying everyone should have 1500 dives logged before taking a camera in the water. I'm merely saying that you should be a proficient diver before doing so. The time and amount of dives required to become proficient will vary from diver to diver. Some of the courses I recommend to take are Peak Performance Buoyancy and even freediving or breath hold diving courses. If freediving doesn't build your comfort levels and reduce your fears in the water than nothing will. Personally my favorite courses were the technical courses such as Advanced Nitrox, Decompression Procedures and Trimix Diver. Even if you don't intend to do deep/tech diving the skills you will learn in these courses will hone your dive abilities like no others.
   In closing, don't ever take your dive skills for granted and think there is nothing new you could learn to become a better diver and photographer. Absorb knowledge like a sponge, become comfortable in your water environment and then go take some awesome photos.

For more of Mike's UW photo techniques and tips contact him to learn how to sign up for one of his courses that are available both in person and live online via web cam.

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Olympus Dive Center, Morhead City, NC.
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Mike Gerken

1 comment:

Joe Eiche said...

When I arrived in Nassau in April of this year I was excited at the opportunity to see and take some snapshots of Lion Fish. By the end of the trip if I never saw another Lion Fish again I would be a happy man. The state of the reef and fish populations in Nassau is horrendous. Someone I was diving with said they had been in the Bahamas a few years before and were shocked at the change in the state of the reefs. I have no desire to go back and dive in the Bahamas because of this.

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