Feb

15

The fish, a spectacularly colored grouper, paused and opened its mouth. Finning only slightly to maintain its position just a foot (30 cm) or so above the reef, this brightly colored red and blue-spotted grouper waited patiently for another fish, a cleaner wrasse, to provide its services. Within only a few seconds the cleaner approached and went to work, moving from the tail toward the head along the grouper’s body. The cleaner paused every few seconds to pick at the skin of the grouper.

Like other cleaner species, cleaner wrasses help rid groupers and other host animals of irritating ectoparasites that can be found on the skin of the hosts. In doing so the cleaners gain a meal while the host benefits by getting cleaned.
My dive buddy and I followed the grouper as it slowly moved down the reef. We watched as another fish, the same general size and shape as the cleaner wrasse, appeared. Looking quite confident that additional cleaning services were about to be rendered, the grouper paused and opened its mouth. In the blink of an eye, the fish I thought was a second cleaner wrasse swam up and bit a chunk of skin out of the side of the obviously startled grouper.
Clearly, the attacker was a mimic, a species that does a good enough job of imitating a cleaner species to fool groupers and other fishes into thinking the mimic is the real deal. It’s a risky business to try to fool well-equipped predators, but if well-done, the act of deceit can provide a mimic with a meal. If done badly, no more meals will be necessary. This mimic was a tiger blenny, a fact that, like the grouper, I realized only after the daring blenny had enjoyed its success.
After the dive I excitedly asked my diving buddy what she thought of the scene we had just witnessed, and much to my surprise, her only comment was, “that big fish sure is pretty.” At first I thought she was putting me on, but I soon realized that she had missed both the cleaning and the attack. She had noticed that the grouper had its mouth open rather wide, but she wasn’t sure why. She thought the fish might have been injured.
Observing marine life is like putting puzzle pieces together. When you look at one fish, you see only one piece of the puzzle. Yet when you connect the pieces — say a fish to its habitat and to other creatures within that habitat — you begin to see the inner workings of a marine ecosystem.
But how does one go from fish watcher to underwater naturalist? First, the more you dive, the more you will begin to see various subtleties, and the better observer you will become. You’ll find that your awareness of the underwater world increases with time, the number of dives and the variety of habitats you get to explore and enjoy. Second, it helps to learn about what’s going on under the waves so you are more likely to recognize the happenings that you encounter during your dives.

Find Out Who Lives Where, and Why

When looking for a particular marine animal, it helps to know where to find it. Marine life identification books and regional dive guides are excellent resources for learning what types of animals you’d expect to see in a given area. Water temperature and geographical distribution are key factors in determining which species live where. For example, you aren’t likely to see a blue shark on a tropical reef. Blue sharks tend to inhabit the cooler waters of the open ocean in temperate, not tropical, seas. Conversely, you aren’t likely to see an angelfish in a California kelp forest. Angelfishes require warmer water.
Those examples might sound obvious, but being aware that within the same geographical area there are a variety of habitats, and that different groups of animals typically occur in different marine ecosystems isn’t as readily apparent to beginning divers. Keeping these facts in the forefront of your diving mind can be very helpful when it comes to becoming a better observer of marine life.
After all, it makes sense that fishes and other animals that inhabit the sand possess a different set of adaptations than do animals that inhabit reefs or live in mid-water. But because most of us haven’t had a ton of ocean experience when we first take up diving, it can be helpful to have this type of information pointed out to us.
For example, many sand dwellers have extremely low profiles. With few structures that offer hiding places in the sand biome, it should not be surprising to learn that most animals that live in the sand are excellent burrowers, able to rebury themselves rapidly if they get exposed, able to stabilize the substrate around them so they can remain in one place, or they are masters of camouflage. The behavior of creatures such as sea pens, tube anemones, clams, sea stars, sand dollars, stingrays, angel sharks, razorfishes and flatfishes illustrate these points.
In contrast, most reef inhabitants are better equipped to maneuver in the tight confines of a reef, grip the substrate, or blend into backgrounds of varied patterns and hues. Thin-bodied butterflyfishes, angelfishes, sea fans, crinoids, sculpin and other multicolored striped, spotted and mottled fishes provide classic examples that illustrate these adaptations.
Animals ranging from jellyfishes to sharks, whales, dolphins, manta rays, billfishes and tunas are better equipped to inhabit the open sea. Most fishes that live in the open ocean are designed to be superb cruisers but they lack the maneuverability of many reef fishes, and creatures such as jellyfishes would certainly be injured if they were constantly bumping into hard reefs.
On a tropical reef, the creatures encountered on the reef flat, top of a wall, shallow wall and deep wall are often different. This fact might not be so obvious the first few times you explore tropical reefs. If you are like most divers, it takes a while to get your bearings and know where you are in a reef ecosystem, much less to begin to positively identify and distinguish various species and to recognize behaviors.
In fact, I think it’s fair to say that to new divers, many marine creatures look alike. And just as a lot of marine creatures seem to look alike when you first begin to dive, it is not always immediately that different niches exist. In other words, the various niches in a coral reef kingdom or kelp forest can look the same to divers when we lay eyes on coral reefs and kelp beds for the first time. The good news is that it doesn’t take long to begin to get oriented and to recognize that different species occupy different niches within a larger ecosystem.
If you pay attention, as you gain experience you will quickly realize that the animals that occupy one niche are often different from those that occupy another niche only a few yards away.
For example, in many tropical reef systems you are likely to see schools of tangs and surgeonfishes along the tops of reefs, but you aren’t likely to find them in deeper areas. At the same time you are likely to find creatures such as lobsters, crabs, shrimps and octopods close to areas that are filled with cracks, crevices, ledges and other hiding places.
While there are way too many species to mention, you want to realize that the ocean, and even a single reef area, is not just one generic place. There are many different habitats, and different species tend to occupy the various habitats.
Of course, as soon as I make that point, I must point out that there are plenty of exceptions to that general rule. For example, you might see a school of feeding jacks, eagle rays or a reef shark cruising various niches in a reef system.
Divers that explore temperate seas will find that a variety of habitats exist in kelp forests as well as in the rocky reefs. Close to 800 species inhabit Southern California kelp forests, but different creatures live in the floating canopy near the surface, on the fronds, on and around the holdfasts, in and on the surrounding reef, in mid-water and on the nearby sand flats.
While you might encounter creatures that range in size from inch-long, rainbow-colored nudibranchs to lobsters to giant seabass on a single dive in a California kelp forest, the odds are high that you will find various species in different parts of the forest and surrounding habitats.

Consider Form and Function

The body shape of marine creatures plays a very important role in how and where various species live.
As examples, most torpedo-shaped, or fusiform, animals such as dolphins, barracudas, tunas and open-ocean sharks are built for speed. These creatures live in the water column, not on the sea floor or in the tight quarters of reef communities. Laterally compressed fishes such as triggerfishes, angelfishes and butterflyfishes are built to efficiently slip into and out of the latticework of reef formations, but on the whole they are less capable of generating the speeds attained by more torpedo-shaped animals.
Animals such as rays and angel sharks are flattened from top to bottom. These creatures are well-equipped to maintain low profiles and are typically found along the sea floor in areas where they can go generally unnoticed. These animals often bury themselves in the sand, a great way to go unnoticed by potential predators and prey alike. Armed with this knowledge, you can often discover rays and other sand-dwelling animals by noting the outline of their buried bodies.
Sea snakes and eels have a long, more attenuated shape that is ideal for slinking around in the crevices of reef communities, and that is where you are likely to find them.
By noting and considering the shapes of animals you find in very specific areas, you can begin to acquire valuable insight that will help you put together the marine puzzle. And once you begin to put part of the puzzle together, so many other pieces begin to fall into place, and that is the real payoff in being a good observer. By knowing about behaviors, lifestyle and shape, you begin to anticipate where to find various species. At that point you can pat yourself on the back a time or two, because you will be on your way to becoming a good observer.

Become Aware of Adaptations

To survive, marine animals must adapt — both to their environment and to overcome their limitations. After all, not every species can be the biggest, fiercest, fastest, most superbly camouflaged and most clever. One of the most fascinating aspects of nature and the underwater world is that there seems to be such an endless variety of adaptations that are accomplished in countless ways. Shape, as just discussed, is one of those adaptations. I’d like to point out a few more just for the sake of providing examples, but keep in mind that every animal, or closely related group of animals, possesses some adaptation, or adaptations, that make them unique. Being aware of those adaptations can be the key to enabling you to become a good observer of marine creatures.
Here are some examples. Many brightly colored animals are venomous or repulsive in some way. It’s true of lionfishes, stonefishes and sculpin. These fishes are not among the fastest swimmers. They don’t have to be. Nor are they quick to give ground when approached, because nature has equipped them with other means of defense analogous to the way that snakes and porcupines are created. When on the hunt these animals must be able to strike quickly and overpower their prey. This is equally true for other relatively slow swimmers such as frogfishes and toadfishes.
Using bright color as a warning is not unique to fishes. Many nudibranchs, shell-less mollusks that are closely related to garden slugs, have soft bodies and they are rather slow crawlers. And many species stand out prominently because of their bright colors. These nudibranchs steal the protective stinging cells of corals. Then they place them in the tissue of their own back where those cells serve to repel animals that do not pay heed to the warnings of their bright colors. In this case the colors are intended to say “leave me alone.”
In the case of other invertebrates, you will want to consider the very basic question of whether an invertebrate is permanently attached to the substrate or whether it is mobile.
If an invertebrate is mobile, can it swim like squid and octopods, does it crawl or does it simply go where wind and current take it as is the general case with jellyfishes? Because jellyfishes are at the mercy of the prevailing conditions, their stings can be quite potent. The same is true of anemones and corals. If an animal cannot pursue its prey, it better get it while the getting is possible.
Consider whether an invertebrate has a shell or hard skin. If it has a shell, what does it do when it needs to grow? Does it swap shells, as is the case with hermit crabs, or molt, as is the case with lobsters, crabs and shrimps? Some shelled animals such as snails keep their shells for life, so they need to maintain it. That is the job of their colorful organs known as mantles. Shell-swapping crabs often attach other organisms to their shells so that a host animal is less obvious.
By considering these adaptations and the challenges that each animal faces, you will gain much better insight into how different species live, who eats whom and when, where and how to find various creatures.

Hone Your Fish-watching Skills

Next time you dive, instead of simply looking at a fish, challenge yourself a little by trying to put the fish in context with its surroundings. Consider its shape and other adaptations it possesses as well as what you know about its lifestyle. See if you can determine whether the animal appears to inhabit a relatively small territory or whether it is in transit. If the fish tends to stay close to one area or repeatedly swims over the same patch of reef, look for a nest site or mate. You won’t always find them because they are not always present, but in many instances by applying a little common sense you will discover a nest, mate or perhaps a food source.
As examples, with the damselfish known as the sergeant majors that occur in tropical seas and California’s state marine fish, the garibaldi, you will often discover a male that is manicuring or protecting a nest, or trying to woo a female. It’s great fun to watch a protective damselfish attempt to ward off other egg-stealing fishes and invertebrates such as sea stars, snails and sea urchins.
If a fish is a member of a school, try to determine if the fish in the school are feeding. If they are, ask yourself if they are feeding in mid-water or along the sea floor. If they are feeding on the sea floor, as is often the case with tangs and surgeonfishes, look to see if any smaller fishes such as territorial damselfishes are trying to push them out of their territory. On the whole, damselfishes are relatively small, but they seem to have no idea that this is true. They will defend their realm against almost all intruders.
Schooling is a good way for fishes to gain access to a mate, and often in schools of hundreds, or even thousands, of jacks you will see male and female pairs, or you will see spawning activity. Next time you see a school of fish, look to see if perhaps they are feeding or if you can locate a male/female pair.
One of my favorite ways of getting oriented in any tropical reef I have not dived is to look for cleaning stations. Cleaning of some kind can be found on the majority of reef dives, and the cleaning stations are often a great place to find interesting activity that centers on fishes and some other animals. Cleaning stations are often found around prominent outcroppings such as a big coral head or sponge that is on a point. If you find cleaning activity in a given place on one dive, you will often see cleaning there again on subsequent dives.
Of course, you can conduct a similar exercise with any group of animals, but fishes are present almost every time you make a dive, and if you are a good observer, watching them closely will help you learn a great deal about the animal you are watching and about life in the sea.
Learning to be a good observer of marine life is more of an art form than an exact science. Everyone brings a different background to their diving experiences and as a group, we learn to dive in a lot of different places. After learning we travel to different places and experience different phenomena.
When you are new to diving and when diving in an area that is new to you, my suggestion is to first learn about the bigger ecosystem. Getting a grip on the big picture provides you with a frame of reference so you “have a place to put” the smaller pieces of the puzzle. By understanding the big picture you can begin to understand where, when and why you are likely to find the creatures that live in a particular ecosystem. And once you start to understand that information, it will be far easier to understand and anticipate their behaviors.

You’re Watching Them, They’re Watching You

In almost every encounter with fishes, turtles and other big creatures, it has served me well to do whatever I can to make myself appear nonthreatening and unobtrusive. For example, when I first encounter a turtle, instead of trying to get as close as I can as fast as I can, I often avoid eye contact and try to appear interested in something else. In this way I think I appear to be nonthreatening and my behavior often seems to encourage the turtle to acclimate to my presence instead of speeding off into the distance.
When observing marine life, move slowly and be patient.  Avoid chasing subjects and barging into territories like the proverbial bull in a china cabinet.  As a rule, animals will flee or hide, and even if you get close to the animal, you often fail to get the most out of the opportunity, because you have disrupted the animal’s natural behaviors.

from Dive Training Magazine

Jan

11

The days of group trips; meeting new divers, that shared excitement, adventure, fulfillment; are giving way to rock bottom pricing.  In the days of ‘Expedia’ and ‘Priceline’ consumers are going it alone.  Some are getting great deals, others just think they are.  Many have never experienced the fun and social aspects of group travel.

Think back to an activity you enjoyed with a group, such as going to a concert.  I don’t mean the Philharmonic, I’m talking about the last big country, rock or R&B show you attended.  Yes, it’s great to have that one on one time with your special someone, but tailgating before the show, everyone singing FreeeeeeBiiiiiiird for 12 minutes, and carrying the excitement out into the parking lot together afterward!  The enthusiasm and excitement is contagious.  This group dynamic is the main appeal to traveling with like-minded friends.

Sure there are those bad experiences, bad weather, delayed flights, that one group member who just seems to get on everyone’s nerves, but those things also happen when you go it alone and a good trip leader knows how to ease tensions and always has plans B, C, & D up his sleeve.  You might be surprised how competitively priced these trips can be and you get the added benefit of an experienced trip director who is usually familiar with the destination.

We had a blast in Turks & Caicos last month and are looking forward to great diving in Roatan, Honduras in March.  We have a few spots left, so make your spring break vacation plans now.

March 9 – 16, 2013         Roatan, Honduras      $1425     unlimited diving, all-inclusive resort

For additional information on these featured trips and others call Gulf Coast Divers at (251) 342-2970.

Dec

7

Outside interests that are shared amongst family members usually tie that family together as they grow.  We have countless stories of families getting certified to dive for a single vacation and discovering a new weekend recreation.  When they return from an exotic locale they come by the dive shop and share their excitement, pictures and memories.  The next words out of their mouths are, “tell us about local diving”.

Water is a great “equalizer” among groups.  A family can have many different strength and ability levels and still enjoy being underwater together.  One thing I have noticed about snow skiing families is that they have discussions over breakfast about where everyone is headed and what time to meet back up for lunch.  The good skiers are bored hanging out with less experienced skiers on the bunny slope and the new skiers are scared on the more challenging runs. The result,  for everyone to have fun, is they go in different directions.  This isn’t the case with diving.  All family members can be diving together on the same reef and all get something different out of the experience.

All interests can be filled on a single dive.  The excitement and adrenaline of spearfishing for teenagers, the challenges of capturing good underwater images for dad, and the quite and tranquility for mom.

A recreation that can be shared by all and enjoyed for a lifetime.  We have many stories of 3 generations of family members diving together and developing memories that will truly last a lifetime.

For more information on family oriented dive training call Gulf Coast Divers at (251) 342-2970.

 

Oct

8

The sport of spearfishing is governed by federal and state regulations, and we have the same size and creel limits as anglers.  Spearfishing has been found to be the most environmentally friendly form of fishing due to being highly selective, having no by-catch, causing no habitat damage, nor creating stress or harm to protected endangered species.

 These facts prove a spearfisherman can harvest their catch without doing any harm to the reef, but can he actually help the health of the reef? Absolutely!

 The newest target species for us gulf coast hunters is the invasive lionfish.  The last two years has seen an explosion in the local population of these beautiful, but extremely harmful fish.  A single female can produce 1 million eggs a year and a very high percentage of those will survive.  They have no local natural predator and eat the young of all our prized species.

 For these reasons a campaign has started with divers to put our spears to work to kill any lionfish we see.  Currently, it is the only way to attempt to check this growing problem.  They can’t be targeted with hook and line, nor can they be trawled because they only live in close proximity to wrecks and reefs.  No effective idea for developing a commercial fishery has been discovered.  So far, spearfishing is the only proven way to try and keep them in check.

 We are currently conducting additional dive training for biologist with Alabama Department of Conservation & Natural Resources so they can observe the lionfish on the reefs and develop effective eradication techniques.  All in an attempt to eradicate them and protect the strong fishery we enjoy on the gulf coast.

Most anglers don’t understand the severity of the problem because they don’t see how the pyramids, tanks and natural bottom are choked with them.  Even though a mature lionfish won’t eat a large snapper, it will consume every juvenile, so very few young snapper will survive to adulthood.

 The Alabama Spearfishing Association is currently hosting the First Annual Flora-Bama Lion Fish Roundup.  This six-week tournament allows participants to win prizes by harvesting as many Lionfish as they can.  The hope is that we can harvest species and raise awareness by hosting this tournament.  Spearfishing is the only effective way to fight this battle.  All the lionfish harvested are donated to researchers that are desperate to find other means of halting the invasion.

 Call Gulf Coast Divers at (251) 342-2970 and ask about how you can participate in the fight to eradicate lionfish from our reefs.

Sep

26

Most of October we will see high tides during dark hours.  The best conditions for shore diving in our area are found at high tide.  Low to no current in the passes and the clearer gulf waters are pushed in close, improving visibility.  Add to this formula, a nighttime high tide and you have the perfect conditions for spearing flounder at night.

 Swimming in the gulf at night brings visions of monsters and sea serpents to the minds of the uninitiated. It reminds me of walking out of the woods after an afternoon hunt as a kid.  Every little twig snap had me gasping my last breath before a mountain lion ravaged me. After a few stressful hikes, common sense prevailed over imagination and I realized how loud a squirrel could be in the woods.   A new night diver wrestles with the same imaginings until they can relax, let there common sense kick in and start hunting for the faint outline of the fall flounder.

 Flounder are beginning their fall migration to deeper water this time of year.  It isn’t uncommon to hit the water at our preferred night dive sites and see flounder carpeting the bottom.  We have to move slowly and deliberately when they are this plentiful because every time you spear one, you will spook three.  If you see a flounder 6 feet way and swim quickly to him, it is likely that you’ve looked over the bigger one lying in wait directly under you.

Instead of wading in knee-deep water and squinting for the outline of these ambush predators, we drift along the bottom with powerful dive lights.  The southern flounder is a master of camouflage, but our bright LED dive lights will make their outline standout against the bottom.  We use a pole spear instead of a speargun.  It is similar to a gig pole, but relies on a rubber band for power instead of arm strength.

Many flounder hunters use only mask, snorkel, fins, light and pole spear to stack ‘em up.  Slipping along the beach in the surf zone, they can efficiently cover a lot a ground from the shallows down to about 5-6’ deep. This depth is out of the range of the waders.  Still others don full scuba gear and scour the deeper depths for these nocturnal predators.

During daylight hours, a flounder stays mostly buried in the sand.  But at night, they sit on top of the sand waiting for a shrimp or bull minnow to swim along, then attacking from underneath. Flounder hunting isn’t just limited to night, as the flounder move offshore to the deeper sites we scan the sand around the site for our limit of “flat boys”.

 With a minimal investment in a set of snorkeling gear, good underwater light and pole spear, you can be arriving late for work in the morning, telling stories of staying out until midnight chasing flounder in the surf zone, at night. Call Gulf Coast Divers at (251) 342-2970 and ask about dive training and spearfishing.

Sep

18

Now that our short red snapper season has come and gone it is time to shift back into amberjack mode.  These are the hardest fighting fish species that we target as spearfisherman.  It is because of their strength they are called “Pez Fuerte” south of the border.  In English it means “strong fish”!

 Their size and strength contribute to the excitement as the ultimate target species in underwater hunting.  Amberjack are targeted only by experienced spearos that have developed their aim well enough to “stone ‘em”.  But it only takes missing the kill spot by 2 inches to be dealt an exciting fight.  Underwater video of good and bad shots is a great tool to use in training new hunters.

 A huge trend among spearfisherman this season has been shooting video.  Most of the hunters I dive with have added camera mounts to their guns to video the excitement of the stalk, hunt and fight.

 It is easy to get a good quality, high definition video camera and underwater housing in a very small package and for a reasonable price.  The logical next step was to mount it to your mask or your gun and capture the action. Non-diving friends and family are amazed at the action and scenes that we enjoy every time we venture under the gulf. A fisherman sitting in the boat 70 feet above the action, has no idea what goes on below. The freedom of being able to select your own fish and just seeing all the species that inhabit the sites that they fish.  Instead of guessing what the colored pixels on your bottom machine represent, why don’t you jump in and have a look?

 The Sealife and GoPro-style cameras can be mounted out of the way leaving the hunter free to press “record” then forget about the camera and get on with the hunt.

The added bonus is seeing all the fish species on the reef, not just the ones biting.  The video evidence from divers has been instrumental in educating the “powers that be” on the proliferation of the red snapper population in the northern Gulf of Mexico, in hopes of getting the season and creel limits relaxed.

Divers have provided the video evidence of the Lionfish invasion to our coastal reefs.  Because Lionfish don’t bite a hook, most fisherman only read articles about the invasion.  We’ve seen the Lionfish go from a rare sighting 2 years ago, to a common species.

 Call Gulf Coast Divers at (251) 342-2970 and ask about dive training, spearfishing and underwater videography.  Training can be completed in a couple weeks and you can be geared up and ready sooner than you think. Then you can grab your Sealife camera and be uploading You Tube videos after your first trip.

Mar

31

Come celebrate Earth Day a week early. Mark your calendars for Saturday April 14th, 2012 from noon- 6pm. This event is hosted by some good friends of ours in Panama City, FL.  Everyone is invited so bring the entire family.  The plan is to focus on the “Kiddie Pool” first.  Beachcombers, waders, snorkelers and divers can all contribute to this phase of the cleanup.  When the tide is right, the divers will slip thru the “Keyhole” in the jetties and spend some time cleaning trash and monofilament from the rocks.

High tide is at 4:32 pm. Because the jetties are a popular recreation area the trash can really build up. Those who do not scuba dive are welcome to come and clean up the beach above the waterline.   This is a great opportunity to give a little back to the resource that we enjoy all year.  The event will be at St. Andrews State Park in Panama City.

4607 State Park Lane, Panama City, FL

View Map · Get Directions

for information or to find out what you can do to help:

  • e-mail: bsinc71@yahoo.com
  • http://www.facebook.com/BluePlanetScubaDiving

Mar

14

As divers we have a unique opportunity to monitor the health of our reefs and ecosystems by observing the reefs, in action.  Anglers have to make guesses on the life of a reef based on only species they catch.  The huge influx of Lionfish into the gulf of mexico has brought the threat of invasive species into everyday conversation.

RED LIONFISH Pterois volitans

Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific and were most likely introduced into U.S. waters during Hurricane Andrew when
an aquarium containing lionfish was destroyed. With no real predators these fish are highly destructive to the native reef
fish populations and have the potential to harm red snapper and grouper populations. Lionfish will rarely bite a baited
hook and are normally only landed through spearfishing. However, if you catch one be cautious because their spines can inject
venom. If you are injected with lionfish venom seek medical attention as soon as possible. Lionfish rodeos are growing in popularity to try to stop the invasion.

GIANT TIGER PRAWN Penaeus monodon
The giant tiger prawn is native to the Western Pacific and are easily distinguished from native Alabama shrimp. Tiger prawns can grow to extremely large sizes, have black and white banding down the body, and were first reported in Alabama waters in 1996. The introduction of this invasive species is believed to have occured first in the Bahamas when a hurricane damaged an aquaculture facility. Reports of tiger
prawns have come in from North Carolin, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

The annual Redneck Riviera Spearfishing Tournament will have a lionfish category this year.  With a prize going to the hunter that kills the most lionfish during the month long rodeo.

Call the Alabama Marine Resources Division to report invasive species:
Dauphin Island (251) 861-2882 Gulf Shores (251) 968-7576

Mar

5

Dive Problem Anticipation, Avoidance and Management training is one of the most important continuing education classes for developing self-reliance and good diving skills.  All divers can benefit from the skills learned in this class, especially divers diving from their own boat.  If you are diving without professional diver supervision (ie. from your own boat) then you are responsible for making all the decisions and need to recognize an accident or stress scenario before it happens and intervene with positive results.  Early recognition is what our divemasters and instructors are trained for and you should be too.

Some of the topics we cover in this essential class are:

  1. self-reliance and self rescue
  2. environmental awareness
  3. physical, mental and equipment preparation
  4. Pre-dive planning and complete buddy check
  5. dealing with pre-dive anxiety
  6. recognizing stress in yourself and others
  7. assisting a stressed or panicky diver
  8. accident prevention
  9. rescue scenarios and dive emergency
  10. oxygen administration
  11. dive physiology and recompression therapy
  12. “What to do if…” scenarios

As the name of the course states, problem anticipation, avoidance and management are vital skills to insure a safe, fun, stress free day on the water.  Many instructors teach a “Rescue” course, but nobody else teaches D.P.A.A. M.  This program covers rescue scenarios, but the most observant divers will address an issue before it ever escalates to a rescue situation.

For information on the next D.P.A.A.M. course call (251) 342-2970.

Feb

10

April is traditionally the month that cobia start migrating thru the gulf coast on their westward journey.  The time of year and the speed of the migration has everything to do with water temperature.  The magic temperature seems to be 68 degrees.  The first cobia to show will arrive almost simultaneously with the gulf temperature warming to 68 degrees.

Early season cobia hunters usually sight-fish for the distinctive brown shapes, while cruising within 1/2 mile of the beach.  Once spotted the boats move ahead of the pod and try to intercept the fish and cast lures, silver eels, and jigs.  The key to sighting the fish is to get as high above the water as possible to increase the downward line of sight.

A new trend the last few years is for spearfisherman to follow this same sight-hunting tactic, but with a twist.  We troll the beach looking for the pods, then when sighted, we run the boat ahead of the fish and put a couple free-divers in the water.  Armed with mask, snorkel, fins and speargun, we rely on the natural curiosity of ling to swim close enough to check us out.  It usually takes many drops before we luck into a curious fish.

Any spearo that has had the luck of spearing a cobia knows that they can be a handful.  Cobia are very strong fish that will sometimes lie motionless after being shot, fooling the diver into thinking they stoned it with a great shot.  But boy can they come back to life.  Any angler that has gaffed a “green” cobia can attest to their surprising strength.  I’ve heard stories of sprained arms and shoulders, broken gaffs and many, many lost fish.

Known locally as “ling” or “lemonfish”, cobia are the main focus of anglers and spearfisherman looking for an adventure in late March and April.  For information on spearfishing call Gulf Coast Divers at (251) 342-2970.

Jan

25

New divers are surprised to learn that diving along the gulf coast takes place year round, not just during the heat of the summer. Believe it or not, the beaches don’t close in the winter, the Gulf of Mexico still has water in it when all the leaves have fallen from the trees and there are a lot of dedicated divers getting wet all winter.

If you want to keep diving in the winter months, but are not one of the fortunate few who can slip off to some warm and exotic location while the rest of us sit around watching our breath freeze in the air, read on and learn the basics of winter diving on the gulf coast.

So just what are the alternatives for winter diving and what can you expect for conditions? Obviously colder temperatures, both in the water and out, but not so cold that you can’t go diving. That doesn’t mean you have to gear up for an arctic expedition. Back in December we published a blog article about the importance of staying warm which provided many suggestions for dealing with winter temperatures.

Water temperatures in the gulf are a little cooler than what you are used to in the summer months. You can expect water in the low-mid 60’s at times.  Also, most of the high tides during winter months, fall at night. This is great news for the spearos that target flounder.

These tidal differences are not as much  a consideration offshore but they will affect beach dives like Perdido Pass, Fort Pickens, Destin Jetties and St. Andrews Park.  We have some of the lowest tides of the year during winter months and the strong north winds can make for especially low tides.

The local springs are virtually unaffected by winter temperatures. In other words springs water temperatures stay the same year round. The same 68 degrees that seemed cold and maybe a little forbidding in the summer is now warm and toasty.

One big consideration, just as important as staying warm during the dive, is keeping warm before the dive and getting warm between dives.  Bundle up and stay warm before you get in the water and certainly bundle up between dives. Bring a thermos of hot tea or coffee to warm you from the inside and stay out of the wind.  A misconception with inexperienced winter divers, is they will stay warm if they keep their wetsuit on between dives.  You will only make this mistake once!  The water evaporating off the suit is taking heat with it, chilling you very fast.  You will stay much warmer by getting out of your suit and dressing in warm clothes.  The more common method is to peel your wetsuit top off, dry off, and put on a jacket. Many divers exit the water, quickly peel their wetsuit off and climb back in their vehicle for a toasty, warm surface interval.

Recently my phoned chimed, announcing a text message from a dive buddy headed to the Pass for a night dive. Sorry I couldn’t make it Joe, too many work and family commitments, but it reminded me, many people are getting wet this winter and you should too.  Call Gulf Coast Divers at (251) 342-2970 to learn more about winter diving.

Dec

10

Even though the modern personal dive computers are very reliable and rarely malfunction, the possibility still exists.  Looking down at your computer in the middle of a dive and seeing a blank screen can be stressful sight.  Most computer issues are battery related or caused by flooding.  The flooding usually follows an improperly sealed battery compartment or a crack in the housing caused by trauma to the computer.  The problem is the crack was probably suffered in your gear bag during transport and you don’t even realize it until it is too late.

Because of the possibility of a dive, or entire dive day, being ruined because of a computer issue, most divers dive with 2 personal computers.  Oceanic’s new B.U.D. (Back-Up Dive) computer is the perfect addition to your dive kit.  It clips to your B/C and tracks all your dive info. and can be used as a primary computer, quick-glance status, back-up or spare.

The B.U.D. is small enough to clip to any d-ring on your B/C and you will hardly even know it is there, but has an easy to read display.  It has full computer functions, including nitrox compatibility.  Economically priced at $329.00.

Sep

21

It is not an exaggeration to say that scuba lessons were the best gift I ever received.  My parents gave me scuba lessons for Christmas when I was fifteen years old.  I was that kid that never missed a Jacques Cousteau t.v. special and watched ‘”Flipper” after school and dreamed of being able to live a life on boats and underwater.

Before I even finished my lessons I was working at the shop after school.  Sweeping floors, hanging up dripping wetsuits and filling tanks doesn’t sound like fun to most, but I was having a blast,  just being around diving.  Fast forward 27 years and I am still working in a dive shop, enjoying my dream job.

Giving someone an “experience” for a wedding, birthday, anniversary or Christmas gift insures that your present won’t be tossed in a storage shed and forgotten.  It is a great way to nudge a friend into trying scuba to introduce them to a world that you have already discovered. The best way to get more opportunities to dive is to have lots of dive buddies.

The most common complaint we hear from divers is, “It is hard to find someone to go diving with”. The best way to meet other divers is to DIVE and hang out where divers go. We are always introducing people in the shop and the Gulf Coast Diving Society is a local dive club that meets regularly for just this purpose. The easiest way to have a dive buddy you know and trust, is to have a buddy you know and trust, learn to dive. The more divers you know, the more Friday afternoon invitations you get to go diving this weekend.

Talk about a memorable first-date. We have had many couples come to our $24 scuba experience session for a unique date. It is more exiting and memorable than the boring, “dinner and a movie”. All you need is bathing suit, towel and a sense of adventure, we handle the rest and since our 15′ deep in-store pool is heated, we dive comfortably year ’round.

Scuba diving is a great way to introduce your family to the wonders of the underwater world and from exploring your local dive sites grows an interest in international travel. For many, diving becomes a lifetime recreation where you can pursue interests in travel, photography, spearfishing, thrilling adventures, relaxation of floating…weightless or wherever your personal interests lead you. Water is a great equalizer and you can have many different sizes and strengths in family members and still be on equal “ground” underwater.

Whether it is a thrilling adventure or peaceful, relaxing escape, diving has something for everyone. Don’t keep saying, “One day” forever…make this the year that you decide to start living life and experience new things.

Call Gulf Coast Divers at (251) 342-2970 and get a gift certificate for a $24 Experience Scuba session and give it to the person in your life, who needs an escape.

Aug

20

Now that our short red snapper season has come and gone it is time to shift back into amberjack mode.  These are the hardest fighting fish species that we target as spearfisherman.

New underwater hunters look at this fish as a goal to work towards with good reason.  Most spearfisherman that have an “uh oh” story, usually has a big amberjack as the main character.  It usually involves a bad shot or bad decision by the hunter, but no matter the reason, the situation still has the spearo attached to hard fighting fish.

Fisherman can relate stories of sore backs and rods pinned to the gunwales by big amberjack.  These are the same “donkeys” that we target, but unlike anglers that have the stability of a boat deck to fight from, we don’t have a foundation to fight from.  A poorly shot “AJ” will easily drag a diver around.

It doesn’t take a large AJ to put up a healthy fight, though.  My largest fish taken by speargun was in the 90lb. range, but the fish that beat me up the most was a 30lb. adolescent fish.  I took a long, poor shot in the fishes tail and the fight was on.  He came back around and head butted me in the chest, took my breath away, knocked my regulator out and flooded my mask.  After putting all my gear back in place and subduing the fish.  I laughed at what a hand-full this little guy was, all because I didn’t get a good shot and just attached myself to him.  I usually experience much less fight with bigger fish because with a bigger, stronger fish I take more time, resulting in a better shot.  I always breath a sigh of relief when I “stone” a big ‘un.

Amberjack are so named because of the distinctive amber color and bar that runs through their eye.  The spanish name Pez Fuerte, is a much better description meaning “strong fish”.  They are very common in our area of the gulf and considered the ultimate target in spearfishing.  Even though red snapper is the “star of the show”, it takes little skill to shoot a snapper point blank.  Amberjack, locally called AJ’s or Donkeys, require true shooting skill and very good diving skills.  Most new underwater hunters develop their hunting skill on smaller species like scamp, snapper, gag, flounder and sheephead.  Once you have learned your gear and found your aim, you can start on smallish amberjack and slowly increase your target size.

Most stories involving lost and broken spearguns involve a large amberjack and a novice spearfisherman.  Safety is the key with any adventurous sport and even more so when you are underwater!  It is much better to let that big fish keep swimming, than to come by the dive shop, singing the blues about a broken gun or having a fish get you in a close-call situation.

Call Gulf Coast Divers at (251) 342-2970 and ask about dive training and spearfishing.  Training can be completed in a couple weeks and you can be geared up and ready sooner than you think.

Aug

13

This is just a reminder that all the Alabama fishing and spearfishing licenses will expire on August 31st. This day usually sneaks up on us every year, and has us scrambling to renew licenses online the night before a dive trip.

You must have a saltwater fishing license AND a spearfishing license to shoot fish. The size and creel limits are the same as fisherman. Please be aware of the closed seasons and size limits on all targeted fish species. Remember there is no such thing as catch and release in spearfishing.

A NOAA Southeast Fishery Bulletin came out Thursday announcing the agency has the authority to re-open the recreational red snapper season later this year, if deemed appropriate.  The red snapper quota was increased by 345,000 pounds for 2011.  This is  a good sign for a fall snapper season.  If the feds open red snapper, I promise not to go and shoot a 345,000 lb. red snapper and force a quick closure!

Below is a link to renew your licenses. It is a good idea to print several copies so you can keep one in your wallet, gear bag and on the boat. If you have any questions on open seasons call Gulf Coast Divers at (251) 342-2970.

Renew Your License – Get Your License

Jul

19

We have seen a huge increase in interest in diving among fisherman.  Some inquiries are from anglers searching for alternative fishing methods and many have been from sportsman wanting to see what they are fishing on.

Our spearfishing sites are the same reefs, wrecks and rigs that you are probably fishing right now.  Some adventurers begin diving and put away the rod-n-reel in favor of a speargun, but most still pursue both recreations.  Seeing the site and the way the fish stack-up on the site will make you a much smarter angler.  Being able to visualize the way fish hold on different sites gives the angler another tool to target a specific species.

Diving one of the many army tanks, sunk as artificial reefs, is always a memorable experience the first time.  We get the same comment from most divers upon surfacing; “I can’t believe it was a real army tank!”  Even though they knew it was a tank, their mind didn’t process an “ARMY TANK” sitting on the bottom.

One of our boat captains, Todd McGill, said that the desire to dive down and actually see the “Edwards” wreck is what drove him to learn to dive.  “I’ve fished that wreck for years and I had a deep desire to see the actual wreck, not just colored pixels on my bottom machine”.

How many “private” sites have fisherman given you that were “red hot” but you had no idea what it was.  These sites have lots of rumors surrounding them…chicken coup, tires, concrete culverts, pile of shopping carts or a concrete pyramid.  The reality is most look very similar on your bottom finder.  I dove a “private” site years ago that a fishing buddy said his dad put down as a reef.  He paid a reef builder to put this school bus out for them and he wanted me to go down and take pictures. “It has been a really hot site and we want to get an idea of it’s condition” he said.  I dove it and returned with his roll of film to develop…yep it was awhile ago.  I handed him his film and began describing the condition of the railroad boxcar.  “No man, this is a school bus” he exclaimed.  Even though I had just seen it, and yes it was loaded with fish, he didn’t believe me until he developed the film.  He had fished what he thought was a school bus for years.  Chances are the reef builder did put his school bus out, and he or his dad got their Loran numbers (told you it was awhile ago) mixed up in his notebook.  His disappointment had to do with the nostalgia of his dad’s site, not it’s productivity.

A fisherman’s GPS has generic site descriptions like wreck, good beeliners, hot trigger spot. A diver’s GPS has actual descriptions like shrimp boat, ½ barge, Bridge rubble, boxcar, etc.

To get a first hand look at you fishing spots, call Gulf Coast Divers at (251) 342-2970 and ask about dive training and spearfishing.  Training can be completed in a couple weeks and you can be geared up and ready sooner than you think.  Don’t keep saying, “One day I’m gonna’ see what’s down there.”  Make that “One day” happen this year.

Feb

17

Spearfishing can be an exhilarating way to put seafood on your family table.  It is, without question, the most selective way to harvest fish with very few lost fish and zero bycatch.  We spearos have a responsibility to land most of the fish we shoot, which means minimizing lost fish due to “tear-out”.  If a strong fish is shot in the belly or if the spear didn’t penetrate far enough through the fish, that fish may tear off, swim away and die.  A powerful, accurate speargun can help reduce this type of loss.

The most common reason for lost fish is a poor shot.  Choosing the right speargun for your hunting style and locale will maximize your results and increase your enjoyment.  Using the proper tip, such as breakaway and slip-tips, also helps reduce lost fish.  Ideally, you may want a variety of different guns to suit the various types of hunting conditions you will encounter.  Some of the things you should take into consideration are water clarity, game size, proximity to fish and gun rigging.  I use a pole spear for flounder and shore access dives because it is easier to handle around jetties, fish species are smaller and visibility can be limited.  You never want a gun that will shoot outside of visible range.  I recommend a 36” to 42” gun for smaller game fish such as triggerfish, scamp, black snapper and sheephead.  These species usually allow for closer approach which reduces the range the gun has to propel the shaft.   If your target species are amberjack, cobia and red snapper you will want more range and power and a 48” to 52” gun may be more appropriate.

The best way to become a good “spearo” is to dive with spearfisherman and watch how they approach, shoot and string fish, then dive alot and practice those skills.  Before you can become a good hunter, you must be a great diver.  New divers ask me often to recommend a number of logged dives as a goal before picking up a gun.  My answer is, there is no magic number.  A more accurate determination is skill level.  When you shoot your first fish, your attention will automatically zoom in on that fish and the fight.  But, you can’t forget about air consumption, depth, time, navigation, proximity to buddy and ascent rate, to name a few.  My recommendation is don’t start diving with distractions (spearguns, cameras, scooters) until your fundamental dive skills are automatic.

The points above are just a few of the topics discussed in our spearfishing class.  I will discuss general information for spearfishing on the gulf coast and equipment specifics relating to guns and local species in this series.  I will try to post a new article every week discussing different spearfishing topics.  Watch this blog for new articles and call me at (251) 342-2970 to ask questions on these or any other discussion topics.