Of all the places I choose to dive in the Upper Keys, French Reef is the not among the most frequent. When I do go there, I prefer to dive the deep part of the reef.
There is a beautiful part of the seaward edge that has some black coral, barrel sponges and deep cuts in the reef. The largest school of spadefish I have seen in the Keys was on the deep side of French Reef.
A week or so ago, we dove the Spiegel Grove to begin the day. There were a lot of divers there that morning, so I did not get the ambiance we experience when we have the wreck to ourselves. That happens every now and then, and its a very peaceful dive, with animals all around that have not been spooked by other divers. When we arrived and were tying up to the mooring ball, a large school came through just beneath the surface. We thought it was skipjacks or something similar. The water boiled for a few minutes, and they were gone before I could get in the water.
What they left behind, however, was just as much fun. As soon as we jumped in we saw a large shark going back and forth where the school had just passed. I thought, at first glance, it was a hammerhead, but when it turned towards us I could see it was a silky shark, like the Galapagos sharks I have seen at Cocos Island, Costa Rica. Beautiful animal.
A few minutes later we saw another smaller silky, which was quite agitated. All I could get were proof of life shots, since they kept their distance about 40 feet away. Dive buddy Phil said in over 25 years of diving the Keys, he has never seen a pelagic silky shark here. You never know what is going to show up.
After that we decided to go to French Reef. Phil had been there the day before and knew right where a massive school of minnows was hangning. It felt really odd when we got there. Molasses Reef was full of boats, but there was nobody at all on French Reef.
Lucky for us. I have never seen better visibility on French Reef. Blue water and large underwater vistas greeted us when we flopped off the boat. No current. The boat was hanging almost right overtop of the minnows. Nobody in sight we had the entire reef, a big bunch of minnows, and all the company they attract with about 90 minutes to play.
As soon as I went under the ledge and into the hole, there were several snook, black groupers and snappers just waiting their turn to snack on the minnows. The minnows were so thick I could not see the light at the other end of the cave. As I swam through, the minnows parted and a nurse shark was sitting on the bottom, looking quite content. I could see Phil watching all this as I came through the cave. He signaled me he was going to take a look around, and off he went.
I spent the next chunk of the dive just hanging out, all this life swirling around me, happy to be a Keys resident and to have access to a backyard like this.
I was also wondering how long it would last. Not just the school of minnows, but this way of life. I am sitting here, in the company of animals, contemplating the state of the marine sanctuary while quietly composing the next shot. All of the scientists I have interviewed have said the sustainability of our waters could hang in the balance of what transpires during the zoning and regulatory review process.
When Phil came back he took me to another, larger school of minnows out towards the deeper end of the reef. We spent about a half hour with that collection of activity. As I descended into this little cave, I was greeted by a goliath grouper, just hanging out watching the activity. What a day.
After two completely different dives like that, It makes me wonder what else is in the sanctuary, and how our waters will fare in the future. Soon the Working Group will be done, and we will vote on our final recommendations. The Sanctuary Advisory Council will add, modify or delete the recommendations we send to them. Just like the minnows, or the snook or the groupers, I have played a part in a much larger scenario. I am grateful for that.
My college baseball coach used to tell us one simple way to approach the game: put everything you have between those white lines for nine innings, and walk off the field knowing you have given it your best. In a team sport, sometimes you dont control the final outcome. But you do control your own effort. Thats the feeling I will have when I walk out of the last Working Group meeting later this month.
I have learned a great deal in a short amount of time, with much more to go. I have had the opportunity to meet and interview leading scientists about their work. I have made new friends and agreed to disagree with some of the other players. I believe I have been effective in communicating what I am learning to you. Ecosystem protection is a different ballgame than traditional fisheries management. I have a feeling this one is going extra innings, and may last a lifetime.
Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his web site at www.timgimages.com. Tim is a member of the Ecosystem Protection Working Group for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.