Exploring The Florida Keys, below the waterline :-)

It is April 30th. Matt and I have been on a slow vacation through the Florida Keys for the last 10 days. This is the trip account, with a heavy emphasis on our connection with wildlife.

During the first week we tried diving on Looe Key. This is my first time getting wet since I was bent in Bonaire in early February. This first dive was uneventful, which is a blessing. I felt exhausted, but not bent. We dove one dive on the first day, took a day off and dove one on the next days, both very shallow. I felt the tweak in my heart area when I took a full breath. It is a familiar tweak, and now I suspect it is the culprit. My habit is to breathe deeply and slowly, which is great for breath and buoyancy control. But if there is a small hole in my heart, then that deep breath under the additional pressure of the ocean would open the hole up. Then the little gasses can go through and build up to cause trouble. This is the reality. I am learning to take much shallower breaths. I have had my heart tested for PFO, the acronym for a hole in the heart, and the test was negative. But this feeling is reality. I can’t reproduce it on land or on the surface, only at depth. About 6 hours after our second dive I began to get shoulder pain. Then next day I awoke quite encumbered. It felt like the bends pain again, but there were complicating factors – I had paddled a kayak 2 days before for several hours, and I have a history of having this shoulder seize when I am under stress. So I decided to treat it with vitamin I and massage. 2 days later it was resolved.

Matt and I probably won’t dive again this trip. He got sea sick, and all I can tell him is that the next area we were going to dive is much rougher. Of course my pain has nothing to do with the choice J.

We have seen the big animals. A large loggerhead was surfacing as our dive boat went past. Captain George cut the engine and we watched the big guy take a deep breath, then slowly descend. Just beautiful. This was the third turtle of the trip. The others were swimming off of 7 mile bridge, which is the delineation between the upper and lower keys. The old bridge is now a foot path leading to Pigeon key, a cluster of original buildings, now a park, about 1.5 miles off shore. We didn’t get that far because we were tired from the 5 mile kayak trip that morning. The hotel in Grassy Key offered free kayaks and we accepted. The water was so inviting with a light breeze and little chop. We set off to nowhere and then decided to go the mangroves we saw far down the coastline. How much farther? Paddle, paddle, paddle! Looking down the water seemed devoid, then there was a white triangular flash of the eagle ray! Yeah, my favorite! We circled to be sure, and that of course caused the displeased ray to promptly depart. More paddling and then swoosh, a shark! Now we were having fun. Finally we reached the mangroves and enjoyed the great white egrets hunting from their hidden perches. On the return the water churned with three big snooks, which Matt saw but I missed. Then like morel mushrooms there were more of them, yummy giants in the shallow murk.

Upon entering the water for the first dive I was struck by the slatted forest of fan corals on top of the reef. Blue, yellow, purple, looking like cross sectioned leaves. A similarly flat file fish was the first one to greet us at 7 feet of sea water. He was orange, unlike the ones in Bonaire.

We tried to find a reported 300 lb grouper named Elvis, to no avail. But we did find goliath groupers, just smaller ones. The other large monster was a yellow snapper. There were large specimens of grey angel fish and barracuda, and a diversity of wrasses, damsels, sergeant majors and snappers. Overall the reef is pretty, but the coral is much abused and the fish life low density.

Matt and I were deciding whether to take a surface interval and do a second tank, or not, when a small boat in front of us began to disappear. The family on board was out for a snorkel and had just tied to a buoy when water swamped the stern and suddenly it was pandemonium. Being the closest boat we responded, then tossed lines to the two screaming teenage girls, their brother and father. I was surprised to see the men board our vessel first, while we hollered to the girls to let go of the upside down hull and grab the line. So it goes. We learned all about the features and benefits of Tow-Boat US, AAA for boaters. It was fun to have the Coast Guard rescue boat swoop up to our side and haul in their catch, a forlorn Boston family who had rented a boat from the wrong side of the tracks, and who were leaving their wallets, phones, car keys and house keys to swim with the fishes. Matt and I decided to call it a day.

The second day of diving was choppier and murkier. We returned to the reef, this time with no other boats around. Again we were the solo customers on Innerspace’s boat, a real treat. The reef right under the boat was so pretty. Those fans were just like a pigmy forest laced with fish. And in the crevices below big fish were everywhere. Our plan was to go out and follow fingers of reef up and back. We did this dutifully and at it was pretty dull. We did see a big nurse shark and a barracuda getting his teeth cleaned along with angels and other wonders. But mostly it was disappointing. Coming back to the boat the fans again were incredible and I was resolved to just hanging out there for the next dive. What I didn’t know was that had Matt gotten sea sick as we were gearing up, but didn’t share the news. The water was surgy around the shallow reef, and so his sickness increased as we dove. 50 minutes later when he got back on board Captain Robert was alarmed, and Matt was not saying a word. He was afraid if he even said “sea sick” he would hurl. I got on second, and after a minute inquired. Matt fessed up and we immediately departed. Note to self. If it’s wonderful where you are, don’t move. You may not get to see that place again.