This was the weekend starting Spring Break for USF. Since it had been more than a month since I had dove, I was ready to go diving. Also, the previous November was the last time I had done a salt water dive, so I called up Scuba Quest. There was a reason for that, and that reason had yet to really change enough for me to be completely comfortable ...
Diving off of Madiera Beach:
- Directions from Tampa: Get on I-275 South. In St. Pete, take Exit 13 and turn right onto 38th Ave. North. 38th meets up with Tyrone Blvd.; take a right onto Tyrone Blvd. Look for SR-666 which should lead you to a draw bridge called the Tom Stuart Causeway. It dead-ends on the other side of the bridge at Gulf Blvd. Take a left. The shop is on the left (I'd say about a mile or so down...like most dive shops, look for the big dive flag!). It's about an hour's drive from USF.
- Conditions on the day of my visit: Sunny and cool.
- Personal Notes: I was hoping for at least 70 degrees F for a water temperature. It wasn't quite that warm, unfortunately. The air was usually comfortably warm, though the breeze made it comfortably cool; a glance at my dive computer noted 78 degrees F. The water was relatively calm in the morning, though the wind and waves picked up noticeably as we surfaced from the first dive. Visibility for both dives was a spectacular 60 feet at least; it was nice for once to be at depth in the Gulf and still be able to see the boat clearly. The good visibility was due mostly to the cold water having killed off most of the algae that, in the warmer months, bloom and cloud up the water. There was almost no current, either; the safety stop on the first dive could be done without holding on to the line.
The first dive was a natural ledge with five to six feet of relief; the boat captain (Pete this trip out) called it "One Eyed Willy," which from Chad's (the dive master and my primary buddy for the dives) reaction indicates that Pete probably found this spot and had no clue as to what it might officially be named. Some nudiberries, trigger fish, schools large of spade fish, the odd hogfish, and some very large angel fish (including a couple of queen angels) were the more notable creatures I could identify. Add to that the various varieties of coral, including fire coral, and you couldn't ask for much more in the Gulf. There was a really neat looking fish with an orange patch on his side that no one would hazard a guess as to what it might have been (after researching it and asking some others, I'm going to say it was probably a striped parrot fish); I forgot to ask about the fish that was quite large, and looked like it had the head of a snail (someone told me it was probably a cowfish). The ledge, though natural, is an excellent dive (next to impossible to get lost on) spot about 60 feet down; the ledge was about 30 yards long. This spot was quite far out as well; not too far away from where some of the freighters park before sailing in to port. This was the best natural reef dive overall I have done so far, though the dive where I saw the nurse shark with Marshall on Kokomo Reef had an instant that ranks up in the top three "Dive Experiences" (diving Kokomo in and of itself I dislike, since so far I've gotten lost 2 out of 3 visits to that reef).
However, the worst part of the dive for me was the fact that (according to my dive computer) it was a very chilly 66 degrees F. This is one of those water temperatures that makes you think "A dry suit may be well worth the expense." Chad indicated to our other buddy and I that he was going to surface to get ready to handle the divers returning to the boat, and that we should feel free to continue our dive. After about a minute of swimming around, the two of us looked at each other and made the "I'm damn cold" hand signals and decided to surface.
Twice now diving I've noticed that I can be shivering, teeth chattering uncontrollably, and still not really feel cold. The previous experience like this was a dive at Ginnie Springs. This time, even with the wetsuit on, sitting in the sun, it took a while for my chin to stop acting like a Richter Scale needle in an apocalyptic earthquake. However, given how chilly the air could have gotten, I wasn't going to take the suit off ... I've learned that lesson twice (both times at Weeki Wachee).
The second dive was an old broken up sunken barge called "The Betty Rose." It's amazing what an extra 40 feet of visibility does to a site; it was completely different than my previous visit to the barge. The barge is about 40 to 50 feet down, collapsed in the middle, leaving several extremely interesting ways to investigate the site. Pete did a very good job of hooking a good spot on the wreck a sufficient distance from the five or six fishers that were trying to catch something other than divers (though Pete did have to reach for his box of "Things To Throw At Boats That Come Too Close" a couple of times as the fishers occasionally tested the 100 foot rule). More nudiberries, trigger fish, another school of spade fish, more angel fish, enough bait fish to make too dark to see well, a bunch of fish hiding underneath the barge, and a my first 'in the wild' jewfish were among the sites we saw. At one point Chad swam out from the wreck a little ways into the sand; after looking in a few holes and not finding anything of great interest, we swam back ... I rolled over for a second to look up at the water and there, probably 20 feet above me, was an actual school of barracuda (prior to this I've only seen single barracuda cruising just above the bottom). As we neared the wreck, a very big school of large bait fish slowly swarmed and surrounded us; one minute we had a good view of the side of the wreck 10 feet away ... the next minute, we could barely make out much until we were right next to the wreck. We spotted the jewfish as we swam beside the wreck, looking into the openings on it's side; if we had wanted to, it was likely we could have reached in and touched him. He was about four to five feet long and really did not seem to care that we were watching him. As we were doing our safety stop, Chad pointed down, and sitting in the sand (decently camouflaged, though a diver knowing what to look for could spot him) was another large jewfish. Too far away to estimate his size, he still had to be pretty big (probably similar to the first one) for us to be able to spot from basically 25-30 feet up.
This dive was shallower than the first one and the dive computer reports a temp of 67 degrees F. Again, colder than I'd like. But I'm a rabid diver and I still enjoyed the dives, and though I considered not doing the second one (and then calling it as I bobbed in the water, waiting for my other buddy to join Chad and I), I'm glad I did.
I was up on the bridge on the boat ride back, and was instantly embarrassed when a gust of wind caught my hat (a Scuba Quest baseball cap) and blew it off. Even before it hit the water I was considering it lost until Pete said, "What did you loose?" I said, "My hat," and as I was informing him it was a cap from his shop, he was yelling to Chad, "Mark it down as a man overboard drill!" It turns out they have to do one every two months and since it was something that floated, Pete considered it something worth going back for. After the situation was explained to me and I was clutching my dripping hat to my chest (I wasn't about to see if Pete would go back for it a second time), I said, "Glad I could be of service." ;)
A great couple of dives overall, and of course a decent lunch at Dockside Dave's with the crew and a couple of other divers afterwards (though I'm beginning to think the restaurant is grossly understaffed, since it took a long time to get our order in, and then a long time to get our food).
Dive data for dives on this day: