All our diving was on the Atlantic side of Key Largo in and around John Pennekamp State Park. Our outfitter was Quiescence Diving Services, located on the Florida Bay side of the isand. We dove on Molasses Reef three times, French Reef, the Wreck of the Benwood and Harry's Bait House. The water temperature was a balmy 85 degrees. The visibility was about 80 feet. Our depths were an easy 30 to 45 feet. Most dives lasted 45 minutes to an hour. On the water surface we experienced heavy waves up to six feet, which beat us up getting into and out of the boat. The waves were big enough that once when returning to port, our 25 foot dive boat surfed along on the front of the waves. On the bottom there was a significant surge.
Paul took underwater videos, while on the land and in the boat I shot still pictures. He and I were buddies on each dive. Most trips, we discussed our underwater emergency procedures and practiced our hand signals.
Wildlife was abundant. We were within 10 feet of several nurse sharks, including one six footer. A five foot wide eagle ray with a six foot tail swam a big circle around us. We saw the usual Caribbean compliment of abundant blue chromis, a huge school of abnormally large midnight parrotfish, a rare rainbow parrotfish, a few stoplight parrotfish, several large blue parrotfish eating corral and dumping out clouds of while sand, red band parrotfish and one 5 foot long, 125 pound goliath grouper. Paul saw the biggest aggregation of Atlantic spadefish of his long career, each fish as big as a frying pan and colored bright silver.
We encountered all sizes of barracuda, including one a foot from my face mask showing me his many big teeth. The reefs were alive with sergeant majors, yellowtail snappers, a beautiful yellow and blue queen angelfish, blue tang, yellow goatfish, black margates, a giant french angelfish and a four foot long trumpet fish. The distinctively pyramid shaped smooth trunkfish puttered around slowly like an eccentric Englishman driving a tiny car. We nearly bumped into a five foot moray eel, a hawksbill sea turtle and several lobsters. On the land we say cormorants and osprey. One time a tiny bicolor damselfish came after me and bit my wrists about five times; they are territorial and it was bravely protecting its turf.
One funny scene was Paul fiddling with his camera, while unaware that he was floating motionless in a seated position, hovering five feet off the sandy bottom. He reminded me of Yoda sitting in mid-air as he instructed young Luke Skywalker on the finer points of the Force. Another interesting scene was when Paul was intently filming while slowly finning along the bottom. As is expected for the first half of a dive, he was going against the current, away from the boat. The minute his camera battery ran out, Paul had no more interest in the dive. He simply stopped moving and stood up in the middle of the water. The current picked him up and swept him back toward the boat. He looked like Mary Poppins opening her umbrella to fly away.
On the Benwood wreck I accidentally brushed my wrist against a red fire sponge, and immediately felt a sharp pain. The discomfort swelled to the intensity of a wasp sting, then became a dull ache, and finally a numb spot with a red welt that lasted two weeks. Paul is a Caribbean fish expert, and identified several fairly rare sightings, including a black grouper, a Bermuda chub, Spanish grunt, blue headed wrasse, squirrel fish, brown chromis, mahogany snapper and an ocean triggerfish.
During this trip I learned the joys of less neoprene, fewer weights and more control over my buoyancy. Instead of the heavy neoprene suit that I often wore, which requires adding or purging air from my BC vest to go up or down, which makes me bouncy and somewhat volatile in the water, I adapted to the warmer water. I found it is better to use fewer weights, which allows for the use of less air. Then I could adjust my buoyancy with fin kicks and breathing. Eventually if felt like I could ascend and descend by mental telepathy ' I could think about moving and subconsciously do so.
On a rest day from diving we drove the length of the islands to Key West. Along the way we hiked in Long Key State Park. Despite the muggy hot weather, we enjoyed the many bright flowers; and the close up views of the mangroves and sea flats, which are the nurseries of many kinds of open ocean fish, like the sea grass estuaries farther north. Some of the trees in the park were gumbo-limbo, sometimes called 'tourist tree' because the bark is thin, red and peeling like sunburned skin; lignum vitae, buttonwood and poisonwood.
We learned that the Keys (Anglicization of Spanish 'cays' for islands') are not made of sand, like the barrier islands of the NC Outer Banks. They don't shrink, grow and move. They are ancient petrified coral reefs. Millions of year ago the coral was formed, like it does now. Then the climate warmed, polar ice melted, the sea level rose and the coral died in the deeper water. It was covered by sediment and petrified. Then the climate cooled, more polar ice formed, the sea level fell and exposed the reefs as islands. It took tens of thousands of years of exposure to create the few inches of topsoil on the Keys now.
On another rest day we rented a tandem sea kayak from Florida Bay Outfitters. Our dress was for the hot sun, Bob with lightweight long sleeve shirt, long pants and floppy hat; Paul with shorts and lots of sunscreen. We were shuttled to Largo Bay on the Atlantic side of the island. After crossing a wide, shallow cove of sea grass in about six inches of crystal clear seawater, our course took us paddling through a mangrove swamp. We headed for the open ocean outside of Largo Bay and went around Rattlesnake Key. At the turning point of the trip I stayed in the boat to keep if from drifting away and Paul snorkeled in the ocean. A good time was had by all!