After almost two months of mandatory restrictions that resulted in closing dive boat operations, regulators have relented to allow ocean access. Restrictions and mandatory closures have severely impacted the diving industry. Brett Gilliam an expert in dive operations and commercial ventures stated, “I believe 40% of retail dive operations will not survive after restrictions are lifted. In my dive operations I always put money aside to cover contingencies. When a hurricane struck the island where I operated a dive business I was able to stay closed, pay my employees, make repairs and open once the situation cleared. Many dive stores do not have sufficient savings to survive these forced closures. They in turn will default on their debts and not pay equipment manufacturers. Brick and mortar operations have been severely impacted by Internet sales as it is.”
Editorial and photos by John Christopher Fine
“You must wear your mask on the dock, on the boat to the dive site and when you come back aboard after the dive,” Captain Jim Hill instructed his divers. While “Loggerhead” is certified by the U.S. Coast Guard to carry more than double the passenger load, Captain Jim, following guidelines laid down by regulators, has limited his trips to nine divers. That cuts income in half. Trips require the same staffing, fuel and expenses no matter the load of divers.
“January was one of our worst months weather wise. I couldn’t run a trip until the 19th, I believe it was. Every weekend we were blown out,” Captain Jim explained. Weather dependent is a fact when boats must navigate through the Boynton Inlet to get to the Atlantic Ocean. The inlet is dangerous and can only be used when ocean and wind conditions permit. Weather combined with ocean access are risks dive operators out of Boynton Beach have assumed over many years.
Captain Hill has been operating “Loggerhead” for the last twenty years from what is now the Boynton Beach Harbor Marina. Commercial slip rentals have become expensive as costs continue to escalate. There is a ceiling above which divers will not go to enjoy their pursuit. A two-tank dive trip, if a diver has their own equipment, including tank fills and tip to the crew will run about $100. If marina fees, insurance, boat repairs and maintenance continue to escalate operators cannot feasibly raise their rates above that.
“We have not been out in a long time. Divers are calling in reservations to get diving finally. There is not enough space,” Nancy Holloway said. Nancy is a dental technician working in Boynton Beach. Her dive buddy Andrea McBride joined her aboard “Loggerhead” for the first ocean dive since the embargo. Both divers are regulars every week as are many loyal customers that return to the area as tourists during season. A season curtailed by travel restrictions and fear of contagion.
Captain Hill navigated “Loggerhead” under the A1A bridge and through the cut into the Atlantic, skillfully averting a sand bar that builds up just beyond the mouth of the inlet. Divers cheered. All complied with spacing mandates aboard and wore their colorful and often unique masks for protection. Mask wearing was continually reinforced by “Loggerhead” crew.
The offshore reefs in the Boynton Beach area are among the most beautiful in the world. The Gulf Stream meanders in and brings swift water and large ocean creatures that come to feed on bountiful life attracted to the reefs. While the Gulf Stream is predominantly a northward flowing current there are days when eddies in the Stream cause it to flow south.
These first dives after the embargo found the Stream running about two knots. It is called drift diving. Dive teams take a line attached to a dive flag and float with them. Captain Jim follows the flags and picks divers up when they surface: often a mile or more from where they were put in.
Two female loggerhead turtles were observed on these first dives. It is turtle mating season. Beaches in Palm Beach County are prime nesting sites for marine turtles. Mating season will continue through summer. Divers enjoy frequent turtle sighting underwater.
Lobster season ended March 31 and there was respite during the embargo on diving. On these first dives after restrictions were lifted lobsters were seen walking on the reefs enjoying the tranquility of freedom until mini-season for divers (the last weekend in July) and regular season resumes in August.
Lionfish have become a delicacy. Divers spear these invasive species, use care to cut off venomous spines and find the white meat delicious. Divers on this first venture accounted for a large pail of lionfish removing a menace to reef ecology and bringing home food.
While full dive operations have not resumed, it is clear that divers will comply with restrictions reinforced by operators. The important issue regulators and elected officials must understand is that while health concerns are important so is the quality of life. Too often politicians fear being criticized for not acting soon enough or with enough forcefulness to palliate a disaster. The impact of unbridled and unreasoned regulation and enforcement is worse since it is motivated not by sane reason rather self-protection by incompetent officials. Diving is back. The ocean is open to a pursuit that is a key to learning and appreciation for the beauty of nature that remains Florida’s most valuable asset.