Gigantic. Prehistoric. The loggerhead’s tail at the base is bigger around than my two hands, thumb and forefingers spread wide and spaced four inches apart. I do not have little hands. I’ve logged the big fella’s return to the same reefs off Ocean Ridge, Florida over the last 26 years. This denizen of the deep does not live there. He comes each season to mate. Magnetic crystals in the sea turtle’s brain direct him back year after year to the place where he hatched out. From his size and cataracts in his aged eyes, I judge he is likely 90 years old.
Article and images by John Christopher Fine
How does he get there? How do I get there? My solution is simple enough. I lecture around the world. I must take not only my personal dive equipment, I lug underwater camera equipment, lighting and research materials. All necessary to work in the underwater environment. The loggerhead doesn’t fly, nor do I. Neither of us would fit. Certainly not me with all that stuff even if I forked out a fortune to check luggage. Scuba tanks could not travel as checked baggage unless empty, even so airlines would be wary transporting them.
The loggerhead’s main peril is skirting Cuban “tortugueros” and other islanders that relish turtle meat on his long swim from far reaches in the Caribbean where he summers. Me I take Amtrak’s AutoTrain. My SUV has become a scuba mobile. I cram it full of dive gear, drive to the AutoTrain depot at either end of the journey: Sanford, Florida for the journey north or Lorton, Virginia for the trip south. Bargain fares make it less expensive than driving all the way considering tolls, fuel, meals and overnight stays. When I arrive, I drive away in my car with all my gear.
Reefs from Boca Raton north to Jupiter are fairly consistent. About three-quarters to a mile out in the Atlantic the inshore or western edge is in about 60 feet. The outside or eastern edge drops off 80 feet to the sand. In between the top of the reef is in 45 to 50 feet. Ledges along the reefs form great areas to explore harboring all manner of marine life. Coral abounds with soft corals as well as hard coral structures. Tropical fish of all sorts can be seen.
The Gulf Stream, that mighty river in the ocean, a northerly flowing current, meanders in close to shore. Not only does the Stream sweep reefs clear of pollution due to canal dumping, agricultural runoffs, human and animal and waste, it brings large ocean dwellers that seek food in shallower zones.
A fellow passenger on AutoTrain, while taking the included evening meal in a Superliner observation car, white linen table cloth and napkins making the meal a fine dining experience, wanted to know about sharks. The question is universal, asked by non-divers all the time: “Aren’t you afraid of sharks?”
The Atlantic Reefs in the area from Delray Beach north to Jupiter abound with sharks. Some are territorial. Nurse sharks rest in caves and niches in coral, under ledges and sometimes on the sand. Hammerhead, bull, lemon, sand bar and rarely whale sharks venture along the reefs. Apart from nurse sharks that may remain still long enough for an underwater photographer to snap off a few pictures, pelagic sharks keep moving. They are attracted to those that spear fish just as Goliath groupers hang around lobster catchers.
My answer usually explains that shark behavior, shown in exciting film clips on television, is provoked by feeding or chumming the water. While feeding marine creatures by divers in Florida’s territorial waters is illegal, once beyond three miles it is allowed. Shark feeding dives are popular although controversial. Normal shark behavior does not follow feeding frenzy stimulated activity. It is often hard to get a good close up photograph of a large shark underwater before it sees divers, feels vibrations from exhaled bubbles and swims fast away. While pelagic sharks are not usually associated with distinct territory, many large sharks have been consistently seen at certain times of the year on specific reefs.
Five of the seven marine turtle species are seen offshore of Florida’s Atlantic reefs. The rarest is the Kemp’s Ridley. I have photographed this species only twice off Boynton Beach. To get there the Kemp’s Ridley must swim from Mexican beaches in the Gulf, around the Florida Keys and up through the Straits of Florida. The Ridley has been seen far north in summer even off Cape Cod. No marine turtle can live in cold water temperatures. Thus, to survive the Ridley must make its return trip before winter. Loggerhead, green, hawksbill and leatherback turtles are prevalent; females nest on beaches all along the coast.
Marine turtles are endangered thus a protected species. Captain Jim Hill, owner of “Loggerhead”, a dive boat out of Boynton Beach, makes a point briefing divers about turtle protection laws. “Do not ride them, do not harass them, do not pull them out from under a ledge. If common sense is not enough to tell you that if a sleeping turtle s surprised and gets scared it can injure itself dashing away from perceived danger then there are substantial fines and jail penalties for violation of Federal laws that protect sea turtles.”
Moray eels make exciting underwater pictures. Green morays are territorial. Morays poke out of niches in the reef, mouths opening and closing as they pump water for oxygenation, exposing fangs. Sometimes photographers are lucky enough to get a picture of a free swimming moray as it moves across a reef looking for food.
Florida’s spiny lobster is a diver’s delicacy. Lobster season runs from a “diver-only mini-season” weekend at the end of July to the regular season from August to the end of March. No egg bearing lobsters can be taken. Divers must carry a gauge below to measure the carapace from eye socket to its junction with the tail to insure it is legal size.
These are my secret haunts. I’ve even revealed how I get there with all my dive gear. Having a delicious evening meal elegantly served at table, a good night’s rest on AutoTrain then a complimentary continental breakfast before morning arrival is not only cost-effective it is comfortable and congenial. Diving the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach County offers opportunity to explore some of the most beautiful reefs in the world.