You would never know it at first glance, but Blue Heron Bridge situated just a mile or so off I-95 in Riviera Beach, Florida is one of the best dives in south Florida (in my opinion). Marine critters like seahorses, octopus, eels, sea stars, crabs, lobsters, sea slugs, and many more all call this bridge home. Diving the bridge requires a little bit of planning, mostly regarding the tide. You want to dive the bridge at slack high tide for the best chances of good visibility and minimal current. Just park, head under the bridge, gear up and walk into the water. Aside from being free, another bonus of diving the bridge is that is super easy to navigate and shallow- which means a long bottom time, perfect for photography!
On my most recent dive I encountered several very active seahorses who were reluctant to pose for a photograph. Scrawled cowfish and sheepshead were also swimming about. A filefish came out of nowhere and attacked my mask and camera, though I am not quite sure what I did to upset the little guy! Unfortunately, I did not spot any octopus, but I have been lucky enough to encounter them on other dives. In fact, the bridge is so well-known for its octopus population that cephalopod researcher and behaviorist Dr. Roger Hanlon has filmed them at the bridge. His research and video collection can be viewed at http://hermes.mbl.edu/mrc/hanlon/. I finally saw a flying gurnard but the elusive stargazer still evades me!
This particular dive was my first time using a strobe (external flash) on my underwater camera. I had always been slightly intimidated to use one. However, I decided to just try it out and can say that I only regret not using one sooner, it makes such a difference in bringing out the colors!
The most interesting thing I saw on this dive was a feeding behavior called “shadow feeding.” This is when one predatory fish will use another to hide itself, allowing it to closer approach prey without being deteced. I observed this behavior between a yellow stingray and a bar jack.
I recently took a trip with my family to Isla Mujeres, a tiny island off the east coast of Mexico. We were there for one reason- to swim with the world’s largest fish, the Whale Shark.
We arrive in Mexico on a Wednesday, go through customs, take a cab to the ferry station, take the ferry to Isla Mujeres, walk with our luggage about a half a mile and finally arrive at our condo. It was hot, sunny, and beautiful. This however, did not last. Little did we know, the next 4 days would be spent sunless, with torrential rains and wind. Thank you tropical storm Debby.
After cancelling our trip to swim with whale sharks on Thursday morning due to weather, we begged our captain, Captain Tony, to take us out Friday morning. Waves, rain, thunder, lightining, water spouts and as my dad put it “pretty much the worst conditions imaginable.” But we were there to swim with the sharks and so that’s what we were doing. As we headed out north of the island to find the sharks, holding my fins up in front of my face proved to act as a good shield against the stinging rain. Along the way we saw dolphins, mating sea turtles, a school of cownose rays, and giant manta rays.
We were just about to jump in the water with the mantas, when we noticed a shadow that appeared more long than wide.
Luckily for us, after two hours of driving we were rewarded with a whale shark sighting!
Once a shark is spotted, everyone gets ready with their snorkel gear and two people enter the water at a time. My dad and I jump in. Where is the shark? The water is so GREEN and MURKY. Suddenly, I notice a mass of white spots about 5 feet below me, and realize it’s the shark swimming under me. I hear my dad yell in excitement through his snorkel as he freedives alongside it, dwarfed by the 25-30 foot animal. I dive down and look it in the eye. Incredible. Their spots look like they are painted on canvas.
Some people may wonder why on earth you would get in the water with a giant shark!? This species is harmless. They are not predatory, but instead slowly cruise at the surface of the ocean with a gaping open mouth to feed on plankton, much like a whale (hence their name). They migrate to the coast of Isla Mujeres to feed on the eggs produced by spawning fish. Most of the sharks that come here to feed are juvenile males.
Similar to a human fingerprint, the spot patterns on a whale shark are unique to each individual. Because of that, in an effort to understand more about them and their movement patterns, there is a global photo-identification database run by ECOCEAN where anyone can submit a photo of a whale shark sighting. By matching spot patterns scientists can track individuals and their locations. The program started around 2003 with just a couple hundred photographs, and in 2011 had nearly 19,000 submitted! I plan on submitting a photo of the shark we swam with to see who it was and contribute to the database.
I’m hoping to go back at some point when its sunny with hundreds of whale sharks in clear blue water. But then again, what is travel without a little adventure and adrenaline. If you want to go out and experience nature, you’re going to have to face the elements.
To read more about ECOCEAN and the whale shark photo-identification database go to www.whaleshark.org
Sometimes it doesn’t take much to step out of our everyday lives and into an entirely different world- all it takes is a little exploration and sense of adventure. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to cost anything. For example, 100 yards offshore in Deerfield Beach and you can swim with ancient marine reptiles, sea turtles. No lines, no entrance fees, and no crowds.
Deerfield Beach is a popular snorkel and dive spot because the reef is so close to shore. However, just before you reach the reef there is a seemingly uninteresting bottom type made up mostly algae. This is exactly why the turtles are here.
Around the world there are 7 different sea turtle species. These are green sea turtles, so named because the fat under their shells is actually green. Green sea turtles are herbivorous and they come here eat the algae. While adult female sea turtles use the beach for nesting, the ones in the algae beds are juveniles. Just little guys.
Yet, it’s not like there are signs posted or instructions on how to get here. In fact, I discovered this population of sea turtles accidently. My friends and I would come to snorkel the reef, generally looking for fish and corals. While swimming back into shore we would always see the turtles in the shallow water. A few more trips and we realized they are pretty much always here in the algae beds eating- go figure. Usually, when you find one you find at least 5 or 6 more.
Unfortunately, most sea turtles are listed as endangered or threatened, due to threats from human activity, such as beach development, bycatch from fishing, and illegal black-market trade in eggs and meat.
After being in the water for hours, eventually I just stopped to watch and observe them rather than focus on taking photos. I jealously watched as they glided through the water effortlessly, obviously built for the aquatic environment . Meanwhile, there I was getting tossed around awkwardly in the waves, surfacing every minute for a breath. It is humbling to swim with a species that has existed for over 65 million years.