How do you learn to have barracuda snatch ballyhoo out of your mouth? I wanted the true story. So when I showed up at Atlantis Dive Center in Key Largo, Captain Slate introduced a white-haired man with a ready smile and a youngster's gleam in his eye. This is Steve Klem, Slate said, he's the guy who showed me how to feed the barracudas. Steve's been like my godfather since the day we opened Atlantis Dive Center in 1978. Steve started his own dive business here back in 1960. Shaking my hand, Steve said, I used to feed all kinds of fish by holding the bait in my mouth - angelfish, eels, filefish, even jacks. Of course, I used a short piece of dowel when I fed the barracudas, to get those wicked teeth a bit further from my face. The first day I went out to feed by myself, Slate said, slapping his forehead with an open palm, I forgot the dowel. I didn't want to disappoint the divers, so I just held the ballyhoo's beak between my teeth and went ahead anyway. It was so exciting I've done it that way ever since. Now the Friday morning 'Creature Feature' is a trademark of Atlantis Dive Center, with either me or my wife Annette doing the feeding. It was definitely TGIF when we arrived at the Elbow, the dive site where the Creature Feature normally takes place. A hungry menagerie greeted us at the City of Washington wreck, including two slippery green morays, three nurse sharks, five bold Nassau grouper and an assortment of snapper. Two silver barracuda hung disdainfully above the crowd like arrows frozen in flight. Watching Captain Slate feed the barracudas is like watching a matador hold the cape in his mouth while the bull charges. In his dive brief, Slate passes around a sliced-up mask and neatly cut air hose - both damaged in the blink of an eye. Those fish are lightning quick - this is definitely not something to try on your own. But this morning's event went off with out a hitch. It was obvious that everyone enjoyed the show. We made our second dive on the other end of the Elbow, but we could have gone almost anywhere. Atlantis Dive Center covers Key Largo from top to bottom, visiting dive sites from Carysfort Reef to the wreck of the Duane, including the Elbow Molasses, French, Horseshoe, North North Dry Rocks, North Dry Rocks and the Benwood. Of course, Key Largo Dry Rocks, where the Christ statue is located, is a regular stop. In fact, Atlantis is in the Guinness Book of Records for the world's largest underwater wedding, a 31-diver and 33-snorkeler affair held at the statue. Critter feedings and underwater weddings may be the headliners, but Atlantis Dive Center is a full-service dive operation. Eight instructors are on staff, certified by PADI, YMCA, NAUI and SSI. In addition, Captain Slate is a YMCA and NAUI course director, and teaches several instructor courses each year. Atlantis Dive Center operates four custom dive boats, all Coast Guard-certified for 40 passengers. Slate limits the capacity to 25 scuba divers, to make sure that everyone has plenty of room. One boat, Coral Princess VI, is also equipped for glass-bottom viewing. Atlantis Water Sports, located at the Howard Johnson Beach Resort near MM 102 bayside, extends the Atlantis activities to kayaking, canoeing and personal watercraft. Non-divers can get wet for free with the 15-minute, I Tried Scuba program in the pool. Atlantis instructors also use the pool, which is equipped with a lift for handicapped students, for Resort and Open Water certification courses. The happy chatter as divers left the boat back at the shop reminded me of Steve Klem's parting words, Have fun out there today, it's the secret of staying young! For more information about fish adventures and diving Pennekamp Park, click on Captain Slate's home page below.
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