As you can see from the photo below, I found it positively exhausting to dive with a huge Goliath grouper — about 200 pounds — and a gorgeous spotted eagle ray, not to mention nudibranchs, cobia, swirls of baitfish, gigantic arrow crabs (really big! what are they eating in the Gulf???) and assorted other fish and critters too numerous to list here. The Goliath pic that was used as a "thumbnail" on our home page for this article was taken during another Sport Diver outing and so is for illustrative purposes only. I promise you, our Goliath was much bigger.
Our boat captain for the day was Capt. Jeff Longnecker and our divemaster was Stacy Goodrich. It was my and Sport Diver Managing Editor Becky Strauss's (she's on the left in the photo and her eyes are open; Stacy is the one flashing a sleeping diver signal and Capt. Jeff is a little cut off — sorry about that Jeff) first time diving in the Gulf of Mexico, but as we later told Narcosis Scuba owner Capt. Joyce French-Hannaseck, it won't be our last. All three are PADI Instructors, but they're also a whole lotta fun and knowledgeable about where stuff is hiding (sometimes in plain view). Stacy had a camera that unfortunately flooded, but she managed to salvage this nudi pic:
The Narcosis II is a 32-foot dive boat with a 10-foot beam, just roomy enough for the 6-diver (plus 2 crew) max limit that Narcosis Scuba books for two-tank dives. The dives we did are roughly a 1 hour, 15 minute boat ride from the Tarpon Springs sponge docks. Tarpon Springs is a great little Greek community, famed for its sponges, restaurants and pastries. You'll chug down the Anclote River for about 30 minutes before hitting open water — plenty of time to set up your gear on the way out and break it down on the way in. It is a long boat ride and the boat is tight, but the crew has a system for organizing everything, so it's comfortable and it was nice to be among other divers and have the time to get to know them.
Generally, the Narcosis II likes to depart the pier by 7:30 am, and usually, if you're diving shallower sites, you'll be on the water 5 or 6 hours for a two-tank dive. Not everybody's cup of tea, but for Becky and me, it was way better than a day in the office, even with our 5 am start from Orlando. We sailed down I-4, and then connected to I-275 and then 60 West — it was pretty easy to get to and find the shop, especially when you're not doing the driving, like moi.
And the diving was truly worth it! As anyone who dives the Gulf knows, viz can be fickle, anywhere from 5 feet to 80 feet (the former in winter, the latter in summer). We had a good 30 feet of viz and flat-calm surface and at-depth conditions. Water temp was 82 degrees, so nice and toasty.
Our first dive was at Veterans Reef, in about 45 feet of water. We loved this dive! According to the site "Florida Scuba Diving," Veterans Reef was the brainchild of Jim Pochurek, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who wanted to establish an artificial reef that would be good for fishermen and divers and also to be a place where families could scatter ashes or have a memorial service for their loved ones. When we anchored, there was a pleasure boat at the reef the same time as us, with one guy fishing, but as Capt. Jeff explained, the dive boats and fishing vessels respect one another's space.
The site is comprised of three steel-hulled barges each more than 100 feet long, 300 tons of limestone and fabricated fish-attracting devices (FADS). The barges rest on the sand bottom in a roughly rectangular shape.
To commemorate past veterans, a Lockheed Neptune P2V-3 was placed on top of one of the barges in an upright position, but the plane has broken up and is no longer recognizable. At least not to me.
Though we didn't swim to it, there is an underwater commemorative plaque that can be viewed nearby. Oh, if you like shells and sand dollars, the sand bottom has some beauties. Just leave 'em there--sand dollars are burrowing animals and shells usually are hosting critters, so it's not the same as picking them up off the beach (and even then, check shells for little creatures).
Swarms of baitfish and schools of bigger stuff swirl around the barges and you will swim through curtains of them frequently. Becky was the first to spot our huge Goliath, and we all took turns at the open windows of the barge to view him. He slinked back into the darker recesses of the barge, and at one point vacated it only to return. He was at least a 200-pounder and the cobia found here were also really gigantic. This one dive alone lets you know why this is a popular area for divers, spearfishermen and rec fishermen. This is a really fishy site and lots of interesting small stuff on the barges to photograph and observe! We didn't see any barracuda, but apparently, they're regular visitors, and in preparation for making the dive a couple of days earlier, I watched a Youtube video of a 6-foot bull shark at the site.
Becky and I were hanging out on our safety stop when a gorgeous and large spotted eagle ray flapped by. Jeff says just after we backrolled in, it actually jumped out of the water next to the boat. To me, they are among the most beautiful creatures in the sea and encountering this one is my biggest reward for getting up so early to make it to the boat.
Our second tank was on a ledge. In this area of the Gulf, there are limestone ledges running everywhere along the west coast of Florida; these ledges are the shoreline that existed millions of years ago. Capt. Jeff tells us that he has a huge mastodon tooth from one of his dives here; we don't find any fossils, but we do find plenty of little stuff to see (nothing big on this dive, but that doesn't mean you won't encounter some larger pelagics here) and this part of the world is beloved by spearos — big, beefy amberjack, hogfish, snapper, cobia and mackerel patrol these waters, especially when you cruise out farther into deeper water, an itinerary Narcosis Scuba offers, though it makes for a long day. We also didn't spot a frogfish, but according to Capt. Jeff and Stacy, this is a good place to find them and one of the other divers on the trip said she spotted a stonefish.
After the diving, Capt. Jeff had pineapple, chocolate chip cookies and dollar store "gold whales." You can have a freshwater hose shower and Stacy packed conditioner for the women. This crew is not only fun, they're thoughtful and will give you as much help as you need. We all settled in for the ride home and, yes, this old lady took a nap. Not a whole lotta places on the boat to stretch out, but I tucked in behind Capt. Jeff on a comfy seat and closed my eyes just long enough for Becky to arrange the photo op above.
The perfect ending? A pair of dolphins greets us in the river on the way back in. Awesome day!
And a special shout-out to our dive buddies: Evelyn, Lucas, Courtney and Frank — hope to meet you again under the waves!
Next staff trip for us: We're hoping to hit Rainbow River in October!