Diving with Big Animals

By: Terry Gibson

ADD TO FAVORITES

About a year ago, I went diving with renowned underwater photographer and publisher of The Underwater Journal, Walt Stearns, in our home waters off Palm Beach County. We surfaced with the same startling realization in mind: There are few, if any, better places to dive with sea turtles, magnificent rays and huge fish – including sharks – than the ecologically unique coastal waters off Southeast Florida.

Both of us travel the world, diving and fishing. We had recently returned home a little bummed out, after seeing more concerning things than things of interest while on a series of dive assigments abroad in popular dive destinations. Unfortunately, throughout most of the world's tropical waters, populations of larger fish, reptiles and marine mammals have virtually disappeared because of habitat destruction or overfishing. After that day of diving, we were strongly re-convinced that there's no place like home.

During both 45-minute dives, in about 70 feet, we had rubbed elbows with the world's largest grouper species, the goliath grouper, hung out with three species of sea turtle (green, loggerhead and hawksbill), and cruised with nurse sharks, reef sharks and lemon sharks. At one point, a school of eagle rays passed right over us.

And while it's always spectacular to encounter such magnificent creatures, it's anything but rare or unusual. These species love the coral and artificial reefs, which provide such high-quality habitat and forage.

Fortunately, most of these species and others are protected in Florida waters, which are special indeed. Since the Gulf Stream current sweeps in so close to the coast, the visibility off Palm Beach County generally ranges from good to air-clear. Water temperatures rarely drop below comfortable levels (about 70 degrees F).

The area boasts a fleet of affordable, well-run diver charter operators. And of course, in Palm Beach County, you can find accommodations ranging from five-star options on down. When you're not diving, check out the beaches, nightlife and shopping.

If you're "down" for diving with big animals, keep in mind that you'll see more turtles during the nesting season, which runs April through September. The goliath groupers are present year round, but they bunch up in huge schools called "aggregations" on the wrecks during the summer spawning season. The lemon sharks are most abundant late winter and early spring. In fact, Walt was the first diver to identify an aggregation of spawning lemon sharks right off Juno Beach.

If you're interested in diving off Palm Beach County, feel free to contact me with any questions. I'm from the area, and know it both above and beneath the surface intimately. This area is one of the world's diving wonders.

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