Underwater wonders on the ocean floor off South Florida

Dec 5 2010 - 5:21pm

MIAMI -- Dropping to the sea floor off Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, I imagined my surroundings 90 feet down were like the surface of the moon -- but with a lot more color and life. A steep, rocky crater surrounded a huge sand pit that extended far beyond our 60-foot range of visibility. Unlike the moon, though, this landscape was dotted with schools of tropical fish and a cornucopia of soft corals undulating in the gentle current.

Led by South Florida Diving Headquarters president Jeff Torode, Steve Margolis of Parkland, Fla., underwater photographer Maggie Martorell of Hollywood and I were exploring an old borrow pit carved out by dredges in 1983 to restore sand to depleted Broward County beaches.

According to Steve Higgins, Broward's beach erosion administrator, 19 of these trenches were dug off the county's coast in the 1980s -- all in sandy bottom and mostly between the second and third reef tracts in depths of 30 to 100 feet. The hydraulic cutter heads used at that time carved deep pits with sheer, vertical walls in the ocean floor. The hopper dredges used nowadays to suck up sand from the bottom don't make such steep, deep holes, Higgins says.

While not exactly environmentally friendly, the old borrow pits have proved a boon over the past 20-plus years. Anglers and spearfishers take grouper, snapper, kingfish, hogfish and other species. Underwater sightseers enjoy the abundant fish life and colorful marine landscape.

On our dive in October, I was hoping to bag a couple lobsters for dinner. While I didn't see any, the dive proved quite entertaining.

Kicking along through the center of the sand pit, I looked up to see an eight-foot manta ray gliding just above me. My companions and I hovered close enough to observe it, but not too close to scare it away. We need not have worried. The manta cruised close by with its large mandibles wide open, showing no fear.

Then, to our utter delight, the creature performed a slow, graceful back flip. Its broad smoothness was smudged with a swirl of white, reminding me of Count Dracula's trademark flare of his black-and-white cape.

Torode swam directly underneath the splayed ray and fanned out his arms and legs, mimicking the creature's movements. I giggled so hard into my regulator that I almost spat it out. The ray didn't seem to mind.

What some may not realize is that manta ray encounters in South Florida are rare. Torode, who's been diving here for more than 30 years, says he has seen exactly two. It's a lot like bumping into a whale shark; you know they are around from time to time, but your chances of interacting with them are slim.

After about 10 minutes, the manta swam unhurriedly off, and we continued our exploration. While admiring assorted sea whips and sponges, we came across a pair of fairly large lionfish on the ledge surrounding the sand pit. A few minutes later, I spotted a third. This exotic invader from the Pacific is becoming more widespread here and in the Keys, eating most of its weight in native, tropical fish. We should have euthanized them, but nobody had a dive knife or spear gun handy.

Because of the pit's depth, we were forced to head for the surface before we could explore the whole site.

"I can't wait to see the rest of it," Torode said when we got back on the boat, adding that he plans to map the site and bring along advanced open-water scuba students.

For Margolis, who had never dived a dredge hole nor seen a manta ray, the dive was a treat.

"Really cool," Margolis said. "You see bigger schools (of fish) than on the reef. And the manta was so graceful -- playful even."

A second exploration definitely is in order.

 

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