We headed out 30m to the north of the wreck and a large structure called Jungle Gym. This had once been the Pacific Reef Lighthouse, keeping sailors safe in Biscayne National Park. It had been used to embellish Hog Heaven in 1989, along with 60m of dredge pipe.
Rob swims out of the lighthouse structure at Jungle Gym.
Clouds of snapper and grunt swirled around the structure. I hadn’t expected so many fish or such diversity, and sizeable red seafans, sponges of all shapes and colours and encrusting corals had colonised the structure.
A beautiful, almost glowing, gold and turquoise queen angelfish had also made the structure home. On the struts I saw a wealth of macro life – different species of blennies, nudibranchs and gobies, as well as fireworms. It felt more like the Caribbean than Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Weaving in and out of the structure, after 35 minutes our deco time was almost in single digits and we moved back to the mooring line on the bow of the barge. Oddly, someone had also installed a large Christmas tree there.
Todd manoeuvred the boat closer to shore, where the triple barrier reef ran along the coast. The Florida reef, the only one off mainland USA, runs from Palm Beach south to the Keys.
The first reef is only 275m from shore and is around 5m deep. The second, a little further back, goes from about 10-18m and the third reef is a mile offshore at depths of 25-30m.
We were diving on the second reef at the Caves, named for small fish caverns and overhangs rather than the sort big enough to accommodate divers. Here, on what was normally a gentle drift-dive, the current had all but disappeared.
We took our time exploring the crannies. The reef rose a metre or two above the sand and was encrusted with green, orange and red tube sponges, azure vase sponges and sea-fans. The sheltered areas housed many small schools of fish – snapper, dusky sweeper and grouper.
The reef is not a living one of coral but is formed from a soft sandy stone, covered with an intricate honeycomb pattern made by marine worms.
Its foundation is limestone covered by a compressed formation of stone made of sand grains and crushed shells more than 100,000 years old.
In a dark crevice, almost hidden in the shadows, a giant moray slowly opened and closed its mouth, and came further out of its hole to investigate my camera.
Painted lobsters, long antennae waving about, were prevalent throughout the dive, this being a perfect location for them – sheltered and shallow with few predators. In season, however, I felt sure they would be the first to go, being so close to shore.
The top of the reef, less protected from waves and storms, was fairly barren.
Single parrotfish, grouper, hogfish and blue surgeonfish pecked away at the algae.
A strange pufferfish, quite large, yellowish with horizontal stripes and long spikes, moved about the reef. A grey angelfish rested while being cleaned.
We saw many delicate-looking purple seafans and large red barrel sponges. Soft corals waved about.
We found an electric ray in a large sandspit. A stonefish, mustard-coloured rather than camouflaged as you’d expect, stood out starkly against the white sand.
I could have stayed for longer than our 62-minute dive, but mooching slowly had made us all a little cold by this time and I could see Rob shivering, so we ascended gently to warm up.