Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Area Waters Rival Keys, Divers Rave

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Area Waters Rival Keys, Divers Rave

Article excerpt

Byline: Joe Julavits, Times-Union outdoors editor

Steve Park spent last Sunday at Paul Mains Reef, swimming with a giant manta ray whose wingspan he estimated at 15 feet.

"We had the most phenomenal dive," said Park, who runs Atlantic Pro Divers scuba shop in Jacksonville Beach. "That manta ray stayed with us the entire time."

As a dive destination, Northeast Florida doesn't have the name recognition of, say, the Florida Keys. Local divers, though, will tell you our waters are as rich in marine life as anyplace.

"I tell people that if you dive here, you'll see more fish than you will in an entire weekend in the Keys," said Park, who has been diving locally and around the world for 45 years.

"We have so much bait -- it's everywhere. Plus, the nutrients that come out of the St. Johns River cause all this growth and life."

For the estimated 10,000-plus divers in Northeast Florida, the dozens of artificial reefs and natural limestone ledges off the coast comprise a subsurface playground worthy of Jacques Cousteau. Some recreational divers spearfish, others immerse themselves in underwater photography, and some just go below to marvel at the surroundings.

In addition to the ocean, there's another option for divers -- a couple of hours west of Jacksonville is "cave country" in the vicinity of Branford and the Suwannee River. Springs in that area offer some of the most extensive cave diving available anywhere.

Leo Kisrow of Divers Supply in Jacksonville is fascinated by what he calls macro world, the interaction of species on the reefs.

"You see little tiny fish acting as cleaning stations, swimming in and out of the mouths and through the gill plates of big fish," Kisrow said. "I enjoy stopping and smelling the roses, so to speak."

Northeast Florida's diving environment is different from that in the Keys and other shallow-water destinations. The shallowest dives on wrecks here are in about 55 feet of water, which may require a boat ride of 8-10 miles. The average dive, Park said, is about 70 feet, with 100 feet being a deep dive.

In the Keys, you can dive on a reef in 30 feet close to the beach. Of course, the shallower the depth, the longer a diver can remain in the water.

"Generally, at 80 feet, you can stay 30 minutes without decompression," Park said. "However, we've been using oxygen-enriched air so that at our normal depths we stay twice as long.

"There are risks, but if you plan your dive and adhere to the safety precautions, it's a safe sport. The most dangerous thing we do is driving to the boat."

In the summertime off our coast, underwater visibility is generally about 50 feet.

"Usually our dives are a minimum of 9-10 miles out, and every mile farther out you go, the visibility improves," Kisrow said. …

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