Treasures of the Deep

By Dick Dickinson May 1, 2010

As I load my dive gear into a wheelbarrow for the short trek across the yard to the boat, I’m keeping one eye on the sky. I’ve already checked the weather three or four times in the last two days, but it’s Florida, and things can change fast.


It’s a perfect day for diving: There’s a slight breeze, it hasn’t rained for the past few days, and it’s not too windy, either. The breeze will keep it cool, and the lack of wind and rain will help improve the visibility underwater. The Gulf of Mexico is not known for great visibility, and that probably keeps a lot of people from diving here. Too bad. There really is a lot to see. Granted, it’s not the Caymans or Cozumel, but the Gulf is rich in marine life; you just have to search a little.

The Gulf of Mexico is like an underwater desert—vast expanses of sand stretching out to infinity. Any structure, like a rocky bottom, ledge, sunken boat or artificial reef, is an instant oasis. Little things, like barnacles, start growing on it, then some bigger things, like anemones and small coral. That starts to attract small fish; then some bigger ones show up, and pretty soon you have an interesting dive spot. The trick is finding it. Artificial reef locations are the easiest, as they’re published by the county and available at any bait or tackle shop. Ledges and rock bottoms are a little trickier. If you know someone willing to share, that’s the mother lode. I’ve spent many hours just idling around in the boat watching the depth finder trying to find new spots. 

One of my favorite spots for diving is a small rocky ledge about eight miles due west of Sarasota. It’s one of the few places in Sarasota where I’ve been able to find a giant anemone (and the only one I have ever found within 20 miles of shore). These anemones are common in the Caribbean, but Sarasota is a little too far north for them to thrive. I’ve been watching this particular one for many years. At least once every year I go check on him. He’s attached to the rock right near a small break in the ledge. One year I couldn’t find him and was afraid he had succumbed to the cold that winter or that some insensitive diver had taken him. The following year, to my great delight, he was there. Today I want to see if he’s still doing OK.

My dive buddies and I travel to the GPS coordinates we have and then start watching the plotter for changes in the bottom contour. As soon as we see a rise or drop in the bottom that indicates structure, we drop anchor.

The next few minutes are spent getting the dive flag up and making sure all of the equipment is in order. I’m fussy about my equipment. Any good diver is. Diving is gear-intensive, with tanks, regulator, back-up air, mask, fins, booties, snorkel, dive light, weight belt and wet suit. All are important, not only for the comfort of the dive but also for safety. A little thing like a foggy mask can make for an unpleasant dive.

When you add photography gear to the mix, you have a lot more to think about: camera, housing, lens port, strobes, cables and strobe arms. Everything needs to be checked for water-tightness and to make sure it’s correctly connected, set and working. All the batteries need to have a full charge. After I’m underwater, there are very few things I can adjust. The housings have a lot of knobs and controls, and each one has to connect and work properly if I’m going to get the shots I want. Once everything is set and double-checked, I’m ready to start the dive.

We exit from the back of the boat and swim to the bow. Once everyone is gathered at the anchor line, we release air from our buoyancy vests and slowly slip under the surface. I love this part—entering into the underwater world. I turn and look down the anchor line. On a really good day, we can see the bottom almost instantly. Usually we get about halfway down the line before we start to make out the outlines of the structure we are looking for. Today the visibility is average; I can see about 20 feet horizontally in all directions. 

As we reach the bottom, the landscape turns to monotone. Water filters the red out of the visible spectrum, and a lot of the color that is there is lost to the human eye. If you want to see the real color, you have to shine your dive light on things. When you do, it’s like magic; all the beauty comes to life.

A peaceful feeling settles over me. I feel at home here. The main sound is my own breathing, amplified through the regulator. Breathe in, breathe out. Slow and steady. I hear the bubbles rising and look up to see them drifting toward the light of the surface, slowly expanding, then breaking apart to form a sparkling curtain of wobbling beads of air.

A school of baitfish swims past, darting as one in a group dance. They race in one direction and then abruptly stop, hanging in the water with the sun sparkling on silvery scales. Then suddenly, in one swift burst, they are gone.

I swim over to the ledge and stop. I’ve learned to take long, slow looks. Most things that live on these ledges are vulnerable to predators, so they try to camouflage themselves. Sometimes what looks like a simple piece of rock can have 10 living things on it.

I swim along the rocky ledge, shining my dive light into every crevice. I see arrow crabs, coral growth, Christmas tree worms and small fish of all varieties. I come to a familiar break in the ledge and there he is, my giant anemone, safe and sound for another year! I just stop and watch him.

He’s attached to the ledge, but his long tentacles sway back and forth in the light current. The tentacles are for catching food, and I can see why a small fish would be enticed to swim over for a closer look. Those tentacles are almost hypnotic to watch. I wonder how, in all these thousands of square miles of underwater desert, an anemone found this spot to make his home.

But there is an even more wonderful mystery here. Pederson shrimp are immune to the anemone’s stinging tentacles and happily make their home among them. These shrimp are very small, about an inch in length. Their bodies are semi-transparent, and they have striking blue color accents on their claws and tails. Four of them swim around the anemone today. How did these little shrimp find this one anemone in all of this water? I have never seen these shrimp on anything other than a giant anemone.

I spend the rest of the dive slowly moving closer and closer to get the right angle and lighting to photograph this special scene. I use underwater strobes to capture the true colors. I enjoy this type of close-up, or macro photography. I find the intricacies of these life forms stunningly beautiful. 

In order to do this type of photography, I have to move slowly and be as calm and as quiet as possible. If I’m having trouble relaxing or maintaining buoyancy, it’s going to be hard to get good shots. When I do it right, the rewards are amazing. I see things most divers swim right past.

I always take some time out from shooting to put the camera aside and just observe what I’m photographing. It becomes a meditation for me. The soft crackling sound from creatures on the reef mixed with the sound of my own breathing is like a mantra. There is a sense of solitude underwater that enhances the connection I feel with this special part of nature.

But I can never forget that I am underwater. I have to be constantly aware of how much air I’ve used and how much I have left. I have to know when to stop shooting and head back to our ascent point, so that I’ll have enough air to surface slowly and safely back to the boat.

As I head back up the anchor line, I reflect on the dive and the images I have captured. Some days it might be an octopus or a live cowry snail, with its mantle wrapped all the way around its shiny shell; other days I will photograph a nurse shark lying under a ledge or a loggerhead turtle swimming slowly by, a huge Goliath grouper or simply a tiny starfish clinging to a small piece of coral. Today it was the anemone and his shrimp. Always, it is something beautiful and rare.

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