A S S O C I A T I O N   OF   U N D E R W A T E R   E X P L O R E R S  

Date: Mon, 08 Oct 2001 05:51:29

AUE Weekend Trip Report Oculina Research Dives
October 6-7, 2001


Over the past few months, AUE has conducted several exploration dives on numerous deep wrecks off Cape Canaveral where we have noted abundant accumulation of ivory tree coral (Oculina varicosa). This species of deepwater coral, stark white in color, forms extensive "thickets" on the benthic features known as pinnacles or cones from just south of Ft. Pierce, to well north of Daytona off the east coast of Florida. It can be found sporadically elsewhere, including as far north as North Carolina, however, the abundance off the central east coast of Florida, known as Oculina Bank, is unparalleled anywhere else on the planet. Unfortunately, Oculina Bank has been seriously impacted, with perhaps 90% of the coral habitat eliminated. Recent evidence indicates that the source for this destruction is illegal trawling activity.

Ongoing research and restoration efforts conducted by NOAA, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution (HBOI), and Florida State University have studied this most important species and the habitat it provides. The Oculina thickets support numerous species such as snapper, tilefish, gag, scamp, snowy grouper, and amberjack, which, in turn, support important recreational and commercial fisheries. Unfortunately, the destruction of habitat will undoubtedly have a similar impact on the associated fisheries. However, efforts to restore the natural habitat are being pursued. Material such as concrete slabs and reefballs, each seeded with sprigs of live Oculina, have been deployed in hopes of jump-starting the repair of Oculina Bank. This coral restoration project is as unique as the Oculina coral itself, in that it is one of the only projects where the exact cause of destruction is known (as compared to tropical coral diseases and bleaching).

In the past, the source of this transplant coral has originated from submersibles, ROVs, and dredges. Collection efforts have been frustrating, as getting sufficient amounts of the coral in good shape has proved difficult. Knowing that the deep wrecks off Canaveral provided discreet sample locations where sufficient coral could be collected, AUE readily volunteered our services


We were fortunate to again have the vessel "Reel Time" to support our dive activities. Captain Tony is one of the most enthusiastic and accommodating captains I have had the pleasure of meeting. In fact, he had recently manufactured and installed a brand new dive ladder on the boat, an action I considered amazing since he has stated that we will be the only group diving off his boat. The use of his boat and his talent really makes for an enoyable trip. We were joined by our sponsor and the Principal Investigator, Dr. Chris Koenig (FSU), as well as one of Captain Tonys fishing buddies who turned out to be former NASA shuttle astronaut, Bruce Melnick (STS-41, STS-49). Bruce had heard about our antics from Tony and really wanted to check out our operations. I think all of us were blown away that a former astronaut considered what we do as cool!

After loading the boat up early Saturday morning, we departed Port Canaveral towards our first dive on the "Oculina Wreck," otherwise known as the "Fuggedaboudit Wreck." This unidentified wreck sits in approximately 305 feet, with the main deck around 285 feet, and has only been visited one time by a couple of AUE divers. This would be my first visit to the wreck, and I was looking forward to trying and identify the sunken vessel. As we pulled up to the site, it appeared that the surface current was only 1.5 knots. However, we would soon learn that appearances can be deceiving. After we deployed our hook and shotline, the trio of divers geared up and prepared for our drop on the ball. We all would have scooters so we anticipated a very easy dive, given the moderate surface current. Once in position, we all piled through the tuna door and motored down. The surface waters were pretty murky, but I soon saw my other two buddies flash past me in the other direction. I soon gave chase, dumbfounded that we had already been swept past the shotline. Apparently, the wind had slowed down the drift of the boat, as the current just under the surface was still moving along at a brisk pace. After motoring for a while in a shallow descent, I became disenchanted with our "progress." I aimed upwards to get a glance at how far we were from the ball, eventually breaking the surface and finding ourselves still far downcurrent of the float ball. I saw the futility of continuing and signaled the boat for recovery. As the boat turned in my direction, the other guys popped to the surface and "cut in line" to be picked up, so I enjoyed floating around a bit before boarding the boat.

After discussing the situation for a moment, we opted to drop in directly on the ball on the second attempt and go hand-over-hand to the bottom to insure we hit the wreck. After repositioning, we all piled in and began the long descent to the wreck below. Around 180 feet, amberjack showed up to escort us to the bottom as we passed into darker and cooler water. Around 270 feet, I could see Mikeys HID light touching down on the wreck ahead, as I observed the wreck appear underneath me. The obtuse and wide bow passed by, outlined in the white Oculina coral. As we all set down, we went to work on a nearby thicket attached to the deck. After deploying one of our high-tech coral bags, we quickly fractured the coral colony into manageable pieces and placed it in the bag. This deeper specimen had the consistency of a thin pretzel and was easily broken with bare (gloved) hands. With the bag quickly filled, we attached a liftbag and sent the collection to the surface. I decided that with the time elapsed on the long descent and coral collection, that we deserved to investigate the wreck a bit. I was also still a bit tired from the workout pulling down the line (time to hit the gym!) so I looked forward to a leisurely swim around the vessel. With perhaps 20 feet of gloomy visibility, we started to slowly swim aft. Oculina appeared to adorn every available surface, with only a random whip coral the only other prominent benthic species. It appears that the wreck is a large freighter, perhaps 300 feet in length. She is sitting upright and has settled well into the muddy-sand seabed. As we turned the dive and headed back towards the hook for our departure I observed a fascinating artifact. Settling down on the deck, I picked up a spent 88mm brass shell casing. After the first visit to the wreck, the divers thought that the wreck may be pretty old, perhaps turn-of-the-century; however, with this find it appears that it may be a World War II casualty. I did not notice any deck guns on the wreck, though we did not make it back to the extreme stern. Reaching the shotline, I remained adjacent to the deck, holding the line pinned against the wreck to facilitate the removal of the hook. I could barely make out the glow of my buddies light who were less than 20 feet below me as they pulled the hook loose from some blown out hull plating. They efficiently removed the hook and rose to foul it as we drifted alongside and off the wreck. After raising the hook a little more off the bottom, we proceeded to complete our decompression. We were eventually joined by a curious three-foot long Atlantic sharpnose shark that poked around for the shallow portion of our deco.

We boarded the boat to discuss the dive with the others and find that Chris was happy with our gift we sent him. We were amazed to find out that several red barbiers (Hemanthias vivanus) and roughtongue bass (Pronotogrammus martinicensis) were found in the coral by the crew. These small fish are very abundant around the coral and utilize it as a refuge from predators. While Chris was ecstatic, we all felt like we skimped a little with the amount of coral, especially considering it took us perhaps two minutes to complete the task. We all knew that our second dive on the Cities Service Empire (CSE) would allow much more time to collect a sufficient amount of coral and would be an easier dive at least we thought it would be

On the way to the CSE I took the opportunity to talk at length with Bruce. We traded stories, with me fascinated with his shuttle missions and space exploration, and he equally interested in our exploration dives. I found it funny that as I generally tire of talking about diving, I tried to control the discussion and learn about some of the cool stuff Bruce has done. However, Bruce apparently has tired of talking about his space exploits just as much, and he tried to keep the subject on diving. We eventually both recognized this and got a good chuckle about it.

Upon reaching the wreck, a few of the guys tried their hand at fishing. Unfortunately, the recent ground swell that murked up the water earlier in the week had really put off the bite and success was limited. We eventually deployed the shotline after judging the current was approximately 1 knot. We anticipated the same effect as found at the other site, but figured with the massive size of the CSE and shallower depth, we would have no problem hitting the wreck with the scooters. As we lined up at the door, Tony motored the boat adjacent to the ball and we hit the water. I was first out the door and upon splashing I was tossed a bit by the churning wake behind the boat. I felt something bang into my legs and at first thought I was pulled under the boat and was worried that I might impact with one of the screws so I quickly balled up. However, I then saw Mikey motor past me and realized that he had just banged into me upon entry. Greatly relieved, I began to give chase when I noted the tow harness had gotten wrapped on my collection gear. Holding onto the shotline, my other buddy came over and helped with the tangle. After the quick fix, we proceeded to scooter along the shotline, slowly making our way into darker waters. Around 180 feet, someone turned out the light. I could faintly make out an HID light in front of me, but it appeared like a little brown dot. I eventually saw the wreck when I touched down on the deck at 210 feet, though with *maybe* five feet of brown visibility I had no idea where on the huge wreck we where. To complicate things, the current was strong along the top deck and we had to keep gunning the scooters just to stay in place.

I managed to touch down on the wreck and brace myself, whereupon I saw a compass that I had observed on an earlier dive. This luckily provided me with an exact location on the wreck. I knew there was a massive Oculina cluster nearby and I tried to communicate this to my buddies. I eventually stumbled across the cluster and lassoed my scooter to a piece of wreckage. The other guys got in position and I whipped out the collection bags. I decided to pull myself over to the other side of the cluster in order to avoid crowding the other guys. Once in place, I proceeded to do my best Jackie Chan imitation on the coral. This thicket was perhaps seven feet across and as I worked I would occasionally pop up to look over at my buddies. Dark shadows and two muted lights were the only confirmation that they were busy working also. While working, I laughed to myself as I realized the bottom temperature was the same 77 degrees as the surface waters at least one thing was nice about the dive! Unlike the coral at the deeper wreck, the branches on the CSE were very dense and crowded, which made it harder to break off large pieces from the cluster. However, we soon completed in filling both bags and reunited to rig them with liftbags. Once we shot the bags to the surface, I tumbled over to the scooter and joined the other guys so we could find to hook. While we had planned for a longer dive, due to the miserable conditions we elected to bug out early. Mikey managed to find the hook and we worked to pull it off the wreck. I managed to notice a few of the vertical bulkhead supports -- appearing like spooky trees in the murky vis -- actually oscillating due to the current flowing over the wreck. Perhaps this attributes for the advanced deterioration of the upper decks of the wreck. After freeing the hook, we tried moving off the wreck though we couldnt really tell where we were or where we were going due to the soupy water. We fouled the hook and then made our way to the surface.

Boarding the boat, we found a very happy PI with two coolers full of coral. Chris stated that this is the most coral he has collected in the past five years using any other method (i.e., submersibles, ROVs, dredges). With the amount of coral obtained, he felt he could easily restore several hundred acres of habitat. Pleased with the success of the trip, we all enjoyed the ride back in as the sun slipped over the horizon.

Unfortunately, the weather on Sunday took a turn for the worse and our planned dives on the Pan Mass and CSE were scrubbed. However, Chris felt that he had enough coral to easily supply him for the upcoming deployment cruise in a couple of weeks.