July 22, 2009 West Palm Beach, FL – Although it has been 17 years since I last dived under West Palm, Florida’s Blue Heron Bridge it has remained one of my all time favorite Florida dive sites. I was last there for a series of dives in the early 1990s when on the hunt for new species to expand the second edition of Reef Fish Identification.
Even in those days the shallow current swept sand and rubble seafloor in that section of the Intracoastal Waterway was renowned among fishwatchers as a honey hole. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count off all the exciting new fishes we and our good friend, local diver, Mike Bacon found and photographed that ended up in our book.
A cardinal rule Anna and I have picked up during two-decades of critter diving is: “Go with those in the know.” And that is exactly what we do on a warm July evening as friends Tom and Kay Wells, Robyn Churchill, Anna and I join a boat load of local critter aficionados for a night dive under the bridge.
Charts studied months earlier predicted high tide shortly after sunset – an optimum hour to hit the water. Phil Foster Park, built on a spit of sand jutting into the Intracoastal under the bridge, provides an easy entry point for day diving, however because of safety concerns the park is closed to night diving activities; however boat diving is welcomed.
So the Little Deeper, a 38-Delta dive charter owned and operated by Captain Dave and Lynn Brown, with assistance from Dive Master Shane was reserved for the evening. As the sun was setting we pulled away from the dock and putted less than a quarter mile to the bridge and dropped anchor in 12 feet of water.
While I am engaged in small talk, Anna is questioning Lureen Ferretti, who has been feeding us some of her amazing photos for past few months, about the a Striated Frogfish that has taken up residence on an algae encrusted mooring line. As Anna zips up my wetsuit, she asks if I want to tag along to where the frogfish was last seen. When we hit the water the current is still brisk. Fortunately, the frogfish is located in the park’s lee providing protection from the main flow still racing around the bridge pilings.
Once the right mooring line is located we quickly find our quarry nestled in the algae next to a slack rope. On seeing the frogfish, Anna and I immediately realize that our stars are aligned – we have happened upon a gravid female as round as a grapefruit. And best yet, a smaller golden-brown male rests against her side. If what we have been told is accurate, we will, in a matter of minutes, be in for a big treat. Within seconds of our arrival the male goes into intense courtship antics strutting around the female with fins aflair every now and again shuddering with passion. Not daring to take my eyes off the pair, I reach over and squeeze Anna’s hand, she returns the gesture.
In all likelihood the young suitor has been hound dogging his potential mate all afternoon becoming increasingly aroused by rising whiffs of pheromones. His excitement plays a crucial role in the female’s ability to hydrate the thousands of eggs packed within an egg casing tightly coiled inside her ballooning ovaries.
Twenty minutes after sunset his aggressive nudges begin to pry the passive female’s hindquarters off the bottom. Quick as a snap he wedges beneath her blimp-like body and with powerful stokes from a thrashing tail propels her up into the water column where in a blur of dislodged sand and spinning bodies a long translucent egg ribbon emerges, catches the current, and is swept away.
Even though it is well after midnight when we arrive back at the motel room, and we have an early morning dive scheduled, Anna and I, still giddy with luck, watch her downloaded video sequence again and again. Her images are simply amazing. Even with her camera clicking off 30 frames per second it was unable to clearly record the frogfishes’high-speed spawning spin.
Although we pull into Phil Foster Park well before high tide the following morning most the prime parking spots closest to the beach access are taken and assorted dive gear is spread across sidewalks and picnic tables. A rough estimate of at least 30 divers are busily gearing up and a few early birds are already waddling toward the beach with surface floats and cameras in hand. Our party of five is not far behind.
Because the current is still running, we spend our first half hour exploring the shallow sand flat where we found the frogfish on the previous evening. Like every good muck site the seafloors here appears, at first glance, to be void of life. Patience and persistence are essential. Marine creatures that have evolved to inhabit exposed environments, such as sand flats without benefit of ready made hiding holes, have evolved unique strategies to survive. Camouflage, stealth and burrow building rank among their favorite ploys. The trick and the fun come in finding them. The best success comes from diving slow, thinking small and keeping your mind open to every possibility.
The first sand animal I spot is a group of yellow garden eels. These rather rare burrow-builders have a special meaning for us. Our long-time friend, REEF Surveyor Ken Marks, while diving off Boca Raton back in 1999 was the first to sight this particular species in the wild.
Previously it was only known from a partial specimen dredged from 240 feet in the Gulf of Mexico. At the behest of the Smithsonian, we launched a successful mini-expedition capturing an intact specimen, which is now part of the institution’s renowned bottle collection.
After taking 20 minutes to sneak up on the cagey eels for a photo, I putter around all alone finding nothing but an occasional urchin or hermit crab before finally sighting a tiny yellow speck the size of a garden pea hiding in the shadow of a mooring rope. It’s only the second juvenile Trunkfish I have ever seen.
Before I make it under the bridge and begin combing the encrusted pilings for treasures, I encounter a mating pair of armor-plated Horseshoe Crabs, a Bandtail Searobin scratching for breakfast in the sand with modified ventral fins, a beautiful Blue Dartfish that dives into its burrow when I inch too close, and a brown banded pipefish the size of a soda straw.
Just as I slip into the shadow of the bridge, good friend and one of Florida’s foremost gastropod naturalists, Anne Dupont, tugs on my fin. She proudly leads me to a banded jawfish hunkered down inside its rock-lined burrow.
An hour and a half into the dive, just as the current begins to pick up pace, I catch a glimpse of a black head poking out from a hole. Only seconds later what turns out to be a male Sailfin Blenny in his black courting colors sails off the bottom in a flurry of fins. I watch the blenny show off until the current forces me to give up and ride the flow back to the other side of the bridge where I surface to find Anna and friends wading toward shore.
After listening to the group’s excited chatter about a stargazer, two seahorses and five species of nudibrachs, I immediately realize that even with all the wonders found, we had only scratched the surface of the great animals that remain to be discovered under the Blue Heron Bridge. I guarantee it won’t be 17 more years before I make it back to the exotic critter capital of the eastern seaboard. ~ Ned DeLoach
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