Key Trouble

Key Trouble
© Wes Gow

Jimmy Buffett has made a nice career off the illusion of peace and bliss along the rocky coral coast that is the Florida Keys.  After living there for nine months or so, I’m pleased to say that most of it’s true.

On land, that is.

After college I took a job near the original Margaritaville in Key West, and seeing as how I lived on a houseboat, I practically spent well over half my life during that time on (or under) the water.  Most of the landlubbers were pretty swell.  Everyone’s basically running from something, so there’s generally a shared sense of camaraderie.

But all bets are off once you leave the dock.

The Keys are teeming with marine life, and I chased fish of all kinds nearly every chance I got, both by way of traditional rod and reel as well as through my newfound lifeblood:  spearfishing!  Both yielded a bounty of harvest, but not without a few harrowing experiences.  The following is a collection of close calls during spearfishing trips that produced their fair share of sleepless nights on my little boat bungalow.

Bait & Switch

The Florida Keys are immersed in mythology, but two commonly held beliefs aren’t entirely accurate.  The first is that the islands extending off the tip of the United States are one long continuous stretch of pristine sandy beach.  False.  In fact, most of the intersection of land and water is a mix of dead coral, gnarly intertidal pools, and mangrove strongholds.  Speaking of coral, the second myth is that tropical reefs are in abundance.  Also not true.  While there are plenty more of these ecosystems in comparison to the Gulf Coast and Atlantic seaboard, the reality is that unlike Caribbean islands which are basically surrounded by reefs, the Keys feature a spottier offering.

For example, there was really only one reef readily accessible to our spearfishing endeavors, and even that was on the furthest outskirts of our happy hunting grounds.  But whenever fair seas and clear visibility were on our side, the reef was always a game changer.

Structure attracts fish of all sizes:  the little guys seek shelter and the big boys come looking for them.  It wasn’t uncommon, then, to go snooping around a honey hole only to find that another predator beat you to the spot!  Most often, this meant sudden close proximity to an eel, grouper, or maybe even a barracuda.  On such discoveries, then, it became something of a tip-of-the-hat gesture to spear a smaller reef fish and then dangle it down to the lucky fella who got there first.  (This is more of a personal confession, not at all a suggestion or approval of the practice!).  Suddenly, your pole-spear would start jerking about as a moray eel would emerge with your quarry in its sharp teeth.  As you can imagine, the experience was exhilarating!

Until that time I got way more than I bargained for.

One afternoon I spied an eel down the center of a large coral head.  I wasn’t having much luck that day, so I promptly thrust my spear into a nearby grunt and lowered the offering into the hole (maybe fifteen feet of water).  Suddenly, my pole was almost thrust out of my grasp!  Sediment swirled from the shallow floor and engulfed the entire structure.  I suspected then that this was not the work of the eel I’d seen.

Too right.

Out of a shroud of dust and chaos came a five to six foot nurse shark, clearly thankful for my treat but none too pleased that it was still attached to my spear!

If you’d been a seagull floating nearby, you’d have heard enough mumbled expletives blasting from my snorkel to make even a pirate blush.

Now, if you’re reading this and you possess a fair amount of marine knowledge, you know that nurse sharks in general are hardly threatening, certainly not compared to other sharks that share those waters.  But let me remind you that:  1) this was, after all, a shark; 2) it was damn near close to as big as I was (6’1″); and 3) I was merely feet away from his lunch (at my own doing, I know)!

Thankfully, Sharky managed to extract and enjoy the kabob before retreating back to his or her cover.  Needless to say, I issued a personal cease and desist order on that particular practice.

Stomping Grounds

As I mentioned above, very few of our spearfishing excursions took place on hard coral reefs.  Emphasis on hard.  There’s another species of coral collectively referred to as soft coral; these include organisms such as sea fans, sea plumes, tree coral, and the like.  Basically taller, thinner structures that are able to flex and flow with the ocean currents.  Snorkeling amongst them can be a very relaxing experience.

But have you ever watched footage of seals frolicking in the kelp forests off the California coast?  Then you know that BIG fish come to hang in these environments for purposes of business, not pleasure.

One windy, overcast morning I was hunting a patch of very tall soft coral, looking for hogfish that were trying to blend in.  The visibility was far from ideal, maybe eight feet.  I clearly recall thinking to myself that the scene was a bit eerie.  I rounded a “corner” of coral and came way too close for comfort to the biggest barracuda I would ever encounter that year!  We saw these guys all the time at just about any depth, and I’d hooked plenty of them on rod and reel.  But this lunger was in a class all his own.

Barracuda are kind of an enigma.  They get a bad rap because they look ugly as hell, (they’ve got a serious underbite), but they’re certainly not man-eaters.  Granted, attacks on humans have been widely reported, but aside from this episode, I never felt threatened.

All barracudas, however, regardless of size, are curious and territorial.  Imagine that weird looking crazy uncle or distant cousin at the family reunion who follows you around, never really does anything, but always stands just inside your personal perimeter.  Staring at you.  Teeth spilling out of his mouth.

Ok so maybe it’s not a matter of enigma or misunderstanding.  Barracudas are mostly kinda scary.

So there I was, less than six feet away from an undersea monster.  You know how an octopus will squirt black ink into the water when it’s in danger?  Probably that happened right then.  I swung my arms and pushed back several feet.  He didn’t move.  Then I remembered, “Wait a minute.  I’m bigger than you [marginally], and I’m holding an eight-foot spear!”  I decided then and there that I wasn’t backing down from any fish.


I raised my spear toward him.  He didn’t move.

I kicked my fins and swam straight at him, pole extended and aiming to push him away.  The tip of the spear got less than a foot from his hideous face.  And still, HE. DIDN’T. BUDGE!

He just hovered there, quartering slightly away from me so as to expose his own armory of jagged spears encased in his powerful jaws.

Enough said.  I promptly halted my advance and happily made my best lobster impression, swimming backwards all the way to the boat.

Below Decks

And speaking of boats.  At the risk of sounding like an eco-maniacal caveman (“humans bad, earth good”), I must admit that my most terrifying encounter did in fact involve a member of my own species.  In this case, a reckless “captain” damn near cost me my life!

Kaitlin was a friendly coworker of mine, a small but sprightly gal, who shared an equal passion for the sea and the sport of spearfishing.  She and I were motoring out of the harbor when she informed me that our first stop would be in “the channel marker.”  This was both uncommon and alarming for the same reason:  boat traffic.  I asked why on earth we’d go there and she said she’d lost her sunglasses returning from a trip earlier that day and wanted to see if we could find them.  In addition, the ridgeline along the channel could yield some tasty lobsters.

When you work and play on the water, you quickly learn the value of a good pair of shades.  I didn’t object, but my spider sense was tingling.

We dropped anchor, raised the dive flag, and hopped in.  Surprisingly, there were no boats in sight.  Law of the land states that divers must remain inside one hundred feet from the dive flag.  Thus, boaters should give an even wider berth.  Captain Dugong, it seems, failed to read this part of the manual.

Kaitlin was wrong about her glasses, but right about the lobsters; their spiny antennas were sticking out all along both sides of the channel!  While my comrade searched for lost treasure, I made a dive down to the harvest.  Soon upon my arrival at the bottom, however, I heard the faint but familiar hum of an engine.  By this time in my spearfishing career, I could comfortably free-dive to depths of ten to fifteen feet and hold my breath for about a minute.  That time elapsed soon enough and the faint hum wasn’t so faint anymore.

I was running out of oxygen and didn’t have a clue as to the whereabouts of the approaching vessel.

I found it, though.

Close your eyes now and picture a scene from Looney Tunes where a character pops his head out of a manhole cover only to find an eighteen-wheeler bearing down on him.

That’s precisely what happened!

I broke the surface, turned around, and saw the giant V-hull of a small yacht looking to pummel my face. I didn’t even have time to dive head first, for fear that I’d be writing this from a wheelchair.  I did my best octopus impression and plunged backwards in reverse.

Fortunately, my mask was still on, which provided a view that I’ll never forget as the hull, engine, and wake passed directly over top of me.  I get goose bumps just thinking about it all over again.

I quickly came back for air and watched the boat happily trimming along.  I ripped off my mask and raised my spear in protest, but to no effect.

Kaitlin popped up on the side of the boat, surprised to see me sitting there already.

Find your glasses?”

“No.  Oh well.  Did you see anything?”

“Plenty for today, thanks.”

Honest to God, I had trouble sleeping the next few nights.  Word spread amongst our team, and my boss came over to my table at lunch the next day and asked how I was doing; probably he was looking for signs of PTSD.  Thankfully, there were none.  Aside from the fact that from that day forward, I developed the habit of hunting with my pole spear sticking straight out of the water, hoping that it stood out like a giant middle finger to stay the hell away!

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