Saturday, January 15, 2011

Lion In Wait

Today, Saturday, is supposed to be the Great Weekly Lionfish Hunt, where the resort sends out its spare dive masters and instructors with sprearpoles to catch as many lionfish as they can.

Ought to be interesting, if they'll let me film it. In fact, they might need my help, because I seem to have a knack for finding the little shits.

Take laswt night. I'm heading out on a dive with my daughter. On our way in, a dive master surfaces and we start chatting. Turns out she's looking for the three lionfish that were reported earlier in the week, to set markers to aid in the search.

Couldn't find them. Mind you these were the same three fish I had found already this week, including one earlier in the day.

Did I mention I'm diving again? Oh, right. I am. My ear problem seems to have mitigated now. I dropped down to 80 feet on my first dive and my second, this one, was to 65 feet to show my daughter the lionfish.

Night diving is an intriguing experience, particularly when some of the predators have learned that "dive lights = exposed prey". We are taught as divers not to shine our lights on fish in the night because there's always a tarpon, grouper or other big fish looking to snare food.

One night last year I was doing a solo dive at night on this same reef, and let my light linger near a small soldierfish too long. A tarpon tried to swoop in and it was only the quick reflexes of the solider fish that got him out of the way. The tarpon swung in, tried to snap the fish up and missed, swimming directly into my mask.

Literally. He was inches away, close enough that I had to take my light and push him aside so I could continue swimming.

Same damn tarpon that shadowed me on this dive. Anyway, I drop to 65 feet looking for the lionfish. My daughter hadn't seen one yet. She had her own issues to deal with that prevented her from diving.

I orient myself with the landmarks and start to search.

Nothing. Not even the hint of one and this one was big, close to five inches long with an additional fin span of two or three inches. You see, Lionfish have developed their dorsal and other fins into an evolutionary adaptation that allows them to use the fins to intimidate prey and predators, turning them into long, sharp venomous needles.

They sacrifice speed and agility, however, which means they're easy to find once you locate them. This guy, ehhhh, seemed to defy that expectation. Usually they only patrol an area a few feet wide.

We span out and begin to scan, drifting slowly up the reef. I have my video camera rig with me. The hot light for this rig can throw a beam that's actually brighter than sunshine at this depth.

Nothing. Scoot up a few feet higher. Still nothing. We shrug and begin to swim off into the current. At about forty feet, out of the corner of my eye, I see my daughter stopped at a coral head, her light fixed on one spot. Not unusual, except my daughter has about 150 dives, most on these reefs, so there are few fish or animals she has not seen. It's not ordinary for her to come to a complete stop and stare.

I glance over and it looks like she's got her eyes on a brittle star.

Brittle stars are a form of starfish that is photophobic: that is, they tend to come out at night to eat and avoid light of any kind, including dive lights.

Then the tentacles start to move. It's not a brittle star. It's the lion fish, out on a coral head instead of under one. The sucker moved 25 feet in the matter of a few hours. That's unusual, to say the least. I turn on my rig and begin filming. He ducks under the coral head. I swim around and find him in the crevice of a split in the head and film him again.

My daughter still has a ribbon to tag the location of lionfish that resorts used to hand out, so I tie it off to a close-by rock outcropping and note the location to report later. Lucky. It's hard to describe a location on a reef without some clear visual clue, like a boat mooring or a piece of trash.

Meanwhile, that damn tarpon is still hovering close by. I keep my light on, hoping he'll scoot in and grab the lionfish, but because lionfish don't swim in the water column much, the tarpon doesn't recognize it as prey.

We turn to go. I shut my light off.

Diving at night has one very unique moment, one that I urge all divers to try at least once: turn off your lights and enjoy the scenery. Near a resort, there's usually enough ambient light to see pretty well anyway (I take my dive lights only to check my air and depth, and to signal to my dive buddy). Out in the blue, a dark dive is a lot of fun. You can't see many fish except for outlines, and when they come in close, you really get a sense of how small and alien you are in this world.

And your every moment is lit up like Vegas as the bioluminscents swirl around your hands and fins. It really is quite spectacular.