Diving

Diving

The unpleasant truths about fire coral

It had been a great dive on the USS Spiegel Grove, a large intentionally sunken ship off Key Largo, which is now a popular destination for advanced level scuba divers and all manner of sea critters.

One woman diver probably didn’t think the dive was so great. She ended up sitting near the front of the dive boat madly rubbing ointment on a red rash that covered the upper parts of both her legs.

When diving on the Spiegel Grove, most divers enter the water, pull themselves along a line attached from the boat to the mooring ball line and then descend the mooring ball line — very handy to use when there are currents and for safety stops to vent off nitrogen during ascents.

The downside of this is that some of the mooring lines attached to the Spiegel Grove have picked up a few passengers such as fish hooks and certain types of small fire coral and other stinging critters that can make a diver’s day very unpleasant if grabbed or bumped into by an unprotected arm or leg.

That is what happened to the woman diver. The current pushed her bare legs into the line during a safety stop. Ouch!

Fire corals have nematocysts (barbed, threadlike tubes that deliver a toxic sting) and some have sharp edges that cause lacerations or abrasions.

Over their diving careers many folks, including me, have experienced a sting or burning sensation from accidently touching or bumping into a fire coral. Most of these encounters are unpleasant but the sensation and embarrassment soon subsides.

A person’s reaction to fire coral depends on the amount of exposure to the toxins, extent of the abrasion for a hard coral and any pre-existing sensitivity — like some folks have for bee stings.

In some cases the accidental contact, besides symptoms of immediate stinging and burning, causes more pronounced skin reactions including red welts, blisters, and considerable itching.

The Divers Alert Network — a non-profit organization that provides dive safety information, emergency services, and insurance for the dive community — says it gets about 12,000 to 13,000 information calls each year. The good news is that it only gets approximately a call a week pertaining to someone who has had a run-in with a coral.

Fire corals are hydrozoans, rather than true corals, and are cousins to other hydrozoans such as the Portuguese man-o'-war.

Fire corals, which get their common name from the painful stings they inflict on divers, include colonies composed of tree-like branches, solid colonies that are typically dome-shaped, and colonies that grow on the substrate (surface or material on or from which an organism lives).

Fire corals live at depths up to 120 feet in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans and the Caribbean Sea.

According to reef experts Paul Humann and Ned Deloach the three types of fire coral in the Caribbean are branching, blade and box. Another type of coral, lace coral, lacks the “batteries of stingers” of fire coral. Lace corals can irritate sensitive skin but are not considered toxic to divers. The Florida Museum of National History says the branching and blade varieties are found in Florida’s waters.

Fire corals have different appearances. Some grow in small, bubble like patches on other corals. Some look like seaweed. Others grow in thin branches and may have small or large bubble shapes at the end of each branch. Certain fire corals appear like large, stiff leaves.

Reef-building fire corals may appear green, cream, yellow or orange. Species with branches have hollow cores that can be easily broken. Other types of fire coral form thick colonies capable of withstanding the movement of waves.

The stinging cells of fire corals are used to capture prey, which are then engulfed by the corals’ specialized feeding polyps.

Like other coral, fire coral also gets nutrients because of its special relationship with certain types of algae that live on it. The coral gets oxygen and food. The algae get a secure place to live and compounds for photosynthesis (the process by which green plants and some other organisms use sunlight to synthesize foods from carbon dioxide and water).

Reproduction is more complex in fire corals than other corals. The polyps reproduce asexually (without the union of male and female eggs and sperm) producing jellyfish-like medusa.

The medusa contains the reproductive organs that release eggs and sperm into the water. Fertilized eggs develop into free-swimming larvae that eventually settle on the substrate and form new colonies. Fire corals can also reproduce asexually by fragmentation. (http://www.arkive.org/fire-corals/millepora-spp/)

Fire corals face the same threats as other corals reefs including: poor land management practices that cause the release of sediment, nutrients and pollutants into the oceans; overfishing resulting in the increase of macro-algae; destructive fishing techniques that damage the coral; and, bleaching.

Many types of fire coral are brittle and can be broken by storms and unintentionally by scuba divers. But, sometimes the damage is intentional.

In Brazil, fire coral colonies are extensively damaged when yellowtail damselfish are captured for the aquarium trade. “They are often deliberately smashed and fishes hiding amongst the branches are ‘shaken out’ into plastic bags.” (See earlier site at arkive.org.)

Because fire corals are important to the health of the world’s reefs they are protected in many locations. “All species of stony corals (scientific order Scleractinia), including fire corals (Genus Millepora), as well as sea fans of the species Gorgonia flabellum and Gorgonia ventalina, are protected from take, attempted take, destruction, sale, attempted sale or possession under Florida Administrative Code Rule 68B-4216.” (http://www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/programs/coral/threats.htm)

All new divers are taught the importance of good buoyancy control to avoid placing their hands or other body parts where they may harm them, ocean creatures or the fragile reef.

But, as occurred to the lady diver at the start of this column, accidents do happen. It is a good idea, even in warm water, to wear a thin protective wetsuit and gloves if holding onto a mooring line is necessary. That said, some dive locations prohibit gloves to discourage touching or holding onto the reef.

There are some first aid treatments if you do happen to get stung by a fire coral.

▪  Rinse the affected area with vinegar or use a paste of baking soda.

▪  Remove any fragments taking care to avoid direct contact with bare fingers or hands – wear gloves or use tweezers if available.

▪  Hot water, heat packs, cold packs or ice may give some pain relief - do not place ice or unheated freshwater directly on affected skin. Rinse again with vinegar.

▪  Certain over the counter cortisone creams may be helpful but, if uncertain, check with a knowledgeable physician or pharmacist before applying the cream

▪  Notify a physician if you have a serious allergic reaction or develop a fever.

▪  Proper cleansing is very important. The most frequent complications from non-stinging coral scrapes are inflammation, which leads to poor healing and possibly a secondary infection.

The Divers Alert Network provides information on first aid for marine life injuries. The organization’s website is: http://www.diversalertnetwork.org/

A quick reference for “The Dos and Don’ts for Treating Aquatic Stings” is: https://www.tdisdi.com/dos-and-donts-of-aquatic-stings/

An on-line source of information on fire corals can be seen at: http://www.arkive.org/fire-corals/millepora-spp/.

Fishing

Lionfish derby coming up

Invasive lionfish are voracious predators from the Indo-Pacific that threaten Florida’s marine ecosystems. Over 100 species of native fish and invertebrates have been found in lionfish stomachs at very high volumes.

Diving

Oh, and scuba diving’s good for you too!

Active divers tend to be adventuresome sorts who love the sea, visiting new places and meeting fellow scuba enthusiasts. The Keys give divers the opportunity to make new friends from all different cultures and walks of life and to stay involved in a hobby that is good for them.

Diving

FKCC students become scuba diving instructors

With PADI certification, widely considered the gold standard in the diving industry, these diving instructors will be qualified for attractive professional diving jobs around the world — teaching individuals how to scuba dive.

Diving

Frink receives ‘Oscar of the ocean world’

Besides art, awards are given to world-class standouts who have distinguished themselves and made a global impact on diving in one or more of four other categories: distinguished service, environment, science, and sports/ education.

Diving

Snapper Ledge offers variety

Residents of Snapper Ledge, named after all the snappers found there, include nurse sharks, barracuda, moray eels, goatfish, parrotfish, hog fish, trunk fish, butterfly fish, several varieties of tropical fish, and lobster, octopus, crabs and rays.

Diving

Reef key to healing the Earth’s ‘blue heart’

It turns out that the Florida Keys were an early leader in working to ensure the health of the ocean. In 1960, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was established off Key Largo as the world’s first underwater park. Continued environmental degradation prompted the eventual designation of Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary in 1975.

Diving

Relax, fly and drift dive

“I believe I can fly. I believe I can touch the sky. I think about it every night and day; spread my wings and fly away. I believe I can soar.” (By R. Kelly and featured in the 1996 Move Space Jam.) The divers on the boat were suited up, their scuba gear safety checked, ready to go. The captain instructed us that we must all get into the water quickly, descend, and stay together as a group – no stragglers. My mind drifted back to a time when I used to jump out of airplanes and heard similar words. This was different. Instead of jumping out of an airplane into the open sky the divers were striding off the stern of a of a dive boat into the open ocean for a drift dive along Conch Reef. First off the boat was scuba instructor Stacey Sheldon (27), quickly followed by nine other divers. Stacey deployed a floating surface marker (which the dive boat captain used to locate the group while it drifted underwater) attached to a spool of strong line. She then gave the diver’s OK sign and we descended to about 45 feet deep while she reeled out the line attached to the marker. We started drifting. It felt like we were effortlessly flying – really flying! The Florida Keys offer a wealth of different diving opportunities from deep wrecks to shallow reefs teaming with tropical fish. Often overlooked is drift diving. What makes it possible in the Keys? Wreck divers who have been pulled to horizontal positions — like flags in the wind — while tightly gripping on a mooring line when descending or ascending from a sunken ship know that a current of varying speeds rolls by the keys. An interesting historical note is that this current was first reported by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513 when he discovered Florida — a bit before scuba diving became a popular pastime. The current that runs by us in the Keys is considered the beginning of the Gulf Stream System, which stretches from the Florida Straits up to Cape Hatteras. Drift diving in the Keys usually is conducted in gentle currents where divers drop down, occasionally kick their fins, and let the warm water move them along while they watch the reef and marine life pass by. It is like relaxing on a zoo tram while taking a tour. Some folks call drift diving the lazy diver’s type of diving. I guess I fit into the lazy diver category. There are a wealth of locations in the world that offer drift diving from the islands of Palau (on my personal “bucket list”) to our neighbor to the south - Cozumel off the Mayan Coast in Mexico. With currents that range from gentle to very rapid and strong, Cozumel has a splendid array of deep wall to shallow drift dives that have beckoned me back several times. Santa Rosa Reef, with its plunging walls, impressive, caves, tunnels and abundant sea life, is considered by many to be one of the top drift dive spots in the world. So, you decided to try drift diving. The Keys have plenty of shallow reefs. You may want to explore some of them first to get your sea legs, before jumping into a current for a drift dive, if most of your dive experience has been in fresh water quarries or lakes. Familiarity with your dive gear is very important to successfully deal with potential problems that may occur during a drift dive. If you are a newer diver who does not have specific training in drift diving or are diving in unfamiliar water, it is important to use the services of a divemaster or guide. Learn good underwater buoyancy control (the ability through proper weighting, use of the buoyancy compensation device (BCD), and lung volume to comfortably stay at a given depth in water). Maintaining a specific depth is needed in drift diving, especially if the dive is along a wall with a deep vertical drop-off. Obtaining an Advanced Open Water certification is a good place to start your training because the course covers deep diving, underwater navigation and other helpful skills needed for drift diving. Dive training agencies have courses specifically tailored for drift diving. The Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI) course covers drift diving techniques and procedures, drift diving equipment — floats, lines and reels, the causes and effects of aquatic currents, buoyancy control, navigation and communication, and techniques for staying close to a buddy or together as a group as you float with the current. Because drift diving requires that all the divers in the group descend together you need to be experienced in equalizing the increasing pressure on your ears and other places, like your dive mask, as you descend. You don’t want to be left bobbing at the surface in the waves while the rest of the group is drifting away 60 feet under the water. Drift diving requires methods to help those at the surface, usually on a boat, be able to locate your exact location. In certain drift dive spots, such as Cozumel, the boat captains are versed in following divers’ bubbles. At the end of the dive the guides send up surface makers attached to line to identify their location while they are still under water at safety stops. These delays before surfacing are used to “vent off” excess nitrogen the divers have absorbed in their bodies during the dive from breathing air at increased pressure. Other places, such as Florida, require the use of a "diver down" flag, similar to the one used by Stacy, throughout the entire dive. You should have your own surface marker to deploy at the end of a drift dive in case you come up before the rest of the group or in the event you get separated from the group and surface by yourself. Inflatable surface markers or “safety sausages” that can be rolled up and clipped to your BCD are available at dive stores. Back to the drift dive. I was preoccupied with getting a good photo of Stacey leading her group. Then, movement below caught my attention. Two of the divers in the group were cutting off and gathering old fishing line that had been caught in the reef — a potential hazard to divers and especially fish. I thought of a recent dive I was on during which a group of dive instructors had removed fishing line from the wreck of the Thunderbolt during the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup. The two divers on the drift dive with Stacey weren’t cleaning the reef as part of a group effort for a specific event. They weren’t going to get a “T” shirt or their picture in the news. They were just doing the right thing – because it was the right thing to do. I thought, “What a good example for other divers.” I should note that I see more and more divers picking up trash during recreational dives in the keys. It seems members of the SCUBA diving community, with their firsthand knowledge of the need to protect the fragile ocean, are taking personal steps to save it. For more on drift diving see: http://drift-diving.divescover.com/ or https://www.padi.com/scuba-diving/padi-courses/course-catalog/drift-diver-course/

Diving

Good divers never stop learning

Listening to new divers signing up for scuba trips in the Florida Keys, I often think of the exchange between Dustin Hoffman, playing Raymond, and Tom Cruise, playing Charlie, in the 1988 movie Rain Man

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