“Bet you think that everything is gone.”
“Think you left me broken down.”
“Baby you don’t know me, ‘cause you’re dead wrong.”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
These lyrics from the famous 2011 Kelly Clarkson song, although meant for a jilted lover, could easily be sung by the Florida Keys dive operators after being hammered by Hurricane Irma in September because, as the song says, “Thanks to you I got a new thing started.” They do, indeed!
Being an owner of a dive operation in the Keys takes a special kind of person — a resilient one.
Even if it doesn’t rise to the level of a hurricane, you are at the mercy of the weather. You have never ending maintenance issues — your dive boats, rental dive gear and air compressor used to fill dive tanks need constant attention.
On top of that you have to carefully monitor the safety practices of your staff, keep up with the latest standards of the dive certification agency you use, and fill out reams of paperwork to keep your lawyers happy.
Then, there is your shop. If you rent, does the building owner have insurance? How will the location be affected by wind, rising water, and loss of electrical power? Are the facilities kept up? Nobody likes dirty restrooms or parking lots filled with water.
Just south of Tavernier creek, there are three family owned dive operators – one on the bay side at Tavernier Creek Marina (Conch Republic Divers) and two on the ocean side in the Casa Mar Village Shopping Center (Florida Keys Dive Center and Captain Spencer Slate’s SCUBA Adventures). Each has been in business for decades. Each has legions of loyal customers. All three plan to come back stronger after being blasted by Hurricane Irma.
Captain Gary Mace and his wife Brenda own and operate Conch Republic Divers. They planned to ride out Irma in Tavernier. No big deal – they had been through other hurricanes.
They secured the shop and boats, got the usual hurricane supplies and went home to wait.
Then, when Irma rose to a category 5 storm and was aimed directly at the Keys, Captain Gary and Brenda decided that it would be a good idea to follow recommendations to evacuate.
When they came back to town, the sight was heartbreaking. Their shop, located at water’s edge in the marina, was in shambles. The upstairs subfloor and downstairs ceiling had to be replaced and much of their inventory had been lost.
The marina had major damage and the electrical system was destroyed, leaving both the marina and Conch Republic Divers without power.
The good news was that the dive boats were fine.
Captain Gary made sure the compressor and other equipment were OK. The big question was how to get power to run the compressor.
He located a generator up-north that was large enough (17 KW) to operate the compressor. He arranged to have the generator shipped to Tavernier and obtained a propane tank to run it. Now, even with electricity from the generator, Brenda and Captain Gary still have a lot of work to bring the shop to full operational status.
Across Highway 1 is the Florida Keys Dive Center owned by Captain Tom Timmerman.
Irma took out her full wrath on the Florida Keys Dive Center. Tom said, “it was the worst I have seen in 35 years.”
The dive boats were OK, but the shop was inundated with several feet of sea water. The compressors were flooded which meant they needed to be replaced or, if possible, rebuilt. “Because there are only two compressor companies, that is a 4-6-week job in itself,” said Captain Timmerman.
The store had to be “gutted” and new floors and walls were needed. “It is a complete remodel job.”
Captain Timmerman hopes to resume business by the end of the month. “We are going to take our time and come back better than ever,” he said.
Captain Slate’s Dive Adventures is located closer to Tavernier Creek by the canal at the North end of the Casa Mar Village Shopping Center.
Captain Slate had put his boats in the mangroves and they survived with minor damage to some railings and canvas. The shop was flooded with about six inches of water, but most the equipment survived.
Captain Slate started taking divers out at the first part of October as soon visitors were allowed into the Keys.
He observed that Irma was fickle.
“I think the water built up toward the end of the canal and that is why it got so high at The Florida Keys Dive Center,” Slate said.
“I heard the Islamorada Dive Center had major damage to its shop, lost a lot of equipment and won’t be able to resume business for at least six months,” he said. “A big problem is trying to get the boats out of the marina down there.”
Several other dive shops in the Keys were affected by Irma, but they plan to stay in business. A big challenge is dealing with the negative news that came out during and shortly after Irma hit the Keys.
Andy Newman, spokesperson for the Florida Keys tourism council wants tourists to come back to the Keys as soon as possible. He notes that approximately 900 thousand people snorkel or dive in the Keys each year. “That is a big part of our economy,” he says.
“Irma is going to be the biggest challenge that I, as the spokesperson for the tourism council, have ever faced. There were tremendous impacts from the storm. But we’re talking about months to recover, not years,” Newman told me. “That message needs to get out.”
What about the reefs? The websites and Facebook pages of the Key’s dive operators contain reports about several shallow reef and wreck dives.
Captain Slate went out a few days after the hurricane and found the water on the wrecks to be clear. There had been some changes, but the structures were intact. “The smokestack was off the USCG Cutter Duane, but there were a bunch of fish swimming around the ship.”
Sand had been moved around and some of the shallow reefs had changed. “There are new channels in Pleasure Reef off Tavernier,” Slate said. “But the critters are still there. I saw nurse sharks, moray eels and a bunch of reef fish.”
“There was less soft coral but a lot of items, long buried, were uncovered,” he noted.
An iconic structure on Davis Ledge, the Buddha statue, had been moved about 100 yards from its original location. “We found it and moved it back. The plaque is gone but I hope to find it soon,” Slate said.
A week of rain and wind after the hurricane caused temporary residual water clarity problems on some of the shallow reefs.
I took the photo for this column while recently diving on Molasses reef, which lies off Key Largo, with my neighbors Mark and Liz Brown.
The boat captain, who asked me to take the photo, wanted to make sure he moored near the famous winch on the shallow end of the reef. He wasn’t sure he was on the correct mooring ball because the hurricane removed the identification numbers from some of the buoys.
He was spot on.
The site had changed. There were a lot of items like ship spars that had been uncovered. The winch looked like it had been sand-blasted clean. It took me awhile to reorient myself because the reef structure and soft coral were different.
During our second dive — this time on Pickles Reef — Mark found a coral encrusted anchor that had been unearthed by Irma. The anchor is a great souvenir to show his kids and friends when telling the story about his post Irma dive.
The bottom line is that most of the dive shops are open, or will soon be, for business. Be sure to check on the availability of lodging. Although much of the lodging in Key Largo is open, some of the facilities in the Tavernier area may not be open for a few months.
Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 30 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier five years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.