Mask, Fins, Regulator, Dive! With the sinking of the Vandenberg, seven miles off the coast of Key West, there simply isn’t any time like the present to dive right in to the Keys’ coral reef, one of only three in the world. The Weekly Newspapers is following the trail of wreck dives this summer. We’re starting in Key Largo and working our way down to Key West. Then, we register for press passes to Cuba! This week we add some weights and sink 25 feet with Captain Slate’s Atlantis Dive Center for the world renown, Creature Feature.
“If we go like this with our arms that means get down sometimes the sharks can become aggressive. This isn’t an aquarium, and there really isn’t any tellin’ what they’re going to do,” Captain Spencer Slate gives the commands to a boat full of 18 divers and two snorkelers on board one of his custom built dive boats.
One would imagine half the boat would have emptied at the captains no nonsense instructions. Only, everyone is calm, cool, and collected. Afterall, we’re in the company and direction of an icon in the global dive community. Captain Slate’s intense ocean blue eyes, tell divers, we’re about to enter his underwater world, and he’ll protect us from his ‘critters’… and fend for himself.
“… see this mask, a Barracuda tore at the Ballyhoo, and then went for my face,” a believable account since us awestruck adventurers got to hold the prop.
As we mingled about the ship, amongst the divers, some young women from Miami, and a twenty-something teacher from Islamorada, we immersed ourselves in Slate’s story.
Born in 1947, as a boy he was mesmerized with the water. The North Carolina native was raised by a tobacco company factory supervisor. Only, he opted to immerse his lungs in another habit. SCUBA. A passion invoked through the hit TV show Sea Hunt starring Mike Nelson.
“I started diving at 15. I had to order gear because there wasn’t a dive shop in town and I dove in a rock quarry where everybody does that lives inland.”
Scars on his neck, war wounds from an attack of a nurse shark, dance around as Captain Slate shares his whale of a take with his divers.
“I got bit by a shark here see a circle,” he motions at the visible scar. “They saw the blood, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. The salt water felt good! Yeah, that’s good for it. Then, more sharks, turtles came…”
Slate dropped anchor in Key Largo in 1978, setting up Captain Slate’s Atlantis Dive Center. Slate knew he had to get creative to compete.
“I take people who’ve never been in the ocean and they get to hold a shark, or see a Barracuda” Slate states matter-of-factly, I enjoy introducing these animals to people in a friendly arena.”
At the time of Slate’s arrival, there was a gentleman on the island by the name of Steve Klem, A.K.A. The Pied Piper of Pennekamp Park. He fed the sea critters.
Slate recollects, “He befriended Angel Fish, shark and Barracuda.”
But, The Pied Piper was stricken with arthritis and couldn’t dive in the winter. Slate wanted to keep the fish fed. In lieu of putting the Ballyhoo on a dow rod, he opted to put the Ballyhoo between his lips.
“I just put the beak in my mouth,” says Slate. “You don’t taste the fish.”
And the Creature Feature emerged about four miles off the coast of Elbow Reef, where the City of Washington sank back in 1917. The German schooner was built in 1877, had three decks, and spanned 320 feet long. The ship transported troops to Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and following the war was converted to a coal barge. The wreck is largely deteriorated, but the shallow waters make the spot ideal for snorkeling and diving.
“This is the dive capital of the world! More divers come here than any other place in the world,” shares Slate.
We suited up and the smell of fish filled the deck, as Slate sliced open the packages of Ballyhoo … his fingertips chewed from the 31 years as Host of Creature Feature.
Slate doesn’t hesitate with an unnecessary explanation, “Steve mesmerized me, so I emulated him at great expense … and many stitches.”
Captain Slate slid in first, and his ½ dozen dive masters instructed us to follow.
The next moment, we’re 25 feet under, petting a Nurse Shark and watching Barracuda feet off Ballyhoo hanging from Slate’s mouth!
Captain Slate is serious when he says his critter feed is meant to be educational. He takes divers out as young as the age of ten.
“I want to convince people to be environmentalists and stewards of the sea. Go out and fish, but don’t hook a shark or Barracuda. Let him go. They’re not meant to be taken from the ocean. I am determined to educate anyone who will listen, sharks don’t attack people. They have no interest in us.”
Unless you have a Ballyhoo hanging in our jaws.
Join us next week as we sink with Slate again to pray to the Christ of the Abyss. “Please, save me from seasickness!” Check out Captain Slate’s other 30 trips at captainslate.com
Slate is crazy photo by Frazier Nivens, Ocean Imaging
Captain Spencer Slate’s Creature Feature is a summer dive season spectacular! The crew is top-notch and you can even take home a video of your experience! Perhaps, you’ll be captured on cam cuddling up to one of his critters.
Ballyhoo photo by Frazier Nivens, Ocean Imaging. Ballyhoo in his mouth … Barracuda take the bait. Captain Slate’s Atlantis Dive Center Creature Feature dive is the sweetest saltwater attraction south of Disney!
Captain Slate photo by Frazier Nivens, Ocean Imaging. Captain Slate prides himself as being a steward of the sea, and after 30 years of diving, still submerses himself in educating the masses: our ocean creatures are meant to stay in the water.
Ocean Conditions: Courtesy of the Naval Oceanographic Office
Keys Coastal Waters from Ocean Reef to Dry Tortugas: A weak ridge of high pressure will remain over South Florida and will strengthen slightly through into this weekend.
The approximate shoreward edge of the Gulf Stream as of June 10th:
39 NM SOUTH OF Dry Tortugas light on Loggerhead Key
13 NM SOUTH OF Cosgrove Shoal Light off the Marquesas Key
11 NM SOUTH OF Sand Key Light off Key West
10 NM SOUTH OF Looe Key off Big Pine
12 NM SOUTH OF Sombrero Key Light off Marathon
14 NM SOUTHEAST OF Alligator Reef Light off Islamorada.
11 NM SOUTHEAST OF Molasses Reef Light off Key Largo
8 NM EAST OF Carysfort Reef Light off Ocean Reef
Water temps between 82 and 84 degrees