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  Diving the Empire Mica.

The Empire Mica is a large freighter torpedoed and sunk in WWII. At 29 18.72N and 85 21.22 W, it is located in water depth of 105 feet, 45 miles offshore of the big bend area of the Florida gulf coast. Alfred Kirkland came in from Atlanta, Terence Fails trailered his boat down from Nashville, on the way to Ft Pierce for its winter storage, and I came up from Orlando. We met Tuesday night, October 12th, in Mexico Beach, Florida, and launched early Wednesday morning from a nearby ramp. We were on the way to the site by 8:15 a.m.

Alfred Kirkland Alfred patrols the Empire Mica.

There was 10 knot wind out of the east and seas were 2-3 feet with a steep chop after we rounded Cape San Blas for the final 26 miles of the run. This meant we had to slow the boat down a bit to keep the pounding bearable, and arrived on site shortly before 11:00 a.m. We soon marked the easy to find wreck with a clorox bottle and sash weight buoy.

Terence dove first, clipping a down line with a big red buoy to the deck of the Mica, at 78 feet, and doing the initial survey. Both he and Alfred had dived the wreck before, but from crowded commercial boats, so diving off a private boat gave us the luxury of setting our own dive schedule.

We had the option of either tying the boat off to the buoy/downline, or drifting nearby as the dives progressed. We chose to drift freely, which I prefer because it provides the versatility to pick up divers who miss the upline for a variety of possible reasons, versus having to unclip from the buoy (tough in choppy sea) and start the boat before chasing down a drifting diver.

Terence returned to report visibility from 15 to 50 feet, zero current, and warned that the visibility in places would be limited by the haze of fish. Alfred and I rigged, and jumped in.

Visibility ranged from fairly good (40-50 feet) in the upper water column down to the deck, then was about 20-30 feet at deck level, and turned downright murky as we approached the bottom, about 15 feet from the sand. It would have been possible to get lost out in the debris field surrounding the wreck without good navigation, and since we had plenty to do on the rather large main body of the wreck, we explored there. There was a slight current at deck level, nothing bothersome, and no surge after we left the surface. Down we went through the barracuda, stacked like logs from the surface down to the deck and below.

Alfred Kirkland
Alfred lost in the haze of fish.

At the deck, we found that Terence was right about the fish. I've never seen so many fish on any wreck, anywhere in the world. It started with massive schools of silversides, small finger length minnows in large schools. They wove up and down from hatches and holes in the deck. A big ribbon of them would rise, then get spooked by some nearby predator, and dive back down another hole, flashing brightly in the sun. It was a curtain of fish, and indeed you could not see your dive buddy when they were between you.

Circling around the silversides were three strata of jacks. First there were a couple of large schools of jacks about the size of your foot. They basically were the reason the silversides were so spooky, as they would occasionally make a lunge for the nearby minnows, causing panic in the ranks. Below these was a large school of jacks, about two feet in length, circling both the silversides, the schools of small snapper, and the lesser sized jacks. Below this bunch, down in the murk near the bottom, was a group of really large amberjacks, circling the entire hors d'oeuvre tray above. These jacks were at least leg length, and as big as any jacks I've ever seen.

There had to be something circling below that, but I never saw what. However, occasionally the medium and small jacks would spook and rocket out away from the deck, so something was dining on jacks as they dined on the silversides and snapper.

Inside every crevice were bigger snapper, tucked in groups of 4-5 under the big propeller still laying on the deck, down the hatches, under the boilers, everywhere. Enough snapper to feed Belize for a year. Mixed in all this were a lot of tropicals. Medium sized queen angels and four eyed butterfly fish, and schools of damselfish guarding their algae farms in low surge areas. Terence reported seeing as big a grouper as he's ever seen, (which is a lot, in his line of business) and claimed it wasn't a jewfish, an indication of its size.

Snapper Everywhere Snapper, snapper, everywhere.

Just under the deck, back in the hold, lurked some monster barracuda. Experienced divers know the biggest barracuda are the lowest in the stack, with smaller newbies being relegated to top duty. Well, the REALLY big ones are below deck. 6-7 feet, alone, and so old they are black, they lurk in holds and under ledges. They are also immovable, refusing to give ground on their territory. We each stuck our lights under the ledge, looked in, and saw only a large mouth full of big white teeth, only a hand's length away. As Alfred remarked later, "I realized I was holding my shiny dive light less than a foot from his face, and staring at him from not much further away. He didn't show any indication of backing off.
Some things are better off left unbothered."

I decided to forego using the RS and its wide angle lens in the limited visibility and backscatter environment, and to carry only the TRV900 digital video in the L&M housing.
The day turned overcast (maybe a blessing topside) which meant that video lights had to be used the entire time. That combined with the lower visibility meant no wide angle long range shots would be available. I've picked a few still photos from the 39 minutes of tape for inclusion here.

The dive produced a lot of booty. In his 3 dives Terence found a large and a small grappling hook, a relatively new speargun, and noted but left in place a lot of sash weights of the nature of our clorox bottle anchor weight. Alfred claimed the gun after neither of us wanted it, and can be seen patrolling the deck at port arms in some of the video.

On the way up, at the 15 foot hang stop on the 2nd dive, we found another interesting item: hyper-curious barracuda. Terence had reported that too, after his 2nd dive, but we didn't understand fully until we experienced it. The barracuda were stacked up from the deck below to well above us, and some of those below us would slowly nose vertically upward and come up to check us out. Unlike past experiences, where they tend to shy off at about 3 feet, these would close in until contact! One stuck his nose up to Alfred's release clip on his fins (unknown to Alfred) and another decided to touch nose to the corner of my mask. About an inch before contact I decided it needed a really good view of the L&M video housing and associated lights, and shoved it into its face. It moved off to about 3 feet and gave me the baleful stare.

We had 2 or 3 barracuda check outs during that hang time. I longed for my lobster loop, an excellent treatment for the pests. I can't recall this particular harassment in hundreds of dives with barracuda, so am unsure of its nature. Of course, in the emotion of the moment I forgot to run the video as the barracuda nosed Alfred's fin, so another award winning photo was missed. It's always thus.

On the surface we found another issue or two. Rain had started, and a touch of lightning, something to which we are all allergic in the offshore environment. The dive ladder had also self jettisoned, and had become our exchange gift for the spear gun and grappling hook. We got back onboard (eventually), and Terence cut short his last dive to only fetching the buoy and grappling hook. Our last step was to retrieve our chlorox bottle marker, which frayed on the way up and dropped its sash weight into the growing pile at the bottom. I think we broke about even on the gear exchange.

The ride in was quicker in the following sea, we broke free of the rain at the inlet, and were dockside around 6 p.m. We unloaded gear, cleared out the boat, and headed back to various destinations by 8:30 p.m. Alfred headed back to Atlanta, Terence to Ginnie Springs, and me southward to treat with hurricane Irene.

It was a truly excellent trip, and some remarkable dives. A 45 mile run, a zillion fish of all sizes and shapes, 5 good dives, no significant difficulties, and more stories for the fireside chats. I recommend it to everyone.