October 22, 2012
A Survey of Gear for the Florida Diver
This is a Florida Sportsman Classic. It appeared in the August, 2010 issue of the print edition of the magazine.
By Dale Sanders
If you're new to the sport, you'll soon learn how important it is to have the right equipment, in terms of performance, comfort and safety. Veteran divers are always on the lookout for the extra edge, and it was with that in mind that I visited the Diving Equipment Manufacturers Association (DEMA) show in Orlando last fall. I found some innovative and useful tools to help us locate, capture, record and bag our limits of tasty crustaceans.
Locate — The Search Is On
Don't think for a minute that lobstering success is all about what you do in the water. Improving your vision topside can really help. On the boat, being able to see minute details in bottom structure greatly increases your chances of locating productive search areas. That's where a good pair of polarized sunglasses comes in handy. On a recent trip to the patch reefs down in the Florida Keys, a friend was consistently pointing out fish, ledges, small heads and other structures that I was not noticing. We both had on premium label polarized sunglasses; the difference was his, a pair of Wiley X sunglasses, had foam inserts which contact the face and eliminate all side-light. This bit of extra coverage—which to some degree can take the form of optimal-fitting traditional frames—seems to help.
When doing a general search for buggy areas, I look for what I would call a “salt-and-pepper” bottom. The “salt” is the hard bottom and the “pepper” is the assorted gorgonians, sponges and other growth that anchor themselves on hard bottom. Once I've located hard bottom with ledges or potholes, I'll switch over to a Lure-Craft underwater viewer, a.k.a. The Flogger, which allows me to confirm and view the bottom with ultimate clarity. Often, I'll even see lobster antennae protruding from rocks or crevices. This viewer has a rubber boot that is designed to fit your face and eliminate the interference of side light. Divers have long used a 5-gallon bucket with the bottom cut out and replaced with a piece of glass, but I think this new-style viewer is a step ahead in design and functionality.
So you've found a likely spot. It's time to get in the water. My typical freediving gear consists of a low volume mask with a standard neon colored snorkel (kind of a mini-dive flag of sorts) and a pair of long blade Cressi or Mares fins. Although I looked for new technology in this area at the DEMA Show, the existing gear still seems to be the best. Many fin models that use booties strap on at the heel. Having a couple extra rubber straps in case one breaks is a good idea.
Once in the water, the next step is to do a few drops to look for holes, crevices or better yet antennae. If I've ventured away from the boat and happened to net a lobster and there are still one or more legal bugs down below, I will drop a hand float that I keep clipped to my dive belt. I've found this to be an indispensable tool for maximizing your catch.
Another great tool when you get into larger coral heads or deep undercut ledges is the Intova LED hands-free dive light. This is new technology and the hands-free aspect allows you to search yet frees up both hands to use a net and tickle stick when needed. Beyond this, I've found this high-intensity light has a “stunning” effect on our crusty friends. Once the light hits their eyes, they are temporarily blinded and respond much easier to the tap of a tickle stick to their backside, not to mention that they don't see your net. Another good thing for divers: This particular light has an on/off slide instead of the cumbersome twisting lens type.
In situations when I know I'm in the right area, but don't see any good lobster hiding places after a few drops, I will drag a diver on a Sea Sled planer. This advanced design (low profile, with reinforced hinge) is a pleasure to use. I actually enjoy these underwater rides as much as I like bagging my favorite seafood entrée. You can stay on the surface until you see a promising area and then angle the planer downward to get a fish-eye view of the bottom. Spot a lobster or likely hole, and you simply drop off the planer and alert the boat to turn around. This is one of the best ways to find lobster as well as entering new GPS hotspots to return to in the future.
After years of typical injuries to my hands and feet, I learned about two pieces of gear that I now bring with me, no matter what. During a week or more of freediving for lobster, these two items are absolutely essential. If your feet are too blistered to kick your fins, or you're grimacing each time you grab a lobster, you might as well hang up your net and tickle stick.
First are the Akona 2mm neoprene low-profile dive socks, which are designed to be worn with foot-fins. These can mean the difference between enjoying your trip, or misery from toe and foot blisters. I've worn various types of socks and other booties, which are really designed for back-strap fins, and none of these come close to what these Akona socks do for my feet and functionality while diving.
Akona seems to be very much in tune with the needs of specialty freedivers as they also manufacture the highly protective Kevlar Armor-Tex Bug Hunter dive gloves. Not only do these gloves protect you from the sharp spines of a lobster, but they also last much longer than the traditional neoprene and palm leatherette covered gloves. Another great advantage of these gloves is they will protect you against lionfish spines. These porcupine-like critters are invading the Keys and South Florida, and seem to love the same hiding places as lobsters. Trust me, you do not want to get stung by these highly toxic fish!
Another cool item is the retractable Gear Keeper, to which I've attached a required lobster gauge. Now when I catch a lobster, I can quickly find and pull out the gauge to measure my catch, and then it automatically retracts. A friend of mine uses these for his net and tickle stick so he can swim hands-free. He may look like he's wearing a Batman utility belt, but no one laughs when he brings the most lobsters to the boat.
Capture and Secure — It's in the Bag
How can you improve on a tickle stick? The Pro Teaser extendable multi-function device sets a new standard for this critical piece of gear. I can't tell you how many times I've been away from the boat and found a large coral head or ledge that had a big boy lobster way back in his happy place. With this new extendable tickle stick, you can double your reach instantly. Additionally, it has an ergonomically designed handle that's easy to grip, and has a lanyard and lobster gauge built in. Plus, if you happen to drop it, the neon yellow handle stands vertical on the bottom, making it easy to recover. It's a few bucks more than a cheapie aluminum or fiberglass stick, but when it makes the difference between success and failure, it more than pays for itself.
Another great tool to have onboard is the Green Loop stainless lockable loop snare. I like this particular one as it has a secure, jam-proof lock for when you've latched on to a big bug, as well as a quick-release trigger. These are really effective for the super-sized deepwater lobsters when on SCUBA.
When you find that colony of keeper-size bugs, it's time to call for a catch bag. There've been catch bags of all sorts out there for years, from the highly inferior hinged bag that allows lobsters to escape each time you try to put a new one in the bag, to the more recent “trap door” style that's fairly failsafe. One problem I've found is that all-mesh construction allow lobsters to spine you through the bag. The new Lobster Hotel catch bag is half mesh and half spine-proof nylon, providing you with a protective barrier. Additionally, the older trap door bags had a drawstring cinch on the bottom that was a pain to open and resecure. This new model has a nylon zipper that's easy to open and close. Also, lobsters can be removed from this style bag much easier.
Safety — Be Aware & Take Care
I have to admit I only began using a rash guard-type sting suit as of recent. However, having said this, I now wear one on nearly every warmwater dive. Swimming into jellyfish, sea lice, or worse yet a man o' war is not how I want to remember my lobster trip to the Keys. So, I now wear an Akona UV free diver long-sleeved sting suit on every dive. I've found this brand to be pill and pick resistant, as brushing against a ledge or the boat's non-skid can quickly damage most of these rash/sting suits. Additionally, these “long sleeve” sting suit tops will totally protect you from fire coral and stinging hydroids that are prevalent on ledges and wrecks throughout the Florida Keys.
The most impressive item I came across at this year's DEMA Show is the Pocket Buoy personal travel dive flag. This collapsible / inflatable dive flag can easily be packed and taken with you to any worldwide destination. I now take it everywhere I travel. It inflates via a balloon, which is inserted into the body of the nylon fabric's round float compartment. It is a great comfort to have with you when you are away from your boat or kayak, as well as being inexpensive and potentially a lifesaving invention.
Record & Return — Catch Ya Later
I think everyone knows the value of plotting and saving your best lobster spots on GPS. However, as one begins to name dozens if not hundreds of locations like Lobster Ledge, Holly Bottom, Lots A' Lobsters and more, it's easy to forget which one is which. So, for the past few seasons I've been using an inexpensive Intova Snap Sights digital underwater camera (which sells for less than $40 and has a removable flash card) to shoot photos or videos of my favorite spots followed by a picture of the latitude and longitude on my GPS screen. Then, when I download the images, I add a caption name to the image file and print them out into a notebook. Maybe it's over the top for some divers, but having a photo printout of past hotspots really jars the memory bank when heading out a year later. This camera and the slightly more expensive 8MP version is great for having onboard to record your catch, without the worry of it being ruined from sand or salt spray.
There was even a company at DEMA that was pre-promoting a wrist-mounted underwater GPS device that showed divers the bathymetric profile of where they are diving. However, at press time they had yet to release a working model. Nonetheless, as technology continues to accelerate, I'm certain that there will be devices like this available soon for the lobster diver. FS