One of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences in the underwater world is the chance to see its creatures in their natural, wild environment. Without caging the animals, but instead adapting ourselves to experience this alien world, we get to see things a true adventurer would only experience deep in the forest of the Amazon or the Serengeti. Here all the animals are free—the choice to make human contact is completely up to them—and it is because of these experiences that scuba diving becomes such an addictive activity.
The chance to see elusive and rare creatures when you least expect it is usually the driving force as to why some divers travel for days, half-way across the world for just one minute of contact. Whether it’s watching a pygmy seahorse go about its daily life or a giant manta soar across the blue ocean, watching these and other majestic animals swim free in this ocean world instills an euphoric experience in most.
With such thoughts roaming through my mind, I set out on my two hour drive north to Riviera Beach at 5:30am. After previously speaking on the phone with Eric Cheng (Wetpixel) a couple of days earlier, he invited me to join him and Jim Abernethy (JASA) on a great adventure—the chance to release 22 baby loggerhead sea turtles.
Spending a week every year as a boy at one of the beaches in this area, one of my most memorable experiences was awakening one morning to my mother showing me a baby turtle hatchling that had roamed incorrectly towards the beach-front hotel the night before. Watching this miniature version of the larger sea turtles that would come up on the beach to nest at night was a joyous experience. Flopping its little fins back and forth, it swam around in the salt water container my mother had temporarily devised. As I quickly changed into my swimming trunks, my mother’s smile grew as I asked for her permission to go to the ocean to release the little guy into its natural world. Carefully carrying the whole container down to the ocean, I set it down in the sand while I put on my mask, snorkel and flippers (that’s what they were called back then).
With the little guy in my hands, I entered the water and set him free. As he swam into the deep ocean I followed closely for a few yards. With a huge smile on my face and a feeling that to this day remains etched in my conscious, I can still see his little flippers flapping away as it swam on its way—free in to the ocean world.
As I drove to Jim Abernethy’s dive shop, I could barely wait for the day’s adventure to begin. Having the chance to meet Jim before, I knew that it would be an exciting and laughter-filled day. Arriving at Jim Abernethy’s dive shop around 9:00am (after a detour to fix a tire with two nails in it), I checked-in and drove towards the back of the dock to unload my equipment.
As I walked down the wooden dock, I met the man of the hour. Eric Cheng—a rising star in the underwater digital photography world for those who don’t know him. A friendly, outgoing individual whose adventurous reputation matches him nicely. Eric approached me and we exchanged greetings. He helped me carry my equipment onto the boat where Jim Abernethy was busy preparing for the day at hand. A cheerful, loud greeting reiterating Eric’s words that “Laz is here” brought the first (of many) of Jim’s hilarious tactics at making everyone around him laugh and feel welcomed.
Eric and I sat inside the Shearwater live-aboard as he ate some breakfast. I had a great time chatting about everything from digital photography to many of his great adventures. During that time, I met some of the crew that run the Shearwater live-aboard trips. It wasn’t long before we would board one of Jim & Anna’s dive boat—the 40’ Infatuation—along with 33 other divers (11 scuba divers, 22 baby turtles) as we set on our way out to the reefs.
Our first stop—Breakers Reef. This reef has tons marine life that I don’t usually find just ~120 miles south in Biscayne Bay and the Florida Keys. As Eric and I set on our way with our cameras on-hand, we began roaming around in search of any photographic opportunities.
As we swam around I noticed a large sea whip coral rising from the ground and I paused for a moment to observe it closer. Wishing to find one of those shrimps or gobies that live on these coral as I had seen photos of Micronesia. Without any clue that they existed here, I began moving up along the trail of the whip coral. To my surprise, I noticed a tiny little transparent critter walking up the coral.
WOOOAAHH!! They do exist here too! With the current swaying the whip coral back and forth and the little guy not being very cooperative, with a lot of luck on my side and help from Eric, I was able to capture this photograph. Thanks Eric!
We continued on our way and came upon a couple of angel fish. In hopes of returning the favor, I swam next to the angel fish in the direction where Eric was in hopes that he could get a good photo of it. Although no where near as friendly as some of my angel fish friends down in Biscayne National Park and the Keys, the angels hung around long enough for a couple of snapshots and a terrific blue angel shot by Eric.
As we continued to swim around I noticed a file fish that must have been too busy thinking about something else as he didn't notice Eric and I sneak up next to him. Before he could move into some photographically, uncompositional direction (as they always do) I was able to get a quick photograph of him.
After a while of diving around and Mr. AirHog (that would be me) down to 700psi, I signaled to Eric that I would need to ascend and up we went. As we approached the boat, Jim handed us a pair of the little baby sea turtles and as we released them into the water, we followed them around taking the occasional photo of them.
Here I am thinking, "Oh! This is gonna be so cute watching the little guy swim around." Instead, as soon as I start following a little too closely it's natural instincts take over and he turns into one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja SeaTurtles. With his (or her) mouth agape it would occasionally charge towards me or the camera.
After a short photo session with the little fella, I swam along side it (far enough where it wouldn't attack me) and I couldn't help but experience what I felt as a little boy as I swam next to this beautiful little creature.
To watch it swim free was truly a remarkable feeling. Along its way, I prayed that it would survive to return one day to this same beach where months ago it was born.
The adventure was far from over. With still twenty more baby loggerhead turtles to release, Jim drove the boat a little distance away and while all the divers were in their snorkel outfits with a turtle in-hand and one particular joker (who could that be) reenacting the film, "Attack of the 50ft. Loggerhead Sea Turtle" with Eric being its apparent victim...
We released all the baby turtles into the water and we all had a chance to watch (and photograph) these little guys swim free...
Self portrait. Shot taken by me.
..and attack us all over again...
Self portrait. Shot taken by me again (it's all luck!)
Although the whole experience was comparable to swimming with wild dolphins, there were also many moments of laughter with the occasional salt-water swallowing because of it. But the funniest of them all would have to be when I was photographing Eric and his baby turtle, when all of a sudden Eric seems to lose sight of him while looking through the viewfinder. As he raises his head, there was the little guy right above his camera with his mouth wide open getting ready to bite the hand that freed him.
Luckily, Eric survived the experience unscathed. Fortunate for me, the 5mm wetsuit I wore made for good body armour otherwise I wouldn't have been as lucky. All in all, we had a fantastic and magical time with these little sea turtles as some of the images Eric (Eric's Trip Report) and I took should show. I only hope that fate treats these little sea turtles kindly and I hope one day to see them here again. Good luck little guys!