In the diving world there are basically three forms of diving: free diving, compressed air diving, and 1-Atmosphere diving. After the recent accident with the OceanGate Titian we thought we would give some basics as to how this form of diving works. Let’s look at all three.
Free diving is just that… free of any diving apparatus. It is just you and the ocean. Frequently called “snorkeling” these days, the diver dons a mask (and at times snorkel), holds their breath and descends as deep and long as they can. Most sport free divers enjoy viewing the bottom in waters less than 10 feet deep. Through practice and training, others can go deeper. Some have dived as deep as 80 feet hunting fish using spearguns and have held their breath well over 2 minutes. There are of course the free diving championships where free divers descend by sleds to extreme depths under extreme pressure and ascend by air lift bags. This form of diving has not been of great use in science because the diver cannot go very deep and cannot stay very long. This makes behavior observations and data collecting difficult. Though it has been useful for shallow water surveys to do more “science” under the sea a different form of diving would be needed. One where you can go deeper and stay longer.
Compressed Air Diving
Very early in science history they saw the need to develop some form of diving that would allow scientists to reach greater depths for longer periods of time. This meant taking the air with you. Dive bells made from crude materials were developed and tried as early as the 18th century. But most were very unreliable due to the materials used.
The concept of compressed air diving is that of using an air compressor to compress atmospheric air into a hose down to the diver. The diver would be able to regulate the air flow using a “regulator”. This concept was first used in what we now call hardhat diving. Divers wore heavy canvas suits with weighted boots and weight belts to reach the bottom. Air would be compressed using an air compressor on deck and fed to the diver using a tethered hose. The air would reach the diver within a brass helmet that had small view ports and a regulator on the back to regulate the air flow. Special care had to be taken to avoid getting exhaust from the air compressor into the air mix going to the diver, which could be toxic. There was also the threat of the air compressor running out of fuel and stopping the flow to the diver, who in their weighted apparatus could not reach the surface by swimming.
Another part of the problem was the pressure under which the diver is exposed. Standing on the surface of the earth you are under pressure. The atmosphere above is being pulled to the surface by the earth’s gravity and all objects are in its way. There is pressure from the air around you squeezing on your body at about 14.7 pounds for every square inch of your body (pounds per square inch – p.s.i.). We call this 1-Atmospheric pressure (14.7 p.s.i.). You do not feel this pressure because your body adjusts to it. However, when climbing a mountain, or flying a plane, there is less air above you and the atmospheric pressure decreases. We feel this in our ears (which helps adjust for pressure change) and feel the “equalization” of this pressure when we lightly blow our nose, or yawn – our ears “pop” and we do not feel the pressure any longer.
Water weighs more than air. As you descend into the ocean you feel the atmospheric pressure above the ocean surface AND the water pressure above you as well. The deeper you go, the greater the pressure. The rate of change is 14.7 psi every 33 feet (10 meters). At the surface we say we are at 1-Atmosphere (14 psi – 1-ATM). At 33 feet below the sea, you are at 2-ATMs (29.4 psi). At 66 feet you are at 3-ATMs (44.1 psi) and so on. Compressed air divers are exposed to this pressure as they descend and must equalize by “clearing” (lightly blow your nose while pinching it or yawning). Due to their sinus situation, some divers can clear more often than others and dive deeper. You do not dive with a head cold or other sinus problems, because you will not be able to clear. Even with good sinuses, there is a limit the human body can take. Most sport divers today dive to around 100 feet (4 ATMs – 58.8 psi). Some can/do dive to 200 feet (7 ATMs – 103 psi), but to dive deeper requires technical training and equipment. Technical divers need to be in good physical shape. Some professional technical divers have reached depths of 400 feet (13 ATMs – 191 psi). Below this is very hard on the human body. This is about the limit for compressed air diving.
But as Jacques Cousteau stated… “the problem is not so much going down… it’s coming back”.
What the famous ocean explorer meant by this was that the pressure on the diver not only squeezed your sinuses, but it also squeezed all of the gases in your tissues. The air you are breathing is about 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 1% trace gases. As you descend these gases are squeezed into your tissues and circulatory system. If you return too fast, these gases will expand in your tissues and cause what is called “the bends” (due to the fact your limbs begin to bend when it happens). It can be lethal and must be avoided. The deeper you go and the longer you stay, the more gas you squeeze into your system and the slower you must go to return to the surface to allow these gases to escape your system. Years ago, the U.S. Navy developed dive tables that told the diver how much time they had at a certain depth to safely return to the surface without stopping (non-decompression dives). Even though you could safely return without stopping, you were taught not to pass your bubbles as you ascended to make sure you were not coming up too fast. For example, a dive to 80 feet allowed you 30 minutes bottom time. You would descend, clearing your ears to adjust for the pressure change, make your dive watching time on your dive watch, and slowly ascend not passing your bubbles at, or before, the 30-minute time limit. Even once you were back on the surface there were still dissolved gases in your system and the table would let you know how long you had to sit to completely clear your system. Today, dive computers are used by divers to track this. They have alarms on them to let them know when it is time to ascend, and all divers now make a safety stop at 15 feet for five minutes JUST to make sure. Those who remain at 80 feet for longer than 30 minutes are considered “decompression divers” and the dive tables (dive computers) let you know at what depth you must stop (and for how long) to allow the dissolved gases to escape your system and safely return to the surface.
But the Bends were only one issue. Excessive amounts of nitrogen squeezed into your system could cause nitrogen narcosis during the dive. This gives the diver a “drunk” feeling, you begin to see things that are not there, your view of the sea bottom is inverted or flipped where the bottom is up and the water down. Just as driving drunk, this can be very dangerous. The diver is no longer alert and can make some fatal mistakes. And then there are embolisms. When you ascend the gases expand, if you are holding your breath the gases in your lungs will expand and may rupture the alveoli in your lungs. This is an embolism.
With hardhat diving you are tethered to the ship, you could only explore as far as your tether would allow you. In the 20th century they developed the Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus – SCUBA. A cylinder, originally made of steel and now aluminum, was filled with atmospheric air using an air compressor. This cylinder was strapped to the divers back and rigged with a two staged regulator that you could place in your mouth. The air was provided on demand by the diver. Today SCUBA diving is enjoyed by sportsman, adventurers, and scientists the world over. But the lessons mentioned above must be learned. No one should try SCUBA without attending a SCUBA certification course to learn how to do so safely.
There is still a depth and time limit with compressed-air diving. Safe SCUBA is usually less than 200 feet, and you can explore as long as your air supply within the tank will allow you. Hardhat diving can supply more air, and increase time on the bottom, but there is still a depth limit and, as explained above, the longer you stay the more problems can occur for the diver. Those problems for the diver are due to the body being exposed to pressure (5-6 ATMs = 74-88 psi). IF the diver could remain at 1 ATM throughout the entire dive, then the Bends, Narcosis, and Embolisms would not be a concern. But how do you build a vessel where the inside pressure is 14.7 psi, and the outside is 100 psi? Could you build one that would keep the ocean from imploding it? And 100 psi is where compressed air divers can reach now. Could we build one that could reach 1000 feet (31 ATMs = 445 psi), or 10,000 feet (304 ATMs = 4454 psi). Imagine that… a vessel where the inside pressure is 14.7 psi and the outside environment is pushing in at 4454 psi!, could this be done?
Because we wanted to explore the deep sea, engineers began designing vessels for such a dive almost a century ago. Through design and testing, they learned quickly that a sphere was the best shape to use. With no corners, there are spaces for the external pressure to “grab” and either push or pull. You would want to use the strongest material available, and at that time it was steel. So, a steel sphere might do the trick. There was the issue of a window, or view port. If you had a steel sphere that could hold up to great pressure, could you put a window in it? If not, what is the point of going? Science developed an acrylic plastic (Plexiglas) that would bend some. Engineers discovered that cutting this acrylic glass window into a shape of a cone would absorb more pressure and allow the vessel to descend deeper allowing the 1-ATM divers to see outside. One window had an internal light that could illuminate the ocean outside so they could see.
Testing of such a vessel began in the early 20th century. The first dives came with a vessel called the bathysphere. This was designed by engineer Otis Barton and operated by himself and marine scientist Dr. William Beebe. The sphere was about five feet in diameter, 1 inch steel walls, and two viewing ports filled with crushed quartz glass (no acrylic glass yet). It would be lowered by a cable that also included a phone line for communication. Air was provided by cylinders within the vessel and there were absorbent materials to collect the expelled CO2. Air was moved around via a fan. The vessel was tested many times at varying depths before they allowed divers on board. The first dives were to depths of about 500 feet (16 ATMs = 223 psi), but they eventually reached a depth of 3000 feet (91 ATMs = 1336 psi). There were several issues during the course of these dives. Early on, the cables would become twisted, and they had to develop a method to keep this from happening. On one dive, water began leaking in after only going a few feet down. Once back on deck it was discovered one of the brass bolts that held the hatch shut was not tightened properly (showing the importance of COMPLETE review of the vessel before descending). The most catastrophic incident came during a test dive. There were initially three viewing ports on the bathysphere, and one had been covered with a steel plug. Dr. Beebe wanted to switch out the steel plug for another crushed quartz glass window so that he could do a video of a dive. They did, and during the test dive (to several hundred feet with no humans onboard) the new quartz window filled with water upon return. Dr. Beebe himself decided to unbolt the door. The intense pressure of water (due to the leak at depth) shot the brass bolt across the deck of the support ship like a bullet, then came the explosion of water that shot all the way across the deck to the crane that lowered the bathysphere. Reaffirming the dangers to this form of diving and the need for safety and detailed inspection of all equipment. Unmanned testing was a must for any new innovation tried on the system.
Using this sphere design the Trieste was designed by Swiss engineer Auguste Piccard. The goal of this vessel was to reach the very bottom of the ocean – the Challenger Deep at the bottom of the Marianna’s Trench – 36,000 feet = 1090 ATMs = 16,036 psi. This 1-ATM vessel would have an internal pressure of 15 psi and an external pressure of 16,000 psi. Obviously great care, thought, designing, and testing had to be done to pull this off. The sphere was steel, five inches thick, and had a diameter of seven feet. Unlike the bathysphere Dr. Beebe dove in, the Trieste was unthethered, so called a bathyscaphe. It operated like a hot air balloon. A large hull was attached above the sphere filled with gasoline (less dense than seawater and would float like hot air balloon). To sink, portions of the vessel would fill with seawater and there were conical cylinders filled with iron pellets (which would be released so the vessel would float back to the surface, just as bags of sand are dropped to allow the hot air balloon to rise). The view ports did use acrylic glass.
The dive took place in 1960. It took about four hours to reach the bottom. At 30,000 feet one of the exterior acrylic glass windows did crack but it did not impact the sphere nor the crew and the dive continued. They were on the bottom for about 20 minutes and were able to observe living organisms at the deepest part of our ocean. The pellets were dropped, and the ascent took about three hours. It was a marvel of engineering.
In the latter half of the 20th century the material for the spheres switched from steel to titanium. Electric motors were added so the pilot could literally drive around on the ocean floor. After speaking with a submersible pilot, he told me it was like driving a golf cart. An array of sampling equipment (buckets, vacuums, mechanical claws, etc.) were added to these vessels in order to collect from the seafloor. Many are outfitted with video cameras, and many have cameras that automatically photograph every so many minutes. The business of 1-ATM diving has vastly improved. One new design owned by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Florida has a sphere made of the acrylic glass material. It is five inches thick, and your view is almost 360o. However, due to the material of the sphere being less than titanium, it has been certified to depths of no more than 3000 feet (92 ATMs = 1336 psi).
One of the more famous deep-sea submersibles is Alvin. Built in the 1960s, it has made more than 4000 dives to the deepest parts of the ocean, including the Titanic. It has been certified to depths up to 21,000 feet (637 ATMs = 9354 psi). It has discovered deep-sea hydrothermal vents, viewed deep ocean rift valleys, as well as videoed numerous deep-sea creatures. It has truly expanded marine science.
When the recent accident involving the submersible Titan occurred, I was camping out west in an area with no service. I did not hear about it until it was basically over. I did not get a lot of questions about I from the public but was interested in what went wrong. I did some reading and found the following.
Titan was owned and operated by a company called OceanGate based in the state of Washington.
OceanGate developed two submersibles – Cyclops 1 and Cyclops 2. Cyclops 2’s name was changed to Titan.
The vessel had a pressure hull made of titanium but was using reinforcement bars made from carbon fiber instead of steel.
The company stated that the pressure hull had been tested by the Applied Physics Lab at the University of Washington. It was approved for 4285 psi. That is 3000 meters, 9800 feet, 298 ATMs.
The Titanic sits at 12,500 feet, 3676 meters, 380 ATMs, 5568 psi.
It made several dives to the Titanic in 2021 and 2022. No incidents. A reporter who made one of those dives stated that they had to sign a waiver that stated they understood it was an experimental vessel.
The CEO was quoted several times stating “safety impedes innovation”.
There were emails from engineers prior to the first dive to Titanic that it was not safe to do so in this vessel. One billionaire from the west coast was offered a trip down but declined because of the safety issue.
Looking over the remains of Titan that reached the surface, one engineer stated that the implosion may have been due to the use of carbon fibers, or, an issue with one of the viewing ports. They were not sure. More reivew was needed.
As with so many airplane, shuttle, and ship accidents, the debris from the wreck will be examined more thoroughly and we will have a report of the most probable cause of the implosion.
It was a horrible accident, and we feel for the families of those lost during this dive. The statement about safety certainly catches our attention. This was a dive to 12,500 feet. Safety should have been a priority. The same can be said for any machine we use. I drive a camper van out west, several thousands of miles. We did, and should, make sure the vehicle was prepared for this. I have a safety check list for our camper before we pull it for miles. We should do the same for our cars. Many of you jump in your boats and head miles out into the Gulf of Mexico for a day of fishing. Do not neglect a safety check of your vessel before leaving. We know SCUBA divers check their gear before they dive, we know that airlines check their planes, we know the US Navy will not let a Blue Angel leave the ground unless it has passed a safety check. I have had friends who have dived on the Johnson Sea Links and Alvin. They have told me the crew goes over the vessel several times the night before a dive to make sure all is good, and the ship is ready. As a dive buddy of mine who served as a US Navy SEAL told me once – “Take care of your equipment… and your equipment will take care of you.” This is good advice for everyone.
The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament May 20-21, 2023, at HarborWalk Village in Destin, FL, is gearing up to tackle a pressing ecological challenge while showcasing the power of sport to make a positive impact. This unique tournament, held along the picturesque shores of the Emerald Coast, focuses on combating the invasive lionfish population in the region’s waters.
Lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific region, have become a significant threat to the delicate balance of marine ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico. With their voracious appetite and rapid reproduction, these invasive species pose a grave danger to native marine life. The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament aims to address this issue by encouraging divers and fishermen to actively hunt and remove lionfish from the waters.
Participants in the tournament will compete to catch the most lionfish, utilizing their skills in underwater navigation, spearfishing, and conservation. Sponsors provide cash and prizes for multiple categories including most caught, largest and smallest lionfish. The event provides an exciting platform for experienced divers and newcomers alike to contribute to the preservation of the marine environment.
Beyond the ecological significance, the tournament also offers a thrilling experience for both participants and spectators. Divers equipped with their spears dive into the depths, searching for lionfish while showcasing their prowess and bravery. The tournament fosters a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose among the participants, creating a community dedicated to the cause of protecting marine ecosystems.
In addition to the competitive aspect, the Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament promotes education and awareness about the invasive species. Participants and attendees have the opportunity to learn about the impact of lionfish on local marine life and explore sustainable solutions to combat the issue at the free Lionfish Awareness Festival from 10:00-5:00 each day. Sign up to volunteer at the event if you want to join the fun. The week prior to the tournament is dedicated to Lionfish restaurant week where local restaurants practice the “eat ‘um to beat ‘um” philosophy and cook up the tasty fish using a variety of innovative recipes.
The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament 2023 represents a unique fusion of sport, environmental conservation, and community engagement. By bringing together individuals passionate about marine conservation, this event serves as a powerful catalyst for change and a shining example of how sport can contribute to the preservation of our natural world. Learn more at https://emeraldcoastopen.com.
Morrison Springs in Walton County is a natural spring ideal for paddling, snorkeling, and diving. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extensio
There is just SO much water in Florida. Besides the tremendous amount of rain and 1,350 miles of coastline and beachfront, there are endless bays, bayous, creeks, rivers, and streams. In this state, it is extraordinarily difficult to live more than a few miles from a body of water. Among the the coolest (literally) types of water bodies in Florida, though, are our springs. Like brilliant gemstones, the state’s 700+ springs dot the Florida landscape like a strand of sapphires.
While we have springs bubbling up all over northwest Florida in areas where the underground water table meets the surface, larger springs are more common as you move east and south. Some parts of north Florida and most of the peninsula are built on a limestone platform, known by the geological term “karst.” Limestone is composed of calcium carbonate, which has a porous and easily degradable chemical structure. When this barrier is breached, it allows the cold groundwater an opening directly to the surface water—hence a spring. (Fun fact—there are surface water streams that actually disappear into a spring—these are called swallets, operating as the reverse version of a spring!)
The striking blue-green water in Three Sisters Spring is only accessible by kayak or swimming. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
A few of the largest springs in northwest Florida are Vortex, Ponce de Leon, and Morrison Springs, found in Holmes and Walton County. Vortex is a privately operated water park and scuba diving/training facility. It is where the red and white “diver down” flag was invented and has a complex underwater cavern system. Ponce de Leon and Morrison Springs are state and county-run parks with a more natural feel, surrounded by woods and basic infrastructure for access. Morrison will especially wow visitors with its tremendous turquoise coloring.
Crystal clear water in Morrison Springs. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Before a meeting in Crystal River last week, I paddled and snorkeled through the famous Three Sisters Spring. As part of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, it is a popular but highly protected area. Three Sisters is well-known as a manatee gathering place, especially in winter, but during my visit was mostly unoccupied. The color was striking, though. Why do so many of these springs have such brilliant blue and turquoise coloring? The phenomenon is essentially the same as the blue-green Gulf waters in the Panhandle. The reflection of the sky on a sunny day with the backdrop of that pure white sand causes the water to reflect a color that inspired the nickname “The Emerald Coast.” In springs, the white calcium carbonate in limestone breaks down into tiny crystals, mixing with the water and reflecting the vivid shades of blue.
Alexander Springs Creek in Ocala National Forest is overrun with algae. Photo credit: Matt Cohen, UF IFAS
Besides their beauty, clarity, recreational, and wildlife value, springs pump 8 billion gallons of fresh water a day of into Florida ecosystems. Seagrass meadows in many of these springs are lush. Because they are literal windows into the underground aquifer, they are extremely vulnerable to pollution. While many springs have been protected for decades, others were seen as places to dump trash and make it “disappear.” Many have been affected by urban stormwater and agricultural pollution, losing their clarity, reducing dissolved oxygen levels, and prompting massive cleanup and buffer protection zones.
On one of these hot summer days in Florida, take the time to visit our incredible springs. While it may not be the literal “Fountain of Youth,” swimming in a spring is a unique and invigorating experience, and a beautiful way to get off the beaten path. A comprehensive guide to Florida springs, research, and statewide protection initiatives can be found at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s springs website.
By Tory Moore, UF/IFAS Communications & Ray Bodrey, UF/IFAS Extension Gulf County
As boaters across the state take to Florida’s coast to scallop, UF/IFAS Extension and Florida Sea Grant agents ask enthusiasts to keep these tips in mind for a safe, fun and sustainable trip.
Scallops are sensitive to environmental changes and, due to their relatively short lifespan, local bay scallop populations are susceptible to periodic collapses. To enjoy recreational scalloping for years to come, it is important that safety and conservation stay top of mind.
Remember, you are not alone out on the water. Other boaters and scallopers, manatees, sea grasses and other wildlife surround you.
In 2020, the leading cause of boating accidents was motorists failing to pay attention to surroundings according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boating accident report. Florida leads the nation in the number of registered vessels, and it is important for boaters to be aware of others around them to prevent accident, injury or death.
While in the water, be sure to display a dive flag to grab the attention of boaters passing by.
“We often see folks not using diver down flags,” said Ray Bodrey, UF/IFAS Extension and Florida Sea Grant agent said. “Be safe on the water and be sure to place your diver down flag in your scalloping area so boaters know you are there.”
When boating in shallow areas, watch out for seagrass beds. Wildlife, including scallops, depend on seagrass and protecting the grasses from boat anchors and propellers helps to keep populations healthy. Just a couple of minutes of negligence by a boater can cause a decade of impacts to sea grass. Propellor and anchor scars are preventable by following these simple best practices.
“Seagrass scarring is a big issue in Florida,” Bodrey said. “It takes a long time for seagrass to recover from such an injury. Remember, seagrass is a scallop’s best friend. Seagrass provides a health habitat for scallops by providing oxygen and a camouflage from predators.”
To support future scallop populations, return scallops smaller than 1 1/2 inches. Smaller scallops likely have not spawned yet and since their life span is roughly one year, it’s important that each scallop has the opportunity to contribute to the scallop population.
Consider only collecting what you plan to eat. While many people strive to “limit out,” be realistic about how much you will eat and how much you may or may not want to shuck.
Remember, scallop seasons differ by county. Limits are season – and location – specific. Harvesting scallops requires a current Florida recreational saltwater fishing license unless you are on a chartered trip.
It’s important to be aware of the regulations for the area you are scalloping and follow them. Not only are these regulations law, but they are also important for keeping scallop populations healthy for your future enjoyment.
“Many bays in Florida are struggling to maintain a healthy scallop population,” said Bodrey. “Follow all FWC rules and regulations so that we have a recreational scallop harvest season for years to come.”
Cleaning and cooking scallops
On the boat
Upon collection, place scallops on a wet towel on top of ice in a cooler. This prevents spoilage and water from entering their shells. Drain your cooler frequently to keep bacteria growth at a minimum.
Back on land
You will want to shuck your scallops the same day they are caught. If you shuck your scallops on shore, be sure to dispose of the shells or soft tissues properly. Do not dispose of them in high-traffic water areas near shore or in swimming areas.
Before shucking, make sure to wash your hands and shucking utensils.
Remove any traces of the surrounding tissue as possible, you want to only eat the circular white muscle meat. Scallop meat should be stored in the refrigerator and cooked or frozen within 24 hours of catching and shucking. Frozen scallop meat is best enjoyed up to three months.
One of the largest groups of invertebrates in the Gulf are the Mollusk… what many call “seashells”. Shell collecting has been popular for centuries and, in times past, there were large shows where shells from around the world were traded. Almost everyone who visits the beach is attracted to, and must take home, a seashell to remind them of the peace beaches give us. Many are absolutely beautiful, and you wonder how such small simple creatures can create such beauty.
One of the more beautiful shells from the sea – the nautilus. Photo: Wikipedia
Well, first – not all mollusk are small. There are cephalopods that rival the size of some sharks and even whales.
Second, many are not that simple either. Some cephalopods are quite intelligent and have shown they can solve problems to reach their food.
But beautiful they are, and the colors and shapes are controlled by their DNA. Just amazing.
There are possibly as many as 150,000 different species of mollusks. These species are divided into 8-9 classes (depending which book you read) but for this series on Embracing the Gulf we will focus on only three. First up – the snails (Class Gastropoda).
There are an estimated 60,000 – 80,000 species of gastropods, second only to the insects. They are typically called snails and slugs and are different in that they produce a single coiled shell. The shell is made of calcium carbonate (limestone) and is excreted from tissue called the mantle. It covers their body and continues to grow as they do. The shell coils around a linear piece of shell called the columella. Most coil to the right, but some to the left – sort of like right and left-handed people. There is an opening in the shell where the snail can extend much of its body – this is called the aperture – and some species can close this off with a bony plate called an operculum when they are inside. Some snail shells have a thin extension near the head that protects the siphon – a tube that acts like a snorkel drawing water in and out of the body.
The black siphon can be seen in this crown conch crawling across the sand. Photo: Franklin County Extension.
They have pretty good eyes and excellent sense of smell. They possess antenna, which can be tactile or sense chemicals in the water (smelling) to help provide information to a simple brain.
They are slow – everyone knowns this – but they really don’t care. Their thick calcium carbonate shells protect them from most predators in the sea… but not all.
Their cousins the slugs either lack the shell completely, or they have a remnant of it internally. You would think “what is the point of an internal shell?” – good question. But the slugs have another defense – they are poisonous. Venomous and poisonous are two different things. Being poisonous means you have a form of toxin within your body tissue. If a predator eats you – they will get very sick, maybe die. But you die as well, so… Not too worry, poisonous slugs are brightly colored – a universally understood signal to all predators.
There is one venomous snail – the cone snail, of which we have about five species in the Gulf. They possess a stylet at the tip of their siphon (similar to the worms we have been writing about) which they can use as a dart for prey such as fish. Many gastropods are carnivores, but some are herbivores, and some are scavengers.
Many shells are found on the beach as fragments. Here you see the fragment of a Florida Fighting Conch. Photo: Rick O’Connor
Most have separate sexes and exchange gametes in a sack called a spermatophore. Fertilized eggs are often encased in structures that resemble clusters, or chains, of plastic. These are deposited on the seafloor and the young are born with their shell ready for life.
This group is not as popular as a food item as other mollusk but there are some. The Queen Conch is probably of the most famous of the edible snails, and escargot are typically land snails. I am not aware of any edible slugs… and that is good thing.
Some of the more common snails you will find along our portion of the Gulf of Mexico are:
Crown Conch Olive Murex Banded Tulip
Whelks Cowries Bonnets Cerith
Slippers Moon Oyster Drills Bubble
The most encountered slug is the sea hare.
A common sea slug found along panhandle beaches – the sea hare.
I hope you get a chance to do some shelling – I hope you find some complete ones. It is addictive!
If you ask a kid who is standing on the beach looking at the open Gulf of Mexico “what kinds of creatures do you think live out there?” More often than not – they would say “FISH”.
And they would not be wrong.
According the Dr. Dickson Hoese and Dr. Richard Moore, in their book Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico, there are 497 species of fishes in the Gulf. However, they focused their book on the fish of the northwestern Gulf over the continental shelf. So, this would not include many of the tropical species of the coral reef regions to the south and none of the mysterious deep-sea species in the deepest part of the Gulf. Add to this, the book was published in 1977, so there have probably been more species discovered.
Schools of fish swim by the turtle reef off of Grayton Beach, Florida. Photo credit: University of Florida / Bernard Brzezinski
Fish are one of the more diverse groups of vertebrates on the planet. They can inhabit freshwater, brackish, and seawater habitats. Because all rivers lead to the sea, and all seas are connected, you would think fish species could travel anywhere around the planet. However, there are physical and biological barriers that isolate groups to certain parts of the ocean. In the Gulf, we have two such groups. The Carolina Group are species found in the northern Gulf and the Atlantic coast of the United States. The Western Atlantic Group are found in the southern Gulf, Caribbean, and south to Brazil. The primary factors dictating the distribution of these fish, and those within the groups, are salinity, temperature, and the bottom type.
Off the Texas coast there is less rain, thus a higher salinity; it has been reported as high 70 parts per thousand (mean seawater is 35 ppt). The shelf off Louisiana is bathed with freshwater from two major rivers and salinities can be as low as 10 ppt. The Florida shelf is more limestone than sand and mud. This, along with warm temperatures, allow corals and sponges to grow and the fish assemblages change accordingly.
Some species of fish are stenohaline – meaning they require a specific salinity for survival, such as seahorses and angelfish. Euryhaline fish are those who have a high tolerance for wide swings in salinity, such as mullet and croaker.
Courtesy of Florida Sea Grant. In total, it takes about 3 – 5 years for reefs to reach a level of maximum production for both fish and invertebrate species.
Forty-three of the 497 species are cartilaginous fish, lacking true bone. Twenty-five are sharks, the other 18 are rays. Sharks differ from rays in that their gill slits are on the side of their heads and the pectoral fins begins behind these slits. Rays on the other hand have their gill slits on the bottom (ventral) side of their body and the pectoral begins before them. Not all rays have stinging barbs. The skates lack them but do have “thorns” on their backs. The giant manta also lacks barbs.
Sharks are one of the more feared animals on the planet. 13 the 25 species belong to the requiem shark family, which includes bull, tiger, and lemon sharks. There are five types of hammerheads, dogfish, and the largest fish of all… the whale shark; reaching over 40 feet. The most feared of sharks is the great white. Though not believed to be a resident, there are reports of this fish in the Gulf. They tend to stay offshore in the cooler waters, but there are inshore reports.
The impressive jaws of the Great White. Photo: UF IFAS
There is great variety in the 472 species of bony fishes found in the Gulf. Sturgeons are one of the more ancient groups. These fish migrate from freshwater, to the Gulf, and back and are endangered species in parts of its range. Gars are a close cousin and another ancient “dinosaur” fish. Eels are found here and resemble snakes. As a matter of fact, some have reported sea snakes in the Gulf only to learn later they caught an eel. Eels differ from snakes in having fins and gills. Herring and sardines are one of the more commercially sought-after fish species. Their bodies are processed to make fish meal, pet food, and used in some cosmetics. There are flying fish in the Gulf, though they do not actually fly… they glide – but can do so for over 100 yards. Grouper are one of the more diverse families in the Gulf and are a popular food fish across the region. There untold numbers of tropical reef fish. Surgeons, triggerfish, angelfish, tangs, and other colorful fish are amazing to see. Stargazers are bottom dwelling fish that can produce a mild electric shock if disturbed. Large billfish, such as marlins and sailfins, are very popular sport fish and common in the Gulf. Puffers are fish that can inflate when threatened and there are several different kinds. And one of the strangest of all are the ocean sunfish – the Mola. Molas are large-disk shaped fish with reduced fins. They are not great swimmers are often seen floating on their sides waiting for potential prey, such as jellyfish.
We could go on and on about the amazing fish of the Gulf. There are many who know them by fishing for them. Others are “fish watchers” exploring the great variety by snorkeling or diving. We encourage to take some time and visit a local aquarium where you can see, and learn more about, the Fish of the Gulf.
Hoese, H.D., R.H. Moore. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M University Press. College Station Texas. Pp. 327.