Thirty miles offshore, in 100 feet of water, the Spike isn’t the most accessible dive site off North Florida’s coast but July 17th marked the first anniversary of the former Coast Guard tender’s deployment as an artificial reef so we were eager to see what had changed over the past year. The Spike had only been down 10 days when we surveyed it during last year’s Great Annual Fish Count. We weren’t expecting much then – the chance to dive a freshly minted reef was the main attraction, but it was interesting that it had already attracted a small crowd of nervous bottom fish, including the usual Black Sea Bass and Vermillion Snappers.
It was a very different site one year later. A large school of nosy barracudas followed the first diver down the line, clearing the way for hundreds of Atlantic Spadefish to move in and escort the rest of our group down. The Spike was surrounded by silversides that fled en masse as we moved through them, then streaked back to the structure for protection when gangs of Great Amberjack attacked. It’s difficult to describe the sound made by thousands of fleeing fish, but they are noisy. The superstructure is now covered with invertebrates – barnacles, tunicates, sponges, and anemones – that provide shelter and food for hundreds of tiny seaweed blennies. Jacksonville’s ubiquitous grunt, the Tomtate, was there in every phase from juvenile to adult. The Black Sea Bass and Vermillion snappers are now settled in under the bow with a group of small Red Snappers and waddling around in the sand was one of my favorites, a Polka-dot batfish! A year ago, I counted 6 species of fish. This year I counted 16 species.
Our group also dived the Gator Bowl Press Boxes, an artificial reef created years ago when the city’s stadium was renovated. Although it had about the same amount of biomass as the Spike, there were more species. One of the joys of offshore Jacksonville for fishwatchers is getting to see species like Dwarf Goatfish, Longspine Porgys, Bank Sea Bass and Oyster Toadfish that we see don’t tend to see in more tropical waters. Congratulations to Richard Salkin and T.C. Howe, who conducted their first REEF surveys.