Many times I've found myself mesmerized and peering over the side hands cupped over my polarized sunglasses trying to see as far down as possible into the clear blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Divers of these "fish magnets" say nothing compares to the exciting opportunities to observe, interact or stalk virtually hundreds of species of marine life.
A trip to Harry's Dive Shop in Metairie was in order to get the basics on this exciting sport. As I entered the store, I was greeted by two of the shop's feathered friends — Snuggles, a Triton cockatoo, and Darwin, a moluccan cockatoo.
Cindy Caldwell, an energetic and enthusiastic diver, serves as president of Harry's Dive Shop. Her dad, the late Harry Caldwell, started the business in 1957 after stumbling across Louisiana's diving paradise while on storm-restoration duty with the phone company after Hurricane Audrey.
Thirty six years later, the shop is a flurry of activity as customers come in to purchase equipment, fill tanks and attend scuba classes and just hang out and share dive stories.
The door swings opens and in walks 77-year old Wilma Oubre of River Ridge. She certified to scuba dive at age 68 in Rotan.
"I come here most every Saturday to use the pool to practice and stay in condition to dive; that is until LSU football season starts," she grins.
Asked why she got started diving so late in life, she replied, "I was a lifeguard at LSU, but back then I didn't have the time or the money to pursue it."
Caldwell, on the other hand, got started early, and has been scuba diving for 38 years. Her first open-water dive was in the Gulf of Mexico off of Grand Isle, where she immediately fell in love with the area. Since then, she has made frequent trips to dive various rigs that dot the Gulf.
Although there are a number of reasons to dive, including observation or photography of marine life and spearfishing, Caldwell enjoys just being in the silent world observing the many colorful tropical fish that dart throughout the rig structure and observing the various corals that call the metal reefs their home.
She offers insight into what one might find when diving around the oil rigs.
"Typically, west of the Mississippi River you'll find more tropical species such as various butterfly fishes, trumpet fish angel fishes," she said. "Virtually every fish common to the Caribbean has been documented around the oil rigs.
"East of the river is loaded with orange cup coral as well as larger game fish and various pelagic species such as tuna and wahoo, in addition to plenty of large sharks."
One little known fact is that scattered throughout the area and clinging to the rig structures, divers may find shovelnose or slipper lobsters as well as spiny lobsters.
"If I were relegated to dive only one location, that would be the oil rigs off the coast of Louisiana," Caldwell said.
Oil rigs are important because they provide hard substrate to an otherwise barren, muddy Gulf floor.
But Caldwell definitely has a favorite.
"Lena — because it's old so it attracts lots of life," she said. "It's in deep water, so you have an upwelling of currents, and it is situated far enough out that it is often clear."
Divers should use caution and be aware that there are very strong currents at this rig.
Once the dive boat has tied off at a rig and displayed its "diver down" flag, a floating line, known as a swim line, is stretched across the surface from the vessel to the rig. That provides a defined path from the boat to the rig, and ensures that divers make it safely inside the rig structure. Since these are working oil rigs, safety is of utmost importance as there are plenty of workboats, shrimp trawlers and recreational boat traffic to avoid.
Scuba divers should always wear total chafing gear including dive skin or wetsuit and sturdy gloves. Offshore rigs are encrusted with barnacles, and there is plenty of rusted metal, all of which can deliver a nasty cut to unprotected skin. Most importantly, it is critical that every diver carry a good knife because entanglement in a rig structure is always a possibility.
One of the most important rules when rig diving is that the entire dive should take place within the rig structure. If a diver cannot see the structure, it means they are drifting and should not be in that area. Besides, staying within the rig helps ward off sharks, as they typically do not go inside the structure.
"Diving the numerous offshore rigs near the Louisiana coast is not for the meek," says Caldwell.
Because of the constant outflow from the Mississippi River, the water in areas such as West Delta can be turbid as well as dark.
Numerous species of curious fish will approach divers. Among the most aggravating are the triggerfish. Triggers aggressively protect their homeland, and divers sometime invade their territory. With mouths the size of a dime and a full set of choppers, triggerfish zero in on such targets as a diver's hair, ears or the backs of their arms.
"Barracudas are like homeless children — they just follow you around and watch, and never really bother you at all," said Caldwell.
There are some better months to dive the rigs. Caldwell's preference is to dive the summer months through early fall. In her opinion, the absolute best time to dive is August-September. It is during that magical time that the Mississippi River is at its lowest stage, which provides plenty of visibility and gin-clear water. In addition, she says most kids are headed back to school, so there isn't a big crowd on the water.
One of the most enjoyable dives for Caldwell was one August in West Delta when a pod of large manta rays hovered just outside the rig.
"They seemed to enjoy the bubbles tickling them, and they would come near us and let us stroke them and they would quiver," said Caldwell. "These were beautiful sea creatures with 12- to 14-foot wingspans."
Another memorable trip took place after Hurricane Andrew on a weekend live-aboard trip on her brother's 65-foot boat, Flipper Too.
"We told everyone to prepare for poor visibility, and it was actually the clearest, calmest, most fish-prolific dive ever," said Caldwell.
In recent years, it has become more difficult to find boats willing to take scuba divers on charters due in part to the rise in insurance costs. There are plenty of divers wishing to charter, but few boats available to satisfy the demand.
"We're always looking for a boat that fits our needs, and we supply a dive master who oversees the entire trip," said Caldwell.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of diving is spearfishing.
"Spearfishing, in my opinion, is not scuba diving. It is actually hunting while underwater," Caldwell said. "I have a problem with people spearing fish that they do not intend to eat, such as tarpon or rays."
Spearfishing is more advanced, and a new diver needs to be watching air gauge, depth gauge, nitrogen levels, surroundings and buddy. It is advisable to have a good bit of experience and many dives under your belt before attempting spearfishing.
Once a month, Harry's Dive Shop offers a chance to get wet during its "Try Scuba" class. For a $10 fee, participants are outfitted with scuba equipment and receive basic instruction from dive masters in their Olympic-sized heated pool. Sign up is required for the 11 a.m. class, which takes place on the last Saturday of each month. On the Saturday I visited the class, there were at least 15 others who were there for their first underwater scuba experience.
In addition, Harry's offers a special summer camp for children ages 7 and up. Their popular Scuba Rangers camp, which is held during June and July, offers kids virtually all training an adult diver learns except that they will not take a test, become certified or make an open-water dive.
Louis "The Rok" Rossignol has been a member of the Hell Divers for 25 years. The club, which was formed in 1963, will hold its 44th annual Hell Divers Rodeo May 31-June 3.
Rossignol describes the club as "all adult males with rowdy-guy mentality — if you can handle one of our meetings, then you know you'll fit in with the group," he said.
One thing that is made perfectly clear up front — if you belong to Hell Divers, you must participate in their tournaments and events to stay in the club. The annual rodeo, for instance, is mandatory, according to Rossignol.
Back when he was just getting started in the club, Rossignol got off on the wrong track, but credits one of the other members for taking him under his wing and putting him on the right path.
"Terry Migaud mentored me and taught me right from wrong in and out of the wataer," said Rossignol.
Migaud, nicknamed "Papa Smurf," dived alongside the younger and less-experienced Rossignol to keep an eye on him and teach him the ropes of successful spearfishing.
It is a lesson that Rossignol took to like a fish to water. In 1988 and 1992, Rossignol won top honors in the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, and was named King Spearfisherman.
Back in those days, big fish were easy to come by. Rossignol shared with me that schools of 90-pound-plus amberjack would roam platforms such as Main Pass 299.
"You would be hard pressed to find a big AJ at that rig today as most are closer to 30 to 40 pounds there," Rosignol said.
Another species that has become scarce is sand tiger sharks.
"Back in the day, we would see a lot of really big sand tigers. Now it's mostly bull sharks that we are seeing, and they are very aggressive toward divers," he said.
Many times divers are forced to retreat inside of the rig structure to avoid the aggressive sharks, although there is no guarantee that the toothy monsters won't follow them in there.
Spearfishing for large fish is not without risks. Many divers have gotten into trouble when large fish pull them too deep, or entangle them in a rig. One such tragedy occurred several years ago when Warren "Whip" Mermilliod, a marine biologist, expired while on a spearfishing trip in the Gulf. To memorialize him, the Hell Divers established a marine sciences scholarship fund to assist needy students.
There are many choices of equipment. The speargun of choice for Rossignol is a triple-band JBL 450 magnum with what he calls a "Hell Divers riding rig." Instead of a reel attached to the gun, the spear is attached to a cable, then to a coil of rope that the diver holds in the opposite hand. The spear is not attached to the speargun, and therefore, a speared fish has less chance of pulling the diver down or entangling him around a rig leg.
"With the rope in our hand, we always have the option of letting the fish go without losing our gun," he explained.
Freediving is considered by many to be the most radical form of diving. These divers, armed only with a mask, snorkel, fins and speargun, stalk some very large game fish using only what air they can store in their lungs.
Capt. Bill Delabar, a world-class freediver who developed his passion for diving and spearfishing early in his childhood, explained his love for freediving and the water in general. As a Navy brat, Delabar grew up along the East Coast, and spent many years in Panama. He reminisced about the countless remarkable experiences he has had due to the extensive amount of time he has spent in and under the water. In addition to diving Louisiana, his exploits include Central and South America, the Caribbean, as well as dives up and down the East Coast of the United States.
"Years of practice and dedication have provided me with a freedom in the water that few have been able to experience, and in terms of sportfishing, have granted me a gift to see the underwater environment through the eyes of a hunter," Delabar said. "This translates into a tremendous advantage, even when fishing above the waterline."
Although the average person considers dropping off the side of a boat in big water complete insanity, it is something that an elite few consider to be ideal.
At Delabar's pinnacle, he and his friends would spend up to eight hours a day in the water on the hunt for blue water and reef species such as yellowfin tuna, wahoo, grouper, cubera snapper, snook, white sea bass and other desirable game fish.
"This is the most selective means of harvesting fish from the sea, and clearly the odds are in favor of your quarry," Delabar said. "It is a sport that requires technical proficiency, athletic ability, tolerance to the cold and the elements as well as a great understanding of the underwater environment."
Most freedives around the rigs take place in 40-60 feet of water, although good hunters have been known to pull the trigger at 100 feet or more.
Stripped of most modern technology, and floating outside the human environment, it is virtually the only place on Earth where a human is not comfortably perched at the top of the food chain.
Armed only with a primitive band or air-powered speargun, and usually diving many miles offshore, a freediver must rely on his ability in the water, his instincts and teamwork with his dive buddy to stay out of harm's way and to be productive.
"The reward is a freedom and a pleasure that I have found nowhere else in other sports and activities, including the extreme sports of surfing, snow skiing, snowboarding, skydiving, mountain biking and wakeboarding, all of which I thoroughly enjoy and am relatively accomplished in," Delabar said.
The equipment required for freediving is somewhat limited; however, it is highly specialized. Delabar and his friends who freedive exclusively rely on two basic styles of guns, tackle and rigging.
"Spearguns used for freediving are rigged with either a buoy or have a reel mounted on the gun," Delabar explained. "It is as much personal preference as it is a need for specific applications; for me, it's a toolbox."
Most reef and bottom fish can be effectively handled with a reel since these fish don't typically make a long run in open water. After being speared they usually seek cover in caves, rocks or within the rig structure. In most instances, a reel will supply enough line for the diver to reach the surface where the fish can be fought with maximum buoyancy and, if necessary, with assistance from a dive buddy.
Most production reels have the capacity for at least 200 feet of 600-pound or better super braid line, which is plenty for almost all applications Bluewater species, which tend to run at high speed and in open water, require spears to use bungee cords with floats to land big pelagic fish like wahoo and tuna and large reef fish in deep water.
"The most important thing to realize as a Louisiana diver is that the habitat at your disposal is absolutely world-class in terms of spearfishing, freediving and scuba diving in every conceivable form," Delabar said.
May is the perfect time to dive in, get wet and take advantage of the endless opportunities available just off the coast of Louisiana.
For more information contact Harry's Dive Shop (504-888-4882 or www.harrysdiveshop.com); Towers of Life (www.towersoflife.com); Louisiana Council of Underwater Diving Clubs; New Orleans Aqua Aces (www.aquaaces.net); Sea Tigers (www.seatigers.us); Frogmen (www.thefrogmen.org); Hell Divers (www.helldivers.org).