24. Sep, 2016

Wildlife on the treshold of civilization

Jupiter is the northernmost town in  Palm Beach County,  Florida. The name is derived from the Hobe Indian tribe that once lived in the area on which the town is built. Hobe was later transformed to Jobe, sounding like  Jovis that is equivalent to the Greek god Zeus. The Latin god Jupiter  in turn is derived from 'father Zeus'  (Ζεύς πατέρ in ancient Greek). Jupiter offers some of the best advanced diving in the world. Its unique proximity to the gulf stream  is the source of a truly amazing marine biodiversity. Here follows a brief  overview of some of the spectacular species to visit. But let’s start with the diving conditions.

    Goliath groupers congregation. Picture  by  Walt Stearns

Diving conditions Palm Beach is known as a drift-diving destination with rich currents nourishing the reefs while providing divers with free rides. Best  diving  is on  sunny and calm  days with a flat sea and  a good viz.  The often  strong  currents result from the continental shelf narrowing to less than six miles wide which allows the Gulf Stream to sweep in closer to the coast than anywhere else in North America. The continental shelf is a relatively shallow underwater landmass which extends from the continent and runs  along the entire  eastern seaboard of the US from Florida to New York. 

Unlike the Bahamas at the other side of the gulfstream, where most  diving is  above  a shallow  sandy sea floor underneath the  anchored boat,  the Jupiter divers are in open water. Meaning that the underwater photographers depend  on their buoyancy control skills. Dive master  sometimes use  propulsion vehicles to better  supervise and direct their flocks of divers, with the boat  following the drifting divers.

Sharks Baiting is prohibited near  the Florida coastline, but permitted in federal water past the 3-nautical-mile limit. Here the presence of the gulfstream guarantees crystal clear blue water that allows amazingly  crisp shots  of species  like tiger sharks and the great  hammerhead. ‘Jaw(s) dropping’ indeed!  Other sharks  that may show up in the area are  bull, silky and dusky sharks.  One of  the dive operators in the area is  Randy Jordan from Emerald charters  who runs a shark-feed dive out of Jupiter. Randy  believes that the best way to protect sharks is to expose humans to sharks in their own environment. I believe he is right and  like to add that baiting is known to increase the safety of  the divers, and thus also contributes to their protection.  Some conservationists are tolerant of the practice, with caveats.

One of the spectacular sights  in the Jupiter region  are congregations of large groups of sharks that later move to other destinations. Between November and April the northern portion of the Palm Beaches turns into the aggregation center for thousands of spinner sharks (Carcharhinus brevipinna). Not  so far from the shoreline even beachgoers can sometimes witness their presence, when they launch themselves in stunning aerobatic spins. Groups of  Lemon sharks (Negaprion brevirostris)   also aggregate in the summer months. Often the groups will gather on the shallow seabed to rest, where they can be seen parked together from low flying aircrafts and perhaps even with a drone controlled from a nearby  boat.

 Gentle giants  The more shallow waters along Jupiter and Palm Beach are also the place where one can encounter numerous goliath groupers (Epinephelus itajara). The species has been off-limits to fishermen since 1990, when IUCN  had  declared it as nearly endangered. But the population has been recovering in the decades that followed.  The  massive groupers  which can grow up to 6 feet long and weigh as much as 800 pounds congregate  once a year to spawn in the waters off Palm Beach County’s coastline. Their release of milky clouds of  sperm and eggs coincides with the new moon,  an occasion for divers to drop in as close to dusk as possible to witness  this epic  phenomenon.

Goliath groupers prefer  sheltered area offered by the county’s artificial reef sites and ship wrecks. They can be often found grouping together on what is known as the Jupiter Wreck Trek which contains three wrecks. Most groupers  react  friendly to divers that  visit the wrecks, with some individuals even coming out of their shelters to pose for the underwater photographer. One of  the Goliath promoters is Jim Abernethy who can be seen on his FB posing with his favorite colossal pet called ‘Tiny’.  

Turtles The list of of spectacular species does not end here,  since Palm Beach  is also a  major nesting ground for three of the Atlantic Ocean’s five species of sea turtle, loggerheads (Caretta caretta), greens (Chelonia mydas) and leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea).  Hawkbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), recognizable by their ornate shells and hawkish, hook-shaped snouts, are also regularly  encountered here.

Blue Heron Bridge   A report of the Jupiter area would not be complete without mentioning  Blue Heron Bridge. Blue Heron Bridge is  the place to go for macro photographers. There’s seahorses, pipefish, decorator crabs, batfish, and other rare and exotic species of sea life, all in a relatively small area and all at depths ranging from 6 to 16 feet.  Its located at  Phil  Foster park near the Bridge. Incoming tide is best for visibility. It pulls in clearer water through the Lake Worth Inlet. Outgoing tide reverses the flow, reducing visibility from the 40- to 60-foot range down to a muddy 5 or 10 feet.


Source and links

Craig, M.T. (2011). ‘Epinephelus itajara’. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2.International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 30 March 2014