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.
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