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Kayak diving serves up adventure

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Saturday, August 26, 2006 It may take a bit of getting used to, but kayak diving is worth it. By SUSAN COCKING MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS HOLLYWOOD BEACH, Fla. — Like beer, the enjoyment of kayak diving is an acquired taste. For me, the trial period was a pretty long one. But now this burgeoning sport is starting to win me over. In my first kayak dive, 10 years ago off Highland Beach, I was so irritated by all the gear lugging and clipping and unclipping of equipment that I remember very little about the actual dive. My second kayak dive found me in such a bad mood over some personal problems that I wouldn't have enjoyed the experience, no matter what. But by the end of my third try, which occurred this summer off Hollywood Beach with two friends, I was openly talking about buying a used dive kayak. Like I said, it's one of those sports that grows on you. Maybe it was the beautiful, flat-calm weather that early Friday, coupled with the absence of other boats. And the company had a lot to do with it — Kendall engineer John Szumila, tech and kayak diver extraordinaire, and Patti Hanley, my affable and physically-fit neighbor. But the dive itself proved both exciting and relaxing at the same time. Lots of equipment Yes, there was a lot of lugging of kayaks, dive gear and miscellaneous equipment from the municipal parking lot south of the Summit condos down to the water's edge. We were equipped with two 15-foot Ocean Kayak Scupper Pro TWs (tank wells) and my puffy, bumblebeelike inflatable — plus four scuba tanks; three buoyancy compensators; three life jackets; masks; fins; snorkels; weight belts; dive flags; folding anchor; a couple of small soft-sided coolers; Szumila's speargun; and numerous lanyards, clips and snap-links. To the uninitiated, we must have looked like a disjointed underwater demolitions team preparing for an assault on the beachhead. But the only assault planned that day was to be on the hogfish Szumila said he had encountered on previous dives. "My daughter calls me the hunter-killer," he chuckled. "'Dad, shoot food!' Anything I shoot, I take home and eat." To facilitate this mission, Szumila had installed a fish finder in the cockpit of his kayak, plus a GPS unit on the bow. The transducer for the fishfinder was glued to the bottom of the hull. A 12-volt motorcycle battery encased in Tupperware in the forward hatch provided power. Hey, who needs a $50,000 powerboat? We paddled maybe a half-mile before Szumila's fishfinder marked the reef 30 feet below us. Getting gear on He put down the anchor, tied all three kayaks together, and we began donning our dive gear. Our buoyancy vests were already attached to tanks and stored either beneath hatches or outside in the tank wells of Szumila's and Hanley's kayaks. We found it easier to tie the partially-inflated BCs to the kayaks and put them on in the water than to try to don them while still on board. Then we put on weight belts and dropped to the bottom. The reef was alive with activity as we drifted with the northerly current, Szumila carrying his speargun in one hand and draping the anchor line over the other arm. When he spotted the first hog of the day, he simply dropped the anchor, kicked leisurely over to the fish, aimed and fired — hitting it dead in the midsection. Then he took the fish off the spear, swam to the surface and deposited it in a small cooler. After all, swimming with a bleeding fish hanging from your belt is not the smartest course of action. What we saw Between shots at hogfish, we spotted two large nurse sharks sleeping under a limestone ledge, one of them 10 feet long. We encountered a five-foot Southern stingray buried in the sand with only its glassy eyes visible. A couple of large lobsters crept out from beneath coral heads, boldly waving their antennae at us. And throughout the 1 1/2-hour dive, we were surrounded by snapper, surgeonfish, angelfish, triggerfish and a host of colorful tropicals. "This is Discovery Channel stuff," Szumila said as he changed tanks. Because two of our kayaks had rigid hulls, lifeguards did not permit us to land anywhere on the beach except for Meade Street in North Beach Park. But we knew that ahead of time. The return paddle took 45 minutes, but luckily the current went with us and the freshening easterly breeze never grew into a major deterrent. Hanley and I fetched the vehicles while Szumila stayed with the kayaks. A lifeguard helped us load our gear — in exchange for a couple of Szumila's hogfish.