Islamorada: Dive all day and learn about dive history in the evenings. A special series of events at the History of Diving Museum recognizing the contributions of Military Divers. May 21-26
Capt. Slate’s ‘Creature Feature’ Dive – New Location, New Thrills
(Tavernier, FL) The five-foot-long green moray eel glides out of its coral reef cave and heads straight for the ballyhoo that Captain Spencer Slate dangles from two gloved fingers. The eel quickly gulps the bait then allows Slate to cradle it in his arms and stroke its slick sides. Slate holds the eel out to a ten-year-old diver sitting nearby who gives it a pat, and it returns to its cave.
“A sweetheart, a doll,” Slate says later of the eel, who he has named Wasabi.
Slate has been making friends with eels, sharks, barracudas, Goliath groupers, and numerous other Upper Keys reef denizens since the late 1970s. His twice-weekly ‘creature feature’ feeding dives on Fridays and Sundays conducted from Captain Slate’s Scuba Adventures Dive Center, a Guy Harvey Outpost outfitter in Tavernier, regularly draws a sell-out audience.
On a recent Sunday, two families from Fort Pierce– both with newly certified scuba diving ten-year-old daughters– travelled to the Keys for the third time to participate. Both girls thoroughly enjoyed the dive, and declared they would share photos and videos upon returning to school.
“They were cute!” one girl said of Wasabi and Lester, another green moray befriended by Slate.
Slate escorted his guests to the first dive at Davis Reef, a shallow, scenic coral ledge about 25 feet deep where Wasabi makes her home. Slate dropped to the bottom carrying a PVC canister filled with chum and bally hoo, quickly attracting a school of yellowtail snapper and grunts that followed the scent trail.
The captain stopped in front of a shallow cave near a large Southern stingray that rested half-buried in the sand and kept a wary eye on the food fest. The swarming snapper and grunts were so thick around the chum canister that the divers could barely see Slate. The divers settled down in the sand to see what would happen next.
Wasabi appeared pretty quickly after Slate took out the first bally hoo. Her jaws flexed open and closed as she approached the bait, then devoured it. She held pretty still for all the public displays of affection by the humans, then went back to her cave to digest the meal. She never snapped at anybody.
The stingray, tired of the hoopla, slowly dusted itself off and swam away.
Slate let the schooling fish have their way in the chum slick for a little while, then got out another bally hoo for Wasabi. She re-emerged from her cave, ate her snack, indulged the divers, then departed.
None of Slate’s guests has been injured by his featured creatures in decades, but he has. Following numerous nips to the fingers requiring multiple visits to a hand surgeon over the years, Slate began wearing chain-mail gloves. Even today, he has very little feeling in his digits. Trying to feed barracudas bally hoo clasped between his teeth, Slate has suffered split lips, a black eye and a severed nerve in his cheek.
“Like getting a haymaker from Sonny Liston,” he said.
A Goliath grouper he fed regularly at the wreck of the City of Washington off Key Largo once swallowed his arm and part of his head in its haste to score a meal.
He just laughs off the injuries and vows to keep hanging with the sea life.
“You know me. If I find an eel, I am going to make a buddy out of it,” he said.
On the second dive with the group from Fort Pierce, Slate headed to nearby Pleasure Reef where he is trying to cultivate a more solid friendship with Lester, another moray. Lester responded a bit slowly to the offered bally hoo and didn’t want to hang around too long for the requisite love fest. But he didn’t display any hostility, just shyness.
During that dive, the guests also spotted a large nurse shark and a sea turtle passing by. Nobody was scared — just excited.
That’s the whole purpose behind the creature feature, Slate said — showing visitors that residents of the underwater world are not out to get them.
“I’ve done this my whole life, so people will respect them and get over the idea they’ll eat you alive,” Slate said.
That message certainly went a long way with two very exhilarated ten-year-old girls.
Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/. For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling, camping, sailing, and powerboat racing. She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit.