How TBS was formed
Tampa Bay Saltwater Is Formed – Richard Londeree
This episode of the history of live rock begins back in 1984, when I ran into a guy named Mark Caldwell. He was an avid fisherman, and when our paths in life crossed, it was the beginning of our company, Tampa Bay Saltwater.
Collecting saltwater critters back in the 80’s proved to be an arduous burden without use of a boat to get offshore. Mark had saved up $1,000.00 from his land-based job, which gave us an opportunity to look for a vessel to explore the depths of the Gulf of Mexico.
We shopped around the boat dealers, garage sales, and finally a newspaper add proved to be the place where we purchased our first vessel, The Critter Getter. She was a 20-foot Cobia, a very old and tired boat, but was just like new to us. The people we bought it from could not get the engine started when we came to look at it, thus we were able to wrangle the price from $2,500.00 down to $1,000.00, which we had allocated for a boat. It had an old Johnson 135 horsepower motor, and a trailer to sit on. We purchased the boat and were all set to embark on the Gulf for the first time. Not knowing the area of Tarpon Springs Florida, we found a little fish camp called Dukes Marina. It was to become our home for over twelve years.
I remember well our first dive together, as we had limited equipment and experience diving the gulf. The first day diving together proved to be quite the experience, as I was a certified diver since 1972, but Mark had never been under the water before. We launched the boat at Dukes, proceeded out the Anclote River, following the channel markers (yes, we found out what they meant quick) out and around Anclote Key and into the gulf. You learn fast when the water goes from being navigable to less than two inches deep, that red markers mean “red right return”. That is returning from sea, keep the red marker on the right and the green on the left, and just the opposite on heading out to sea. We “shined” up the prop well the first few trips, finding the sand bars and shallow water the hard way. Not knowing the Gulf yet, we went straight out west into the Gulf where we saw a yellow buoy on the horizon. This buoy turned out to be marking an artificial reef called “Tarpon Artificial”. Although “artificial” did not describe it properly, as there was a beautiful wild reef all around this buoyed area. We anchored up the boat and proceeded to “gear up”.
Having little money we were short on the proper equipment to outfit two divers, as I had always dived alone. We scrapped together an extra regulator, fins, and mask, but were without an extra weight belt. Now here we were out in the middle of the Gulf, Mark having never dove before, faulty equipment, but with the desire to collect marine life.
So Mark became creative, found some rope on the boat, threaded some extra weights together we had on board, and produce his “Jesus” belt. He named it this as he had it tied around his waist, with no way to get it untied, if he had a problem underwater, so he said, “I’ll be seeing Jesus if this doesn’t work”! Think about it, here is a guy who had never dove before, ready to go over the side, in the big blue Gulf. He defiantly had the drive and ambition to become a tropical fish collector. We both were ready and hopped over the gunnels of the boat into the depths of the Gulf of Mexico.
What we found was beautiful and wondrous! We had before us an incredible living reef, thousands of fish, inverts, sponges, and of course live rock. We had no collection devices back then and we proceeded on swimming around, finding a rock, swimming it up to the surface, and dropping it over the transom into the boat. Well, it did not take but one dive this way for us to figure out a different approach to collecting live rock. You need to remember that this was the first collection of live rock ever to take place on the west coast of Florida and we had no idea what this would eventually grow into.
We collected a few rocks and critters that day, made two successful dives, and proceeded back to port. Mark’s “Jesus” belt had worked, and we had “broken the ice” of the live rock industry. We made it into port OK and loaded the boat up on the trailer. Back in those days we always trailed our boat to and from the marina, as money was tight, and we could not afford a “slip” at the marina. We hauled our rock back to Manila Aquatics, where we were meet by Jerry Eyas, the manager. He was elated at our new rock, and so we had a local market to sell our rock and critters.
Well with a little money in our pockets it allowed us to rent some proper diving equipment, sparing Mark his “Jesus weight belt”. For about a year we were the best customers of Tarpon Sports Supply, as we rented our scuba gear, spending about $75 per day on rental fees. Having proper equipment eventually led us into purchasing our own diving gear, eliminating the daily expense of renting, and allowing us to go whenever we wished. In fact, I still own the original buoyancy compensator that we purchased years ago.
Our methods of harvest also improved as we started using mesh dive bags to collect rock on the bottom. We would swim around finding and placing rocks into our bags until we could not carry them under water anymore, then inflate our BCs giving us enough lift to pull us and the bags of rock to the surface. Upon reaching the surface, we’d locate and swim to the boat, come up behind the motor, and grab hold and “push” the bag of rock up and onto the stern of the boat. This was a very hard and dangerous way to go about it, but we were still learning. While underwater, using the BC for lifting the bags, we did not consider that death was inches away. If we happened to drop the bag, we’d pop to the surface like a Polaris missile and die of an air embolism.
We were a little crazy back then, but there was no other way, as we were “pioneering” live rock collection.
After a few months of doing it the hard way, we tried using mesh bags made from old shrimp nets, heavier and stronger, and ropes and buoys to the surface. Wow, what a difference! Imagine coming up behind the boat with a bag full of rock, the current screaming, pulling you away, and having to push up, over, and onto the stern of the boat a 100-pound bag of rock. There was many a bag of rock lost when you came up too far behind the boat, against the current, tired, out of air, and 100 yards back behind the boat. It is a real wonder that we survived all those years, before we got a little smarter.
Using the ropes, bags and buoys proved to be a major step forward in the collection of live rock. Now we could go out in the Gulf collect six bags of rock each, leaving each one on the bottom when filled, and locate it from the surface with the boat. In those days we could collect about 1200 pounds of rock in one dive and be home by noon! What a difference from what in the future was going to become a 15-mile ride out into the gulf, in 60 foot of water instead of 20.
We did not know how well we had it back then collecting in State of Florida waters. The usual procedure was to swim along the bottom and pick up any rock that looked good, even with corals, some larger than the rocks themselves! This was before the Florida Marine Patrol was aware of live rocking, and anything you picked up was OK to harvest.
Once all the bags were loaded in one dive, we would surface, climb on the boat, and proceed “pulling” our catch. This involved running the boat around to each buoy on the surface, snatching it with a gaff and with the two of us straining our guts out, hauling 100 pounds of rock on board. We developed great cardiovascular activity and arm muscles. We did it this way for years and years before we got a little smarter.
Of course there were the bad trips too, weather, lightning, sharks, exploding regulators, and one day when we were really overloaded and almost sunk the boat. We were using big plastic 55-gallon barrels that we would store the rock in, underwater, until we got home to the “fish house” in my backyard. You can imagine how heavy the 55-gallon drums of rock and water is on a little 20-foot boat. We were all loaded up when a squall came through, kicking up the seas to about 6 feet. We began pitching and rolling, and suddenly, our whole load shifted to one side of the boat, causing us to flounder, take on water in the stern, and almost sink. We learned that day that it was prudent to tie off the barrels to cleats on the sides of the boat to contain shifting. If we had not have been able to power up the boat and get underway, forcing the water to the stern of the boat, we would have been part of the artificial reef.
Events like this enlightened us, and improved our collection efforts. We spent years harvesting live rock this way without any competition, as the live rock industry was in its very infancy, and we still were the only collectors. We made hundreds of trips full of live rock from the Gulf back to land without any interference from the Coast Guard, Marine Patrol, or any other agency. In fact, in all these years we have only been boarded once, and that was a safety inspection from the Coast Guard.
This was soon to change as the industry grew, so did scrutiny from those officials. We ended up hiring a diver to help us collect rock and it was the beginning of the end. After we educated him to the industry, soon he was out in his own boat collecting live rock and developing his own market.
Things exponentially exploded after that. Pretty soon every grouper, long line, and sponge boat, turned to live rocking, as the pay was better and a bit easier than fishing for a living. Then one day a 60-foot oil derrick/treasure boat showed up in the river and began collecting rock. Well, you can put allot of rock on a 60-foot boat, and soon he was bringing in 30,000-pound loads of live rock. Seeing him come down the river after a day’s diving, they would almost be sinking under all that weight on board.
Well not only did we see it but so did the “Head boats”, boats that take people out fishing, who became very concerned that their rock ledges and habitats were being removed, ruining their fishing efforts. They would see this big boat pull into the dock each day and unload tons of live rock. This really was the beginning of the end as the fishing boat operators contacted the State and Federal Governments, concerned the reefs would become rocks in someone’s fish tank.
If this industry had stayed “mom and pop” I believe that we may have still been harvesting wild live rock today. But that was not to be, as the industry continued to grow, with no restrictions or regulations. Not being a “traditional” fishery, we were not subject to existing rules and regulation. This was all beginning to change in a big-time way as in 1989 the state of Florida called the major players, five of us, to the states capitol for a meeting on live rock harvest.
There were to be major changes in the industry of live rock that none of us could have imagined. This part of the story covered in the next section, Governmental Nightmares.