BOOM! THE THUNDEROUS SOUND seemed to come from everywhere at once, and the shock wave crashed through my body, making me jump. I swivelled round as quickly as
I could, peering into the flattened wreckage in search of the source.
A silver cloud of baitfish hindered my view, so I finned a little closer and – BOOM – there it was again. The tiny fish scattered, and the view they left seemed to be made up entirely of the enormous head of a goliath grouper.
This was a big guy, at around the 180kg mark, and he didn’t seem to like being disturbed. The predator watched me intently with his tiny eyes, then seemed to relax a little before his gills flared, and he produced that body-thumping noise again.
Were the low-frequency blasts he was producing a warning Discretion is the better part of valour, I thought, as I backed off a little and let him have his space.
The water was warm, but visibility had suffered from the run-off of August’s heavy rainfall, leaving everything enveloped in a green fog.
As I explored the rest of the wreck more grouper appeared. Though none was as large as the first, they are still impressive animals, with huge mouths that can hoover up large numbers of the little silver baitfish. I was diving the remains of a sunken shrimper lost in severe storms off Florida’s south-west coast, near North Captiva Island in the Gulf of Mexico.
The marine life in this area is prolific, and that makes it a magnet for sport-fishing enthusiasts. Place names such as Kingfish and Sailfish Roads and my temporary home at Tarpon Lodge on secluded Pine Island reflected this.
Set in beautifully manicured grounds right on the waterfront, with a private mooring, swimming pool, sports bar and restaurant, Tarpon Lodge looks and feels like a piece of old Florida, frozen in time. It’s an ideal base for exploring the local waters, and attracts fishers of all genres.
On my first morning, I sat on the breakwater watching in awe as two ospreys swooped with their talons extended and scooped fish out of the water. Pelicans and herons occupied the tops of mooring-posts, keeping their sharp eyes on the ripples created by their potential prey in the glassy waters of Pine Island Sound.
Small skiffs loaded with high-tec fishing gear made their way from Pineland Marina, their day captains laughing and joking with crewmates as they all looked forward to a day spent hunting for record-breaking specimens that would end up on trophy photos, followed by dinner plates.
My dive charter arrived at the Tarpon Lodge moorings. It was a 9m Proline walk-around Cuddy, and at the helm sat one of the biggest men I’ve ever seen.
Corey Hickson owns and runs Hardcore Hook & Line Charters with his wife Mirriah. He’s a former pro footballer who still spends his early mornings pumping iron in the gym, and that’s a real advantage, because the couple’s main business is a bail bonds and bounty-hunting agency.
Lee County Deputy Sheriff Tim Babor, whose day job is to patrol the waters of Sanibel and Pine Island Sound, was helping out.
Tim has an intimate knowledge of the areas we were going to be diving, and would skipper the boat while Corey and I were under water.
Scuba-diving for sport is in its infancy in this part of Florida, where local divers charter boats mainly to go spearfishing, with grouper, hogfish and mangrove snapper on their hit-lists. There are, however, hundreds of sites for sport divers to enjoy without the aid of weapons.
The seabed topography here is generally flat; the gradual incline from the Gulf calls for an offshore excursion to find any real depth and decent visibility. Don’t expect the prolific, tropical coral growth you’d find a few hundred miles south-east in the Florida Keys – much of this shallow continental shelf consists of sand and shell rubble overlying a limestone bedrock.
Corals are present, but the diversity of stony and soft species is severely limited, because seasonal temperature fluctuations and high turbidity rates provide a less than hospitable environment for all but the hardiest of species.
Our two dives that morning were to involve a 20-mile run out to clearer waters and the Captiva Blue Hole, followed by a dive on the shrimper in shallower depths on the way back.
The mirror-finish of the waters reflected a few puffy white clouds and the big blue sky. The only waves were from our wake, as we powered ahead under the relentless summer sun.
After kitting up, Corey grabbed his 6ft speargun from its rack and told me he was going to try to shoot something for a family dinner while I shot fish with my camera. “Everyone fishes here,” he said. “It’s what we do.”
I wasn’t about to protest – after all, this guy handles weapons for a living.
I entered the water nervously, making a mental note to keep Corey in sight at all times, and not to get between him and his prey.
The edge of the hole, at around 25m, was a fringe of sparse coral and sponge growth. From there it was a plunge into inky blackness to about 60m.
The hole attracts huge numbers of fish for predators to hunt – bull, bonnethead and blacktip sharks are regularly encountered, I was told though they were conspicuous by their absence during our visit.
Snook, redfish and grouper share the area with shoals of snapper and Atlantic spadefish, and we found them in solid groups circling the edge of the hole. Tiny arrow crabs scuttled across some sponges as damselfish tried in vain to ward off the weapon-toting bounty-hunter.
After 40 minutes it was time to surface. My big buddy came up empty-handed but with a smile on his face, while I was just relieved that I hadn’t been involved in a dive-by shooting!
Lee County Marine Services has run a programme of creating artificial reefs since the early 1990s. It has sunk some unusual items such as concrete culverts, railroad hopper carts and school buses as well as ships.
The jewel in the crown was the sinking of USS Mohawk. Launched in 1934, this vessel was involved in patrol and ice-breaking duties on the Hudson and Delaware rivers before the outbreak of war saw her re-assigned to the North Atlantic for escort operations.
She was involved in 14 attacks on submarines between 1942 and 1945, and rescued more than 300 torpedoed ship survivors. The Mohawk was the last ship to radio General Eisenhower a day before the Normandy landings to confirm that the weather was clear enough to proceed.
Her final commission, lasting 30 years, saw her as a pilot-boat back on the Delaware. She spent her final years above water as a memorial museum in Key West, before lack of funds for renovation forced her to be scrapped.
The most honourable solution was to make the Mohawk the first military ship to be dedicated as a memorial to US veterans, thereby saving her from being cut up and sold as scrap metal.
So on 2 July, 2012, the “Mighty Mo” was laid to rest, sitting perfectly upright in 30m of water some 28 nautical miles west of Captiva Island.

THE WRECK HAD PLAYED HOST to an unusual art exhibition for a few months prior to my visit. Renowned underwater photographer Andreas Franke had dived the site and captured images before returning to his studio in Vienna.
There he superimposed onto them images of models in period clothing portraying the daily lives and dreams of home of the sailors and passengers.
The resulting 12 images were encased in steel-framed plexiglass and installed in the ship’s inner spaces.
I met Andreas in Fort Myers the evening before his pictures were to be recovered from the wreck and placed in Lee County Alliance Arts Galleries, and he explained his mindset when undertaking the project.
I found the images quite moving, portraying the “Mighty Mo” in her underwater resting place, with peeling paint, rust, marine growth and fish life plus what appeared to be the ghosts of crew and visitors.
Franke had done the same thing on the wrecks of the USS General Hoyt S Vandenberg, also in Florida, and the Stavronikita off Barbados.
The Hardcore crew arrived at the Tarpon Lodge boat dock to meet me at 6.30am. It would take three hours to reach Charlie’s Reef, giving us plenty of time to get in the water before the planned recovery at 11.30.
My dive buddy would be instructor Denise Lawrence, a regular member of Corey’s team. She had been diving these waters since she was a little girl.
Denise’s enthusiasm was infectious. She had forgotten to bring her wetsuit and elected to dive the warm waters clad only in her bikini – brave, I thought, because the tides brought jellyfish with them at that time of year.

WE ARRIVED ON SITE and were greeted by the sight of a dozen or so other boats, all with the customary red and white “Diver Below” flags unfurled.
Bubbles breaking the surface indicated that a number of divers were in the water, and I could see some of Andreas’s artwork already sitting on the deck on one of the boats.
The recovery had started earlier than planned, so we would miss seeing the artwork in situ. On the plus side, Denise and I would have the memorial wreck all to ourselves.
The descent line was choked with divers conducting safety stops. Andreas was there with the last of his pictures returning to the surface. A quick wave and we continued, past the crow’s nest to the main deck.
The marine life was impressive, with huge shoals of tomtate and a few moon jellies engulfing the superstructure, obscuring our view initially, then politely moving en masse to let us pass through.
Finning to the stern past the bridge and stairways, Andreas’s liquid history images of the captain and crew going about their business in the 1940s came to mind, and put a shudder up my spine.
The 50m-long wreck had been under water for a little over a year but was proving the ideal habitat for marine growth. Thousands of tiny tunicates interspersed with sponges, bryozoans and hydroids had made their homes there, giving a sprinkling of colour to the ship’s dour rusting paint-job.
The visibility had suffered from the 40 or so divers who had just left the site, and disturbed silt hung in the water like a cloud, making this dive feel like a standard UK Channel outing. I felt totally at home as we reeled off and meandered through the ship’s interior.

BACK AT THE SURFACE, it was decided to dive the Boxcars some 200m from the Mohawk, also sunk deliberately as an artificial reef but very well established.
This time Corey joined me, complete with speargun and his wife Mirriah. The Boxcars were once piled up but years of immersion and decay through rusting had left only the reinforced frames and webbed corners with remnants of the steel cladding.
The skeletal remains were home to goliath grouper and masses of tomtate, occasional angelfish and barracuda and nurse sharks.
The steel structures were heavily encrusted in marine growth, a glimpse of what lay ahead for the Mohawk.
On our journey back in the boat, weaving through the antique fish-houses of Pine Island Sound, we were joined by a pod of dolphins, following in our wake and doing what dolphins do, leaping from the wave crests in twos and threes.
Our marine escorts put the finishing touch to a fantastic day’s diving.
The Gulf Coast may not have the tropical reefs found elsewhere in Florida but Lee County Marine Division has ensured that the abundant sport-fishing grounds of Fort Myers and Sanibel have plenty to offer the travelling diver.

GETTING THERE BA flies from London Gatwick direct to Tampa International Airport, www. Other airlines require a stopover at South-west Florida International Airport. Pre-booked car hire is available at all airports. A US Travellers Visa or an ESTA is required.
DIVING Hardcore Hook & Line Charters has nitrox available,
ACCOMMODATION Nigel Wade stayed at Tarpon Lodge Sportsman Inn on Pine Island,
WHEN TO GO Year-round but late summer can be wet and windy and severe weather is sometimes encountered.
MONEY US dollars, credit cards, gratuities are expected.
HEALTH Take a high-factor sunscreen all year and mosquito repellent in summer. Hyperbaric facilities can be found throughout Lee County.
PRICES Return flights from London to Tampa, £670. Pre-booked car hire is available at all airports from £150 for five days. Tarpon Lodge £101 per night. Two-dive charter with Hardcore, £92pp for up to six divers.