THE SKETCH OF THE SEA EMPRESS, DRAWN BY TONY COULTER WHEN HIS BOAT REACHED THE SITE off Fort Lauderdale, didnt look like much. I had envisioned the wreck to be more sensational than our captains artistic depiction suggested.
My optimism faded following his description. Six of us would be diving a flat, 30m barge which, when scuttled in 1990 as part of southern Floridas artificial reef programme, sank upside-down in 22m of water, spilling her cargo of concrete conduits onto the sand beside her.
My mind wandered to the majestic cloaks of coral growth on World War Two ships which lay deep in Pacific waters and presented spectacular views for divers.
There wouldnt be that kind of drama here, I thought, as my attention returned to Tony. Few divers came here, he was saying.
Fish, I heard next. There are lots of them on the site, he added, concluding his briefing with a warning about the aggressive behaviour of the resident moray eels. I walked to the dive platform, strode into the water and descended the line, never once believing that this could be the perfect dive.
Snob! I chided myself, drawn to the eerie sarcophagus shape. I was witnessing history in the making. After little more than 10 years in warm water, the barges hull showed buds of finger and branching coral protruding from a 9cm layer of encrusting madracis, while yellow spiny candelabrum soft coral had reached about 13cm in height.
Portside, similar species were growing on the gigantic conduit pipes and couplings, while tentacles of tiny strawberry vase and rope sponges had also begun to sprout, completing the eco-balance on this newly created reef.
Future generations of divers will be able to explore an enchanted kingdom of gaping cavities beneath the calcified forest. For now, the lure of diving this macabre structure was its inhabitants.
I was about to penetrate the wide opening in the bow when two southern stingrays swooped down the length of the flat-bottomed barge, soared over my head and disappeared into the distance. Momentarily postponing my exploration of the vessels innards, I waited outside for the rays to return.
Supermale parrotfish caught my eye in the interim, their midnight blue colour flickering like neon signs as they moved between the wreck and the adjacent pipes, crunching on morsels of coral.
French angelfish swam a graceful pas de deux closely behind, and delicately picked at the exposed polyps left over by the previous diners. Mixed schools of porgy and tang hovered over the wreck, and blue chromis, almost too small to spot easily, sought protection from predators within its crusty surface.
Winging in formation like a pair of stealth bombers, the rays came and, in a silent pass, glided under the divers.
The metre-wide fish turned and flew across the conduits and circled us, with no discernible hesitation; they were as curious about us as we were excited about seeing them. Still, the interior of the wreck was all too inviting.
It was like swimming through the belly of a great whale. Thick beams defined the six compartments, coated randomly with coloured coral. The concrete pipes and collars on the sandy bottom created a tangled mass of intestines that lay unconnected to anything.
Somewhere toward the barges stern, my light caught a flash of silver. On my approach, a school of grunts tightened ranks in alarm, plastering themselves helter-skelter against the side of the hull. A noise, more like a sonic boom, suddenly disrupted the rhythmic timbre of bubbles that escaped my regulator, and all at once a 60kg jewfish skidded past me with the agility of an acrobat.
The largest member of the Serranidae family, these Atlantic groupers live from 30 to 50 years and can reach 320kg in weight and 2.5m in length. Hunted nearly to extinction, the shy, greenish-grey jewfish made a comeback in these waters when laws to protect them were passed in 1990.
Judging from its metre-long size, my fish was doing well. It had created the sound, which reverberated through the chambers, by smacking its dorsal fins against its large body - an action characteristic of the species and employed to warn off predators.
Wanting to get a closer look, I followed it outside the vessel, where it joined two other jewfish, but all three remained just beyond the reach of divers.
In my absence the rays had not disappeared. I swam to the port side of the barge, settled on the sand next to a coupling to line up their flight path, and unwittingly disturbed a green moray eel within. It shot out like a torpedo, grazed over me and swam for the divers, apparently eager to interact with them.
My friends had other ideas; they finned backward, as if propelled by Tonys last words of caution, while I remained in place. Enduring the chilly reception, the eel returned to its enclosure, where I found myself mask-to-nose with the 2m creature. Rather than provoke it by moving away abruptly, I remained dead still while it examined the shiny surfaces of my mask, camera lens and strobe.
When it finally backed away, I motioned to Cindy, my dive buddy for the day, to join me. It would be lovely to share my new-found friend with someone - and capture the moment on film.
Cindy made large circles close to her temple with her index finger, and then pointed it at me, indicating that I was quite mad. No, I shook my head, while laughing in my regulator. I explained afterwards that Id had experience of morays before. Theyre aggressive only if humans or another fish has molested them. Otherwise they, like us, just want to have fun.
Lauderdale, as it was called during my college days, was the beach where some students thronged on their spring break to have fun, while others, like me, protested about the Vietnam War. Over the next two decades the 23-mile holiday hot spot underwent a gentrification to attract grown-up fun-in-the-sun-seekers.
During that time, I adopted another cause, joining the crusade of divers who seek that consummate experience of travelling distant oceans to spend 45 minutes at one spectacular site with swarms of fish. It was ironic to find it off the shores of what is today Greater Fort Lauderdale.
Denise Mattia was diving with SunStar Aquatic Services, Fort Lauderdale, 00561 368 9952, www.thediversity.com. For more information call Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, 00954 765 4466, or visit www.sunny.org.