While diving the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida, Aliris Loperena spots a nurse shark 15 feet below. Carefully and quietly, she swims to meet the 8- to 10-foot carnivorous fish. Before the bottom feeder retreats to the ocean’s floor, she manages to stroke its slippery side.
For students such as Loperena, the Scuba Dive Club at UCF, or Knight Divers, has the opportunity to encounter firsthand experiences with sharks, as well as the mecca beneath the ocean’s surface.
“It’s funny to see something so much bigger than you … being so graceful down there,” said Loperena, a senior biology major. “[Diving] is paradise.
“You’re surrounded by life. You’re weightless. It’s you and nature.”
Loperena enjoys reef-diving the most and compares reefs’ terrain to that of states in the U.S. with their structures, colors, plants and colonies of fish.
“In the ocean, things change. The harder you look, the more interesting it is,” said Paul Cardone, a spring 2015 graduate. “It’s a whole new world. It’s like visiting somewhere you’ve never been [and] seeing new stuff.”
The club strives to organize two dives per month, usually to reefs off the coast of Jupiter, Stuart and Pompano. But members also explore different Florida springs, such as Alexander Springs in the Ocala National Forest and Ginnie Springs, which is about 30 miles northwest of Gainesville.
Some of the most exciting dives for the club occur each February, when thousands of blacktip and spinner sharks seeking warmer water migrate south off Florida’s Atlantic coast. Sometimes, finding their way just a few feet from the shoreline.
“Every time I go back into the water, I realize I could come back with a shark bite,” Cardone said.
But sharks are a rare sight because they can sense a diver before divers see them, Knight Divers’ coach Chet Tokar said.
“It was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time,” Tokar said about witnessing a shark firsthand while diving. “It wasn’t scary; it was exhilarating.”
However, club members said being in the water is about so much more than swimming with sharks.
Loperena said the ability to help Florida’s coral reef restoration was one of the many reasons she began diving. She does her part to take care of reefs by picking up errant fishing wire and spearing invasive lionfish.
According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, venomous lionfish were accidentally introduced off the coast of Florida.
With no known predators and the ability to spawn year-round, lionfish have become a problem for native fish and crustaceans in Florida.
Cardone has found a way to capitalize off the uniquely shaped, brightly colored fish, which many people keep as pets, while removing them from the ocean. About four months ago, Cardone began making money off the invasive species, catching them with his commercial fishing license and selling them to local businesses.
For the Scuba Dive Club at UCF, diving is a moneymaker, passion and the experience of a lifetime.
“[Diving] is the most stress relieving thing in the world,” Tokar said. “[In the water], the distractions go away.”
Johnathan Kuntz is a Contributing Writer for the Central Florida Future.