Danger time for spiny lobster arrives Wednesday and Thursday when thousands of divers in South Florida will don masks and fins for lobster mini-season.
The popular sport-diving days also can be deadly dangerous for divers, cautions an underwater-safety organization.
"Tragically, the [sport] season is tarnished by deaths that could have been prevented with better dive preparation and execution," says a new report from the Divers Alert Network, based in North Carolina.
A study of divers engaged in underwater hunting found "the real and significantly elevated dangers of lobster mini-season," the group says.
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"Over the last 10 years, the two-day season in Florida accounted for almost half of all underwater-hunting deaths in the state — 22 of 51, or 43 percent," according to DAN, "an average of two deaths over the same two days each year."
"This research revealed that the act of [underwater] hunting involves additional hazards," said Dr. Peter Buzzacott, a DAN injury specialist. "Hunting lobster is a strenuous sport and requires more preparation than basic recreational diving since the consequences of running out of gas [air in the dive tank] can be severe."
In the Keys, a rash of 12 dive-related deaths were logged during four mini-seasons from 2005 to 2009. Recent years have been significantly safer, with no deaths in some seasons.
Divers should be physically prepared for extra exertion during repeated lobster dives, DAN advises, and must pay close attention to scuba gauges.
"We learned that hunters more commonly ran out of breathing gas and had a higher percentage of gas embolisms than non-hunters," said DAN vice president Dr. Petar Denoble. "This may have been due to the hunters becoming distracted and ignoring their gauges.
"Task overload can be very dangerous," Denoble said. "Our research suggests this too frequently results in death during mini-season."
All early indications predict a typically hectic mini-season Wednesday and Thursday.
Many Keys motels are fully booked for the two-day season with only a handful rooms available. Most of those will be sold long before Wednesday's opening, said a booking specialist with the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce.
Rental boats will be scarce, and many dive shops stay open extra hours to fill a steady stream of air tanks.
Marine officers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Monroe County Sheriff's Office and U.S. Coast Guard will be out in force for the sport days, supplemented by extra officers and a lobster-sniffing dog.
Early water patrols have already started. "We're watching for people trying to jump the gun," said Officer Bobby Dube, an FWC spokesman.
A lobster information booth, staffed by marine professionals from state and federal agencies is up and running at mile marker 106 on Key Largo. Offering information on rules and safety, the booth opens from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Tuesday.
Copies of the Monroe County lobster brochure, a summary of local rules on lobstering and no-dive nearshore waters, will be distributed. An information booth at Bahia Honda State Park opens from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday.