As the sun rose above the mangroves Wednesday morning in the Florida Keys, a masked head popped out of the water with a net, tickle stick and dinner.
“It’s a keeper,” said Ryan Abernathy, who lives in Fort Lauderdale and serves in the Coast Guard. “It took me about 15 minutes to find it.”
He returned to the shallow waters just offshore of Whale Harbor Channel in Islamorada, where five private boats were anchored — also hunting for the tasty spiny lobsters.
The 2015 lobster miniseason officially began at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, but most of the thousands of snorkelers and divers who will be on the hunt for the next two days did not get onto the waters of South Florida and the Keys until sunup.
They were treated to calm seas and sunshine, a perfect combination for this adrenaline-packed activity in the sea.
The hunters in boats big and small, and some testing their luck just offshore or in ripping channel currents, were joined on the waters by plenty of law enforcement.
Officers with the state Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and federal and local agencies patrolled to ensure that lobsters were caught in legal areas, were not egg-bearing females and were of legal size (the carapace length must be at least three inches).
They also checked that bag limits were not exceeded (six per person per day in the Keys and Biscayne National Park and 12 per person per day everywhere else in Florida waters.)
Law enforcement also checked that boaters had all the proper safety gear, dive flags were properly displayed while divers were in the water and that all hunters had saltwater licenses and lobster permits.
FWC officers in both the Keys and offshore of Miami-Dade and Broward counties said the miniseason was off to a good start with no medical emergencies, no major resource violations, no boat crashes and many happy hunters.
“I don’t want to jinx ourselves, but we’ve only issued few tickets for undersized [lobsters] and over the limit,” said FWC officer Bobby Dube, who was patrolling waters off Key Largo and is the spokesman for the FWC in the Keys. “No lobster mobsters yet.”
After all the efforts to make people aware of the no-take boundaries in the Keys, Dube said he saw only one boat with divers looking for lobsters in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. “They never got the message there is no lobstering in the park during miniseason,” Dube said. “Fortunately for them, they did not have any lobsters yet. So we just wrote them a warning.”
Offshore of Miami-Dade County, FWC officer Jorge Pino said the lobster hunters were following the law for the most part. “We’re having a very active season with a lot of boaters out there, but so far only minor violations,” he said. “We’ve had some undersize cases, an over-the-bag limit case that just went out over the radio and a lot of dive flag violations.”
Pino said of all the boats he stopped, most of the divers aboard were close to their limit or already had reached it. He said only one boat had hunters who were struggling to find the sea creatures. “The boat had four guys and they only had three lobsters,” Pino said. “I think they were novices.”
The lobster hunters could not have asked for much better weather. On Wednesday, due to a ridge of high pressure over the Keys, winds were relatively light at 5 to 10 knots out of the west to northwest, said Bill South, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Key West.
The weather forecast looks equally good for Thursday, with winds of 10 knots or less and only a slight chance of rain. “It’s relatively tranquil in the Florida Keys for lobster miniseason,” he said.
South said the forecast for offshore of Miami-Dade County also is calm, with wind under 10 knots but from a southwesterly direction. The low winds equate to seas of one to two feet.
Before the season started, an information booth operated in Key Largo from Saturday to Tuesday to provide novice “bug’’ hunters with basic information and refresh experienced lobster gatherers about the no-take zones and let them know about the only new rule since last season.
In June, the FWC passed a rule that allows anyone who catches 10 lionfish in one day during miniseason to bring home an extra legal-size lobster. Lionfish are an invasive species and do harm to the fragile coral ecosystem.
Wednesday morning, Tracy Dunn of Boynton Beach was hunting under Whale Harbor Bridge.
Donned in Scuba gear with pink fins, she battled the strong current to net a lobster. But after measuring it, with the help of future-hunter 11-year-old Ryan Lutwin of Davie, she had to throw it back.
“See Ryan, it’s not big enough,” she said. “But we will keep trying.’’
After a long day of lobster hunting, Phil Gonzalez pulled his boat out of the water at the Postcard Inn at Holiday Isle marina. He and three family members discovered their favorite spot — “we made a killing last year” — was now a no-take zone, so they had to search for new locations. They will return to Davie with “nine or 10 keepers, “ well below their limit of 24 lobsters.
“If I had to make a living at this, I’d die of hunger,” Gonzalez said. “But we came for the adventure. We had fun and we got enough for a little family dinner.”