By Willie Howard
Most dive flags towed through the water by snorkelers and scuba divers meet Florida’s minimum requirement for divers to identify themselves in the water.
State law requires dive flags used in the water to be at least a 1-foot square, red with a white diagonal stripe. Most are mounted on floats and have lead weights at the base to hold them upright.
Although foot-square dive flags are legal (dive flags on boats must be larger, at least 20 by 24 inches), a dive industry veteran says they don’t do enough to protect divers in the water.
“The flag is simply antiquated,” says Robert Carmichael, CEO of Brownie’s Marine Group in Pompano Beach, whose company took advantage of a 2014 change in state law to develop a larger, inflatable diver-down warning device with a water ballast — called the 3D Buoy.
Carmichael, whose friend lost both legs to a boat while diving in 1992, said dive flags can be difficult to see, especially when the boat is headed into the wind and the operator is looking at the edge of the flag rather than the full outstretched surface.
Carmichael says more visible diver-down warning devices such as his, which displays three, 12-by-12-inch diver-down symbols, should be mandated by a generic state law that would open the playing field for dive equipment companies to develop warning devices that perform better than flags.
The 2014 change in state law (FS 327.331) allowed divers to use diver-down buoys in addition to flags. The buoy is defined as a buoyant device that displays the red-and-white diver-down sign on three or four sides.
But Carmichael says divers have been reluctant to pay $90 for his buoy versus $30 to $45 for a float-mounted dive flag.
“We need legislative guidance on this,” he said. “Safety doesn’t sell.”
The effectiveness of dive flags was called into question again on Thanksgiving Day, when 25-year-old marine biologist Carter Viss was hit by a boat while snorkeling off The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach. The impact severed his arm.
It likely will be months before the full report on the Viss accident is complete, but preliminary reports by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission said the operator of the 33-foot powerboat was slowing down when the boat struck Viss, who was being treated for his injuries in late December.
Unfortunately, boat-versus-diver accidents have happened several times in South Florida waters.
Andrew Harris died after being hit by a boat while snorkeling near Jupiter Inlet in 2014.
Diver Rob Murphy lost both of his legs after a boat ran over him while he was spearfishing off Stuart in 2009.
John Deleonibus was hit by a boat while snorkeling 50 to 75 yards off South Inlet Park in Boca Raton in September 2010.
Authorities said the boat never stopped. Deleonibus suffered a skull fracture, a broken hip and cuts to his head and back from the boat propeller.
Boca Raton Ocean Rescue Chief Clint Tracy said snorkelers are not required to use a dive flag in the guarded swimming area (within 100 feet from the beach).
But Tracy said divers and snorkelers should always be in the habit of using a float/flag or an approved diver-down buoy.
“Not only should divers have a flag but should also have a dive buddy and be very alert in listening for the sound of boat propellers,” Tracy said.
Snorkelers and divers headed to the popular SS Inchulva wreck off the south end of Delray Beach must use a float-mounted dive flag or another approved diver-down warning device.
The Delray wreck is outside the guarded area protected by city lifeguards, Delray Beach Ocean Rescue Chief Phil Wotton said.
State law requires boat operators to make “a reasonable effort” to stay 300 feet away from dive flags in the open ocean and 100 feet away in an inlet, river or navigation channel. Boats approaching closer must do so at the slowest possible speed that maintains headway and steering.
But some boaters don’t know the law or simply aren’t careful, said Mike Leifeste, a dive boat captain who works at Force E dive shop in Boca Raton.
Although most people respect the dive flags, Leifeste said that sometimes he has to sound an air horn, call boat operators on VHF channel 16 or move his boat between the divers and an approaching boat to protect his divers.
His tip for divers: “Always try to make yourself as visible as possible.”
FWC tightens limits on spotted sea trout
The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission in December approved new limits and management zones for spotted sea trout effective Feb. 1.
In the new Central East zone (Palm Beach through Volusia counties), the daily bag limit for sea trout will drop from four to two fish.
The slot size for sea trout also shrank by an inch. Under the new rules, sea trout must be between 15 and 19 inches in total length to be legal to keep.
The sea trout season also will be closed during November and December, meaning no recreational harvest will be allowed in the Central East zone during those two months.
January: Grouper season closed Jan. 1. The seasonal closure means red, black, gag and several other species of grouper cannot be harvested until the season reopens May 1. For details, visit myfwc.com and select “saltwater fishing” and “recreational regulations.”
Jan. 4: Basic boating safety class offered by Coast Guard Auxiliary, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the headquarters building at Spanish River Park, 3939 N. Ocean Blvd., Boca Raton. Fee $35 ($5 for youths ages 12-19). Register at the door. Bring lunch. Call 391-3600. Leave a message.
Jan. 8-11: 83rd annual Silver Sailfish Derby, a sailfish release tournament organized by the West Palm Beach Fishing Club and based at Sailfish Marina in Palm Beach Shores. Captains meeting Jan. 8 at the fishing club. Fishing will be Jan. 9-10, followed by awards dinner Jan. 11. Entry fee $1,000 per boat for fishing club members, $1,500 per boat for non-members, plus $300 late fee that kicked in Dec. 21. 832-6780 or www.westpalmbeachfishingclub.org.
Jan. 17-18: Operation Sailfish release tournament based at Sailfish Marina in Palm Beach Shores. Kickoff party 6-10 p.m. Jan. 15 at Sailfish Marina. Take a hero fishing day Jan. 16. Competition Jan. 17-18. Entry fee $1,700. 954-725-4010 or www.operationsailfish.com.
Jan. 25: Basic boating safety class offered by Coast Guard Auxiliary, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the classroom building next to the boat ramps, Harvey E. Oyer Jr. Park, 2010 N. Federal Highway, Boynton Beach. Fee $20. Register at the door. Call 331-2429.
Tip of the month
If you find a sick, injured or dead sea turtle, call the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Wildlife Alert Hotline, 888-404-3922.
The hotline also can be used to report problems with manatees and other wildlife. Be prepared to give the exact location of the turtle or other animal, to report whether it’s alive or dead, to state its approximate size and the closest access point to reach it.
Willie Howard is a freelance writer and licensed boat captain. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.