Tampa Bay Saltwater Is Formed
Richard Londeree, Owner Tampa Bay Saltwater
This episode of the history of live rock begins back in 1984, when I ran into a
guy named Mark Caldwell. He was an avid fisherman, and when our paths in life
crossed, it was the beginning of our company, Tampa Bay Saltwater.
Collecting saltwater critters back in the 80's proved to be an arduous burden
without use of a boat to get off shore. Mark had saved up $1,000.00 from his
land based job, which gave us an opportunity to look for a vessel to explore
the depths of the Gulf of Mexico.
We shopped around the boat dealers, garage sales, and finally a newspaper add
proved to be the place where we purchased our first vessel, The Critter Getter.
She was a 20 foot Cobia, a very old and tired boat, but was just like new to
us. The people we bought it from could not get the engine started when we came
to look at it, thus we were able to wrangle the price from $2,500.00 down to
$1,000.00, which we had allocated for a boat.
It had an old Johnson 135 horse power motor, and a trailer to sit on. We
purchased the boat and were all set to embark on the Gulf for the first time.
Not knowing the area of Tarpon Springs Florida, we found a little fish camp
called Dukes Marina. It was to become our home for over twelve years.
I remember well our first dive together, as we had limited equipment and
experience diving the gulf. The first day diving together proved to be quite
the experience, as I was a certified diver since 1972, but Mark had never been
under the water before.
We launched the boat at Dukes, proceeded out the Anclote river, following the
channel markers (yes, we found out what they meant real quick) out and around
Anclote Key and into the gulf. You learn real fast when the water goes from
being navigable to less than two inches deep, that red markers mean "red right
return". That is returning from sea, keep the red marker on the right and the
green on the left, and just the opposite on heading out to sea. We "shined" up
the prop real well the first few trips, finding the sand bars and shallow water
the hard way.
Not knowing the Gulf yet, we went straight out west into the Gulf where we saw
a yellow buoy on the horizon. This buoy turned out to be marking an artificial
reef called "Tarpon Artificial". Although "artificial" did not describe it
properly, as there was a beautiful wild reef all around this buoyed area. We
anchored up the boat and proceeded to "gear up".
Having little money we were real short on the proper equipment to outfit two
divers, as I had always dived alone. We scrapped together an extra regulator,
fins and mask, but were without an extra weight belt. Now here we were out in
the middle of the Gulf, Mark having never dove before, faulty equipment, but
with the desire to collect marine life.
So Mark became creative, found some rope on the boat, threaded some extra
weights together we had on board, and produce his "Jesus" belt. He named it
this as he had it tied around his waist, with no way to get it untied, if he
had a problem underwater, so he said "I'll be seeing Jesus if this doesn't
Think about it, here is a guy who had never dove before, ready to go over the
side, in the big blue Gulf. He defiantly had the drive and ambition to become a
tropical fish collector. We both were ready and hopped over the gunnels of the
boat into the depths of the Gulf of Mexico.
What we found was beautiful and wondrous!
We had before us an incredible living reef, thousands of fish, inverts,
sponges, and of course live rock. We had no collection devices back then and we
proceeded on swimming around, finding a rock, swimming it up to the surface,
and dropping it over the transom into the boat.
Well it did not take but one dive this way for us to figure out a different
approach to collecting live rock. You need to remember that this was the first
collection of live rock ever to take place on the west coast of Florida and we
had no idea what this would eventually grow into.
We collected a few rocks and critters that day, made two successful dives, and
proceeded back to port. Mark's "Jesus" belt had worked and we had "broken the
ice" of the live rock industry. We made it in to port OK, and loaded the boat
up on the trailer.
Back in those days we always trailed our boat to and from the marina, as money
was tight and we could not afford a "slip" at the marina. We hauled our rock
back to Manila Aquatics, where we were meet by Jerry Eyas, the manager. He was
elated at our new rock, and so we had a local market to sell our rock and
Well with a little money in our pockets it allowed us to rent some proper
diving equipment, sparing Mark his "Jesus weight belt". For about a year we
were the best customers of Tarpon Sports Supply, as we rented our scuba gear,
spending about $75 per day on rental fees.
Having proper equipment eventually led us into purchasing our own diving gear,
eliminating the daily expense of renting and allowing us to go whenever we
wished. In fact I still own the original buoyancy compensator that we purchased
Our methods of harvest also improved as we started using mesh dive bags to
collect rock on the bottom. We would swim around finding and placing rocks into
our bags until we could not carry them under water anymore, then inflate our
BCs giving us enough lift to pull us and the bags of rock to the surface. Upon
reaching the surface, we'd locate and swim to the boat, come up behind the
motor, and grab hold and "push" the bag of rock up and onto the stern of the
Needless to say this was a very hard and dangerous way to go about it, but we
were still learning. While underwater, using the BC for lifting the bags, we
did not consider that death was inches away. If we happened to drop the bag,
we'd pop to the surface like a Polaris missile and die of an air embolism.
We were a little crazy back then, but there was no other way, as we were
"pioneering" live rock collection.
After a few months of doing it the hard way, we tried using mesh bags made from
old shrimp nets, heavier and stronger, and ropes and buoys to the surface. Wow,
what a difference! Imagine coming up behind the boat with a bag full of rock,
the current screaming, pulling you away, and having to push up, over, and onto
the stern of the boat a 100 pound bag of rock. There was many a bag of rock
lost when you came up too far behind the boat, against the current, tired, out
of air, and 100 yards back behind the boat. It is a real wonder that we
survived all those years, before we got a little smarter.
Using the ropes, bags and buoys proved to be a major step forward in the
collection of live rock. Now we could go out in the Gulf collect six bags of
rock each, leaving each one on the bottom when filled, and locate it from the
surface with the boat. In those days we could collect about 1200 pounds of rock
in one dive and be home by noon! What a difference from what in the future was
going to become a 15 mile ride out into the gulf, in 60 foot of water instead
We did not know how well we had it back then collecting in State of Florida
waters. The usual procedure was to swim along the bottom and pick up any rock
that looked good, even with corals, some larger than the rocks themselves! This
was before the Florida Marine Patrol was aware of live rocking, and anything
you picked up was OK to harvest.
Once all the bags were loaded in one dive, we would surface, climb on the boat,
and proceed "pulling" our catch. This involved running the boat around to each
buoy on the surface, snatching it with a gaff and with the two of us straining
our guts out, hauling 100 pounds of rock on board. Needless to say we developed
great cardio vascular activity and arm muscles.
We did it this way for years and years before we got a little smarter.
Of course there were the bad trips too, weather, lightning, sharks, exploding
regulators, and one day when we were really overloaded and almost sunk the
boat. We were using big plastic 55 gallon barrels that we would store the rock
in, underwater, until we got home to the "fish house" in my backyard. You can
imagine how heavy the 55 gallon drums of rock and water is on a little 20 foot
boat. We were all loaded up when a squall came through, kicking up the seas to
about 6 foot. We began pitching and rolling, and all of a sudden our whole load
shifted to one side of the boat, causing us to flounder, take on water in the
stern, and almost sink.
We learned that day that it was prudent to tie off the barrels to cleats on the
sides of the boat to contain shifting. If we had not have been able to power up
the boat and get underway, forcing the water to the stern of the boat, we would
have been part of the artificial reef.
Events like this enlightened us, and improved our collection efforts. We spent
years harvesting live rock this way without any competition, as the live rock
industry was in its very infancy, and we still were the only collectors. We
made hundreds of trips full of live rock from the Gulf back to land without any
interference from the Coast Guard, Marine Patrol, or any other agency. In fact
in all these years we have only been boarded once, and that was a safety
inspection from the Coast Guard.
This was soon to change as the industry grew, so did scrutiny from those
officials. We ended up hiring a diver to help us collect rock and it was the
beginning of the end. After we educated him to the industry, pretty soon he was
out in his own boat collecting live rock and developing his own market.
Things exponentially exploded after that. Pretty soon every grouper, long line,
and sponge boat, turned to live rocking, as the pay was better and a bit easier
than fishing for a living. Then one day a 60 foot oil derrick/treasure boat
showed up in the river and began collecting rock.
Well, you can put allot of rock on a 60 foot boat, and soon he was bringing in
30,000 pound loads of live rock. Seeing him come down the river after a days
diving, they would almost be sinking under all that weight on board.
Well not only did we see it but so did the "Head boats", boats that take people
out fishing, who became very concerned that there rock ledges and habitats were
being removed, ruining their fishing efforts. They would see this big boat pull
into the dock each day and unload tons of live rock. This really was the
beginning of the end as the fishing boat operators contacted the State and
Federal Governments, concerned the reefs would become rocks in someone's fish
If this industry had stayed "mom and pop" I believe that we may have still been
harvesting wild live rock today. But that was not to be, as the industry
continued to grow, with no restrictions or regulations.
Not being a "traditional" fishery, we were not subject to existing rules and
regulation. This was all beginning to change in a big time way as in 1989 the
state of Florida called the major players, five of us, to the states capitol
for a meeting on live rock harvest.
There were to be major changes in the industry of live rock that none of us
could have imagined. This part of the story covered in the next section,