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At family reunion, Brandon man dies diving for lobster in Florida Keys

ISLAMORADA — A Brandon man diving for lobster in the Florida Keys during a family reunion died Thursday.

The drowning brings the number of lobster diving deaths in Florida to at least six in the last month — two of them on Thursday from the Tampa Bay region.

In both drowning deaths Thursday, relatives tried to save the imperiled divers but were thwarted by water conditions.

Challenging enough for those with experience, the lobster hunting season can be an annually treacherous mix of infrequent divers, unfamiliar waters and underestimated exertion.

Brian Harlin, 25, went out on the Indian Key Channel with his family Thursday morning as part of an annual reunion in the Keys.

Harlin and his father, Keith Harlin, went in the water together and used a third lung diving apparatus, often called a hookah rig.

Harlin had used a hookah rig — which uses a compressor instead of air tanks — ever since he was 10, Keith Harlin said.

But Thursday morning, Brian Harlin lost one of his fins, his mother, Moida "Kathy" Harlin, said.

"He was trying to get back in the boat and one of the hoses broke," she said.

Then he lost his other fin.

Many times divers run into trouble when they're out of shape, dive shop owners said.

Brian Harlin, though, loved to exercise and keep fit.

"But without fins …" his mother said.

The current was too strong and he went below the surface, the Monroe County Sheriff's Office reported.

The family pulled him aboard the boat unconscious and not breathing, the Sheriff's Office said. He was taken to the Indian Key Fill boat ramp, where paramedics were waiting. He was pronounced dead at Mariners Hospital.

Harlin, a bartender at the Plant City Chili's, lived with his parents on Dove Field Place in Brandon. He leaves behind a 3-month-old son, said Moida Harlin.

"He had a real kind heart," his mom said. "He tried to please everybody."

The regular lobster season started Thursday and continues through March 31.

Last month, during a two-day recreational season, four people died while lobster diving, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Gary Morse.

On the first day of this season Thursday, a Pasco County man died while diving in a murky canal in the Lower Keys.

Courtney Spikes, 32, of Trinity, was in the water about five minutes when he surfaced and yelled, "Help, I'm drowning!"

His wife jumped in but had trouble finding him because the water in the Summerland Key canal was too cloudy, the Monroe County Sheriff's Office said.

Two men diving nearby found Spikes 11 minutes later. He was taken to the Lower Keys Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.

Becky Herrin, a spokeswoman for the Monroe Sheriff's Office, said the department sees about 15 diving and snorkeling deaths each year.

"We get a lot of tourists," she said. "Some haven't been diving in a long time or don't have a lot of experience."

The Indian Key Channel, where Harlin was diving, is known for its strong currents.

Harlin was not certified to dive, Herrin added. However, diving certification is not required by law.

"It's not required, but it's a smart thing to do," Morse said.

And although most dive shops won't fill air tanks without proof of certification, the hookah system uses an air compressor that stays at the surface and doesn't require air tanks.

When Mike Goldberg, of Key Dives in Islamorada, heard about the number of lobster diving deaths so far this summer, he wasn't shocked.

He says problems often occur when people come down for annual diving trips after not practicing for a year. Many are out of shape, and some choose unfamiliar areas.

Vicky Roberts, owner of Ocean Quest Dive Center in Islamorada, said lobster diving is an especially strenuous form of diving.

"When you're doing something like hunting, which is what lobstering is, you're going to exert more energy than you would in a casual diving setting," she said.

She offered a list of tips: Be sure you're current on your diving technique, stay in shape, check your gear, follow the buddy rule, pay attention to your air consumption rate, monitor your navigation and be careful upon ascent.

"It can be very, very safe if you follow the rules," she said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

At family reunion, Brandon man dies diving for lobster in Florida Keys 08/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 8, 2009 12:30am]

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