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Full of life

Thirty-five miles from land, gazing out across an empty, plate-glass sea, it's easy to imagine you're the only creature on earth.

Take one last look at the sun and sky, then kick your fins up and roll backward into the water below. You fall 4 or 5 feet, then splash!

For a split second, you are not sure which way is up or down. Then you clear the water from your mask and take a look around.

Suddenly, you wish you hadn't.

An empty feeling fills your stomach, like you've just discovered a sign on your back that says "Kick me."

Take a deep breath, then count them . . . one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. That's right, eight sharks. And they all are bigger than you.

The lemon sharks circle slowly, but it soon becomes apparent they are not interested in the visitor from above. Their eyes are focused on a large school of jack crevalle swimming 30 feet below.

You drop down through the jacks, then continue on through a school of bait, their silver bodies glittering in the fading sunlight.

For a moment, your are caught in the dead zone between the light and dark. Slowly your eyes adjust, then you see the shadow lurking below.

As you draw closer, it begins to take shape, the rusting hulk of a once great ship.

One hundred and 10 feet below the surface, you come to rest on her deck. You see the lines and cables that failed to hold her secure in a storm, mute reminders of nature's wrath.

But the hull is quiet now, just the sound of air bubbles as they drift off to the surface.

Then the silence is broken by what sounds like the deep, bass thump of a drum. Thunder? Depth charges? No, just a 500-pound jewfish bellowing out a warning. The Mexican Pride is its home.

Wrecks, like this 200-foot-long barge resting 35 miles off St. Petersburg, offer the best places to observe marine life.

In the barren, ocean desert that is the Gulf of Mexico, a wreck may provide the only relief for miles. It will attract everything from baitfish to sharks and become a marine ecosystem unto itself.

Many divers, however, are attracted to wrecks for a different reason _ their history.

Florida's waters often are described as a nautical graveyard, the final resting place for countless ships from Columbus' day to World War II.

Every diver dreams of Spanish galleons, wooden skeletons littered with cannonballs where the brush of an errant flipper may reveal a forgotten cross of gold.

More recently, German U-boats prowled these waters. Many divers are familiar with the grainy black-and-white photographs of freighters with torpedo holes in their hulls that seem to say, "Come on in."

But it is the simple, ordinary wrecks, like Mexican Pride, that provide the greatest treasure for the recreational diver. Every railing, every cable, every foot of rusting steel is covered with some species of marine life.

Sea urchins, tube worms, sponges and hundreds of species of tiny tropical fish add their own special magic to a wreck.

On the Pride, divers can drop through the rusting hull (if you are well-trained and experienced) and get a glimpse of a whole different world below the wreck.

On other ships, like the nearby Gunsmoke, divers can swim through the hull and stop and stand where the captain once stood.

But wreck diving is not without inherent dangers. Many famous ships, such as the Lusitania and Andrea Doria, are out of the range of most divers and should only be attempted by those with technical training.

Other wrecks may seem innocent enough, but once inside divers may encounter broken pipes and twisted metal that can cut a diver to shreds. That is why a wetsuit should always be worn when entering a wreck.

Inside, divers must take great care not to stir up the sediment that may have been collecting for years on the wreck's floor. This silt can become suspended in the water and make it nearly impossible to see.

"Before you head out, get some advice from the locals," said Brian Grindey, a scuba instructor at Mac's Sports in Clearwater. "If the wreck has some dangerous areas, you want to know ahead of time."

Shipwrecks attract fish, and where you find fish you'll find fishermen.

"Entanglement is always a major concern because of all of the monofilament fishing line and discarded nets," Grindey said. "That is why you should always carry two knives or a pair of clippers in two different locations. That way if you get tangled you can still reach at least one."

If you do become entangled, the worst thing you can do is panic.

"Remember the three R's," Grindey said. "Regain, respond and react."

Stop and regain your composure. Then think about how you are going to respond to the problem. Once you have a plan of action, react.

"You can stay out of trouble by just being aware of your surroundings," Grindey said. "When you first drop down on a wreck, take a look around. Make some mental notes. If something looks dangerous, it probably is."

Many local wrecks are "diver friendly," which means most of the obstructions were removed before sinking. But you can never be too sure.

Never attempt a "deep" penetration without first obtaining the proper training. Any time you enter a wreck, you are in an overhead environment and can no longer make a free ascent to the surface.