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“Christmas came early” because lobster divers get an extra diving day (July 14)

Lobster hunters in South Florida look forward to the annual two-day mini-season, held on the last Wednesday and Thursday in July, when divers have their first chance to catch the key ingredients for several tasty dinners since the regular lobster season ends on April 1.

But this year, Florida residents are getting an extra day of mini-season. Governor Ron DeSatis announced last month that the lobster mini-season will include July 14 and be exclusive to Florida residents as part of a $57 million initiative to restore coral reefs and protect coastal waters. The regular mini-season runs from July 24-25.

“Christmas came early!” said Jim “Chiefy” Mathie of Deerfield Beach, author of “Catching the BUG: The Comprehensive Guide to Catching the Spiny Lobster,” a how-to book on lobster hunting available at many local dive shops and online.

“The introduction of an additional Sunday before the normal mini-season for Florida residents will give the dive industry a real boost. Dive charters and shops are already seeing increased demand, which will have a major economic benefit.”

For many divers, getting in the water before July 14 is now a priority. The popularity of the mini-season makes safety a critical concern, especially because many divers have not been in the water since last year's mini-season. Their diving skills may be rusty, as may their diving equipment. Broken hoses leaking air and mask and fin straps that are about to break can put a diver's life at risk.

That's why it's a good idea to go diving before the mini season. Reacquainting yourself with life underwater is also an opportunity to look for lobsters. If your equipment needs repairing or replacing, now is the time to do it, rather than waiting until a few days before the mini season.

I will never forget a dive with Mathie before the mini season. We were looking for lobsters and water kept getting into my diving mask. I kept scooping water out of the water and thought maybe my mask strap wasn't tight enough.

As I was blowing out my mask for about the tenth time, one of the lenses came off in my hand. I turned to Mathie, a retired fire chief who is extremely safety conscious and a great dive buddy. He immediately realized what was going on and guided me back to the surface while I kept my eyes closed.

Back in his boat, we saw that the frame that held my lenses in place had cracked, which was why water was constantly entering the mask. Luckily, Mathie had another mask on his boat, so I could continue diving. When the mini season started, I went diving with one of my older masks while the cracked mask was repaired by the manufacturer.

With almost four months of no commercial lobster traps and no stinging and prodding by divers armed with snares, tickle sticks and nets, the mini-season usually sees an abundance of crustaceans that are less cautious than usual.

As if that wasn't reason enough to dive for bugs, as they're called because of their insect-like appearance, the daily bag limit in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties is 12 lobsters per person, double the limit during the regular season, which begins Aug. 6.

The Florida Keys have a stricter mini-season, with a daily limit of six bugs and no diving allowed at night. This is hoped to reduce the number of divers visiting the Keys, where lobsters are usually more common, especially in the shallow waters surrounding the island chain. Many lobstermen catch them in 6 to 10 feet of water using only a mask, fins and snorkel. For current lobster regulations, visit www.myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lobster.