Lionfish Hunting in the Florida Keys

Erin Spencer is a National Geographic Young Explorer on a mission to go fishin’ for invasive lionfish threatening reef habitats in the Florida Keys. Find out what she takes with her on her diving expeditions and what her favorite spots are in the Keys.

How to Dive for Lionfish

Native to the Indo-Pacific, lionfish are a carnivorous, venomous fish and invasive species that threaten marine habitats in the Western Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico. Ocean lover, travel addict, and explorer Erin Spencer has been helping to remove these maroon-and-white-striped fish from ecosystems throughout the Florida Keys since 2013. She also documents the innovative practices local communities use to address the problem of conserving their reefs, from hunting lionfish to serving them at restaurants. For divers wishing to join the fight against this invasive species, Islamorada Dive Center offers the Lionfish Eradication Course, a half-day program that includes two dives and discussions on how this species has impacted marine habitats. The Reef Environmental Education Foundation in Key Largo also offers courses on the history of the lionfish invasion and how to handle these fish safely. When she’s not chasing after lionfish, Spencer is following her sense of adventure and appetite around the Keys, one slice of key lime pie at a time.

1. Spear

“This fiberglass pole spear with a three-pronged steel tip uses rubber band tension to propel it forward. I can typically get a lionfish in one or two tries, but I still have a long way to go compared to folks who are out on the water all the time. I always have to check the spear on planes—that thing is sharp!”

2. Regulator

“My dives typically last anywhere from 35 minutes to an hour depending on how deep I’m going and how much energy I exert. When I hunt lionfish, I exert more energy. The most difficult part is learning to not breathe through your nose. You have to stick with slow, steady breaths through your regulator.”

3. Dive Knife

“I use my knife to cut tangled fishing line or debris that threaten marine life or other divers. It has other purposes, too. When I was Lara Croft from Tomb Raider for Halloween, I strapped the dive knife on as a finishing touch!”

4. GoPro

“The GoPro is discreet, and much cheaper than underwater equipment for DSLR cameras. When I was working in Fiji, I encountered a huge group of bull sharks on a dive and got some incredible footage (while keeping a safe distance, of course!).”

5. Dive Computer

“A dive computer should be compact and easy to use underwater. Also, always remember to check your computer’s battery! I have had mine fail halfway through a dive when my battery died. When that happens, the best option is to end the dive, or you risk going too deep or ascending too quickly.”

6. Wet Suit

“Some divers are comfortable diving in just a light skin suit, which helps protect your actual skin from stinging creatures or cuts without overheating you. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a ninny about being cold. I always layer up with a 3 mm wet suit over the skin suit, no matter how balmy the water is.”

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Erin Spencer’s Guide to the Florida Keys

Where to stay: Rent a cottage at the Island Bay Resort, an intimate waterfront property in Key Largo. Or, for longer stays, consider Dove Creek Lodge, also located in Key Largo.

Where to Snorkel: You don’t need dive certification to discover Florida’s marine life, Spencer says. “Molasses Reef off Key Largo and Alligator Reef off Islamorada are great for snorkeling. Bahia Honda State Park also has a beautiful beach and offers snorkeling trips out to Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, one of my all-time favorite spots.”

Where to sample key lime pie: Her dedicated quest for the best key lime pie has led to some fantastic finds. “My favorite is the classic key lime pie at The Fish House Encore in Key Largo. For a twist, try the Key Lime Freeze at Key Largo’s Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen—it’s like a smoothie, milkshake, and slice of pie all in one.”

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