Police arrested a Key Largo glass bottom tour boat captain this week following an investigation into an incident in July when witnesses say he sailed the large vessel too close to scuba divers and snorkelers.
But the owner of the 65-foot boat stands by his captain and says the incident is reflective of an ongoing feud between dive boat captains and tour operators over access to the scenic and protected reef off the Upper Keys.
“Thirty years of working together has gone out the window,” James Hendricks, owner of the Key Largo Princess II, said Wednesday.
He said dive boat crews used to call his captains to tell them people were in the water as the glass bottom vessel approached. Now, Hendricks said, they are too quick to call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission police when situations can be resolved with a radio or phone call.
“This is just a situation that’s been blown way out of proportion in my opinion,” Hendricks said.
The July 2 incident happened approaching 5 p.m. on Molasses Reef, a shallow dive and snorkel site teeming with sea life that’s about four miles east off shore of Key Largo.
According to a Fish and Wildlife incident report, the glass bottom boat’s captain, Richard Vihlen, 51, approached two dive vessels that were tied to mooring balls about 100 yards from each other on the reef. Anchoring is illegal on the reef, so the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary installed mooring balls for dive and snorkel boats.
Between the two dive boats, there were eight people in the water either diving or snorkeling.
One of the dive boat captains began to wave at Vihlen’s approaching vessel, according to the FWC report.
Vihlen told investigators he noticed a person in the water, so he blew his horn and then turned the boat around 180 degrees. However, in doing so, the person snorkeling was only about 40 to 50 feet behind the large boat and was caught in its wake, according to the FWC report.
No one was injured.
The incident was filmed by one of the dive boat captains and the footage was shown to Fish and Wildlife investigators. The agency did not make the footage available for release.
About three minutes later, the Key Largo Princess approached again, but this time, it passed in between the two vessels, leaving about 130 to 150 feet of space between either side of the boat and the two other boats, FWC Officer Michael McKay stated in his report.
Both dive vessels had diver down flags displayed, meaning any other boat has to make all possible attempts to stay 300 feet away.
Vihlen told FWC officers he proceeded because he knew all the divers were back on board their respective boats.
However, one of the dive boat captains told investigators that he was in the process of getting several people who were snorkeling back on to his boat.
Fish and Wildlife officers arrested Vihlen on Tuesday on one count of reckless operation of a vessel. He could not be reached for comment.
“There was no justifiable reason Captain Vihlen had to permit him to pass within 300 feet of the properly displayed dive flags,” McKay wrote in his warrant application. “There was no congested waters limiting his ability to stay clear of the dive boats.”
He was released two hours after his arrest on a bond of $1,500.
This is the second Key Largo Princess captain to be arrested on a reckless boating charge in two years, but Hendricks maintains his employees were operating within the rules each time..
“I stand behind my guys,” he said.