When the Temple M pulled out of St. Jerome Creek last week and headed east for Point No Point, another charter boat already was sitting atop the artificial reef and working birds wheeled in the misty-gray sky above.
A good sign.
Although several of us positively twitched at the thought of grabbing rods from the overhead racks and joining the party, work was on our agenda. We wanted to see the recently completed reef off St. Mary's County from the bottom up.
The deck of Capt. Greg Madjeski's boat, from cabin to stern, was decorated in wet suits, dry suits, oxygen bottles and high-tech camera equipment.
Rain, in the forecast, ringed the boat in the distance but never approached. Thank goodness for the anti-shower curtain (Bass Pro Shops catalog No. 110912).
Nick Caloyianis, diver and underwater videographer extraordinaire, and his partner, Clarita Berger, volunteered their time and gear. Michael Eversmier, owner of Aqua Ventures, the dive shop in Cockeysville, brought his underwater still camera. Marty Gary, the Department of Natural Resources' reef point man, brought a submarine sandwich big enough to feed the Atlantic fleet.
But most importantly, Mike Baker brought the reef makings - nearly 30,000 tons of concrete slabs - over the previous months.
My job? Ballast.
After setting markers and raising the dive flag, Madjeski maneuvered his boat over the site and buried the anchor to create a stable diving platform.
"Here we go on our excellent Chesapeake Bay adventure," Caloyianis said as he splashed into the drink followed by Berger and Eversmier for a quick scouting mission. Less than 10 minutes later, they popped to the surface.
"The visibility is, of course, horrible," Caloyianis announced. "I think we'd only see a fish if it ran into my face."
Undaunted, he reached for his $200,000 high-definition camera and, joined by Baker and Gary, disappeared again.
But even with the high murk factor, the divers returned with photos of mussels and fish and sea squirts - small yellowish globs that act as filter feeders. Gary did a little show and tell, handing me several oysters almost the size of my fist.
Yet despite signs of life, Berger expressed disappointment at the conditions down under, which resembled chocolate pudding mix.
"This is so sad. We've been diving in the bay since 1976. Then, you could see 30 feet. You'd think you were in the Bahamas. Now, all we see is silt, silt, silt."
Hoping for some clarity, Madjeski moved his boat to the other end of the reef. Visibility improved along with everyone's mood. This time, they saw stripers, a small sea bass and porgies along with oysters.
"That was a feast for the eye," Berger said.
Little by little, these small pockets of fish and oyster habitat are springing from the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay. Guided by the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative, a non-profit group, sites are being explored and selected.
Surprisingly, Point No Point and the next three projects - Cedar Point, The Gooses and Tangier Sound - were easy. Reef material came down the Potomac River from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge construction site to be dumped. Donations flowed into the fund from corporations and local groups and the state promised $500,000 through a bond bill.
But the honeymoon is over.
The bridge construction site is down to its last dozen or so barge loads, so getting more material will require scouting and, perhaps bidding against salvage companies. MARI is going through growing pains, talking about new sites before having a business plan and a marketing plan. Donations are trickling in, there is no 2008 fund-raising plan and the fund-raising committee lacks a chairman. Making things worse, the $500,000 bond bill is entangled in the kind of legalese and outright stubbornness that only Annapolis could love and DNR management seems unconcerned that contractors aren't getting paid.
Adding insult to injury, some of the MARI partners - the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, for example - haven't even bothered to put a link to the MARI Web site on their Web site.
Time out: The foundation, with an annual budget exceeding $17 million and more than 100,000 paying members, hasn't given a dime to MARI, even though the chairmanship is held by a foundation employee. That employee, Bill Goldsborough, said it was clear from the beginning that the foundation's contribution was always going to be "in-kind." If fishermen and charter boat captains can write checks, would it kill CBF to make a cash donation?
Start the clock: Clearly MARI needs a little nurturing. Goldsborough has promised to run a tighter ship. Perhaps the wall of lawyers that lines the streets of Annapolis can kick the bond money free. A reef project off Ocean City using 600 old New York subway cars looks promising.
"It takes time. You can't give up," counseled Caloyianis, who has dived on countless reefs around the world. "In a few seasons, these reefs are going to be dressed in the Chesapeake Bay's finest."