When divers dream of Florida, their first thoughts are usually of coral reefs in the Keys, or Gulf Stream drifts off the Atlantic coast. But if a road trip is involved, the drive all the way down to The Keys can be a bit too long for divers from the central states. One option to consider is doing some wreck diving in Florida’s northern Gulf beaches. Dallas, Indianapolis and Cincinnati are all within a long day’s drive, while it’s another 800 miles to Key West. Distance isn’t the only reason why this destination is a popular target for Midwestern divers. Florida’s panhandle offers ample underwater attractions, both natural and man-made. When the USS Oriskany was sunk as part of a pilot program to create artificial reefs in May 2006, it earned the title of the world’s largest artificial reef.
Although the intentional sinking of an Essex-class carrier earned Pensacola international media attention, and the “Mighty O” remains one of the region’s signature underwater attractions, there is much more to see. The Panhandle waters hold more than 40 known shipwrecks accessible to divers, ranging from the remains of a WW I battleship to minesweepers, freighters and ocean-going tugboats. To educate divers about the Panhandle’s sunken treasures — and to revitalize dive tourism following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill — the state of Florida’s Bureau of Archaeological Research created the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail.
With the help of many area dive operators, the bureau identified a dozen wrecks that have a noteworthy history and are sure to satisfy any diver’s cravings to explore the deep. To advertise the trail, organizers created a logbook-like passport that allows divers to earn stamps and bragging rights for each wreck visited. The trail offers something for divers of every level, from the Vamar, which sits in just 25 feet of water less than 4 miles from the beach, to the Oriskany, which bottoms out below 200 feet, and requires extended range credentials to reach the main flight deck. The majority of Passport wrecks are in the 80 to 100-foot range. The program’s website (floridapanhandledivetrail.com) has a great deal of information on the wrecks, and links to participating operators.
Panhandle waters offer a variety of additional fish habitats in addition to all the available shipwrecks. The most interesting natural reefs in the northern Gulf are ledges. Undercut limestone ridges with reliefs of up to 5 feet rise from sandy plains, providing an anchor for soft corals and sponges, plus habitat and hiding places for everything from frogfish and lobster to grouper and cobia. To supplement the existing substrate, various groups have created artificial hard bottoms that range from rubble piles and surplus military ordnance to purpose-made reef-ball arrays. Most require a boat ride for access, but some, such as Pensacola’s Navarre Beach, are within swimming distance of shore.
With all the many underwater attractions, it’s no wonder why so many adventure seekers are rushing the waters of Florida’s Panhandle to dive. In season, beachfront hotels command a premium price tag, but bargain hunters beware, area dive shops can sometimes negotiate special rates for lodging. If you want to avoid the craziness of Spring Break and families over crowding the beach in the summer on vacation, look to dive during May and September, the months in between the busy seasons.
As with any trip, it’s a good idea to make a few phone calls to discuss trip schedules and options with the operators rather than assuming you can just show up and pick your wreck.