Ever since I started diving seven years ago, I’ve heard that the Gulf is a must-visit spot. And I admit, it wasn’t something that immediately came to mind in the early days when I was plotting my next dive adventures, but when my dive magazine writer friends continued to recommend it—and I found out it has the distinction of the “wreck capital of the United States”—I knew eventually I would make it back to the Florida Panhandle for a little dip.
That opportunity arose earlier this week when I was in Florida working on a project with Travel Mindset and the Panama City Beach CVB. One of the bucket list items PCB is promoting is to take an underwater picture. But you know me, I never take the “easy” route; I wanted to go one step further and snap my underwater picture deep down beneath the ocean’s surface with an oxygen tank strapped to my back.
So on Monday, I went out on a two-tank with Diver’s Den, situated behind Captain Anderson’s. Of all the dive outfitters I’ve dove with these past seven years, these guys are absolutely my favorite. They were kind, helpful, extremely knowledgeable, communicative and—most importantly—have great senses of humor.
My divemaster, specifically, was top notch: Carlos, a former Navy diver, moved to Panama City Beach to train the next class of military divers, before retiring and going over to Diver’s Den to take out groups. Clay was in the captain’s seat, though he often leads dives, as well, and I’d love to go down with him at some point, too. It’s so important to be comfortable with your divemaster—let’s be honest, your life is more or less in their hands—and I couldn’t have felt safer with these two at the helm.
The first dive site, the Black Bart, was about seven miles out at sea. I was so glad that the water was like glass; after my last dive experience on the Vanderberg, I didn’t want to spend six hours emptying the contents of my stomach. (I wore a scopolamine patch just in case, though it wasn’t needed at all.)
When we got to Black Bart, the visibility was very low. But Carlos checked it out as we anchored and assured us once we got past the first 15 or 20 feet of churn, it would clear up. This is what the claustrophobe in me needed to hear to descend comfortably.
Once down, it was still pretty cloudy—excuse the quality of these photos; there was so much sediment floating around thanks to last week’s floods—but we had a good 30 feet of vis, though it was quite green and murky (I could have color-corrected these shots, but I figure this is more true to what I actually saw).
The wreck itself, a 185-foot oil field supply ship, was sunk in July 1993 and rests at a bottom depth of 84 feet. We went all the way down, though we spent the majority of our 45 minutes in the 60 to 70 range. There were so many nooks and crannies to explore in this old sunken ship that we could have stayed there double that time.
While these sites see frequent shark visitors—like nurses, sandbars, tigers and even the occasional whale shark—we saw none, much to my dismay, though we did spot some fun marine life a toadfish (above) and a batfish (below).
We also saw crabs, spiny lobsters and a number of fire worms (we kept our distance from those lethal dudes).
We swam among schools of angels and amberjacks just beyond the ship’s boundary and explored the wheelhouse, various companionways and hatches.
After the first dive, it was up for an hour-long surface interval on the boat, then back down to explore Bridge Span 14.
I didn’t last nearly as long on the second dive, as it got pretty chilly beneath the surface (around 68 degrees). But my max bottom time was just 20 minutes anyway, and I’m glad I got to see my first underwater bridge.
Bridge Span 14 has a max bottom depth of 80 feet, and the visibility was pretty comparable to our first dive. It’s also got some interesting marine life: lots of fish, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, nudibranches and the like.
But what we spent the majority of that dive doing is chasing the behemoth Goliath groupers. There were three present: two adults and a juvenile, and this largest was a whopping 600 pounds! I wish I could have had something—or rather, someone—beside this guy for size comparison, but he would not let us get too close at all.
I ate grouper for my last night in Panama City Beach and felt mighty guilty about it, too. If you want to see this guy in action, I got a bit of footage of him as he tried his hardest to avoid me:
On the way back in, as we were approaching St. Andrews State Park and Shell Island, we started seeing dolphins off the stern. Captain Clay did a couple turns before one came right up to our boat and decided to guide us back into the bay.
I’ll say it again, every day diving is a great day, but I really had a blast with this crew. Next time I’m in the Panhandle, I’ll be planning to spend a couple days with the lovely folk at Diver’s Den, and I hope all of you fellow divers heading to the Gulf will book with them, too.