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.
These pictures are amazing! After my freak out underwater in Hawaii, I hope one day I get over my fear of diving and get to see all of these wreck sites. So cool.
OMG, what happened? Did you blog about it? (If so, link me.) Funny, I ALSO had my only dive freakout in Hawaii (well, also a minor one in Cabo, but mainly just Honolulu).
Yup, in Honolulu! Nothing really happened. I just got overwhelmed with the whole HEY YOU ARE IN THE OCEAN thing. http://www.piesandtravel.com/2014/02/21/scuba-diving-in-oahu/
Yay, Goliath Groupers! I’m obsessed. Did that big guy have a line stuck on him, though?
He does, but it’s a loose line.
Amazing photos, I freaked out once as well unfortunately I have not tried diving again since then. After seeing your photos, I might give it another go one day
You had me until you mentioned fire worms and then I was envisioning horrors involving worms. But, what a cool experience!!
wow I’m shocked that this is in PCB! I thought only spring breakers with buckets of booze were there (aka me four years in a row). How cooL!
Not at all! I mean, there’s plenty of that each March, but I did diving, SUP Yoga, a helicopter ride, found a private, hidden beach and lots of other fun things =)
Have not been diving for many years, but your blog post and nice photos really make me want to try it again. Carlos sounds like the perfect divemaster! That cute dolphin was a real bonus to your trip! I just love dolphins. We saw a lot of dolphins while traveling in Sri Lanka, and also made a short video of the experience :).
Great photos…It is pretty crazy when you stop to think that you are under the water and breathing so far down. Sometimes we still get a little scared 🙂
Getting our diving certification was one of the best choices we made on our trip. Right now we are in Dahab, Egypt and definitely going to do some diving at the Blue Hole here.
I love the videos! What an adventurer you are, it looks like a blast. Diving sure allows you to be an explorer!
It is a fun hobby to have, for sure!
OK, so I had no idea that Panama City had the wreck diving capital of the U.S. distinction! Talk about taking my backyard for granted! We would go for certification dives in Destin and Panama City because they were so close (born and raised in Baton Rouge, LA) and I always just thought the diving was kinda crappy. Obviously I wasn’t hitting the right spots with the right outfits! I’ll have to look up Diver’s Den next time I’m down there! I love seeing a big grouper, too! Looks like that guy had a line attached to him! Got away from someone!
Yeah, you go to the Gulf for all the military wreckage, which isn’t surprising with the Navy bases all along the coast. Definitely look into it–it’s a fun beach vacation pastime and not a lot of time spent traveling to the dive sites (just about 25 minutes each way).
AHHH!! More Panama posts!! Both you and Alex! haha.
I love the photos though and I have got to ask – how difficult is it to get your diving cert? I’ve only done that one-time introduction class where you can dive down 40 feet. It seems like such an expensive hobby!
Well, actually, this is Panama City Beach, Florida, but Alex’s posts have made me want to plan a return trip to Panama (the country), stat!
It is a pricey hobby, I’m not going to lie. Which is why Scott and I only dive a couple times a year. The last time we went diving was in the Keys in Florida, and we did two-tank dives on two different islands. Getting certified is not hard at all–you’re looking at two days total of classwork and pool skills (though you can now do the classwork online), then four check-out dives, then poof! You’re open water certified.
Doh. *smacks forehead* Panama City vs. Panama. Sorry, when I’m trying to surf my favorite websites and comment instead of being a lurker while being super tired after a lame 8-9 hour day in the office is when I get ultra embarrassing and say the stupidest things. :-\
Thank you for the scuba diving info though! Might be time for bed now that it’s almost 3 am est before I goof up anymore.
Wow–600 lbs?! That’s so huge! I had really thought of northern Florida as dive spot either, but this looks like a great time! The bridge looks pretty cool from underwater–I bet that was fun to see!
After looking at your awesome pictures I really feel like trying diving, it looks like a great experience. How long does it take to learn the basic skills and get a certification?
Usually it’s two full days (like 9 to 4) of classroom and pool work, and then you have to complete four checkout dives, which can be done anywhere and at anytime. But now I believe you can do the coursework online, so it could be done faster. HOWEVER, I highly recommend you do it in a classroom if you’ve never dove as it gives you way more confidence. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t learn nearly as well by studying online.