|The wrecks of South Florida quickly become colonized by living reef, including Christmas tree tube worms.|
Imagine following a school of French grunts around their local barrel sponge only to discover a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, Boeing 727 or oil platform parked in the sand. It's a typical encounter on the wreck-studded seafloor of South Florida's Gold Coast.
From Jupiter to Biscayne Bay, there are more than 150 man-made structures--shipreefs, in local parlance--lodged among a healthy, 95,000-year-old coral reef system. All of it is awash in the warm, rich waters of the Gulf Stream. In this environment, wrecks are quickly colonized by investigative grunts, followed by barracudas, French and gray angelfish, snappers and often 200-pound jewfish. Over time, hard corals, sponges and other encrusting growth also adopt the ship, slowly molding these retired vessels into the reef's own image.
With the right current and a little luck, you can explore as many as five different sites on a single tank of air. Nobody deserves this much diving, but we'll tell you where and how to get it.
Palm Beach: Get the Drift
Credit the 1878 shipwreck of the Providencia with the naming of Palm Beach County. The 130-ton Spanish cargo brig bound for Barcelona stranded on the beach near Lake Shore, dumping 20,000 coconuts into the sea, seeding the namesake palms that blanket the landscape. Extending from Jupiter to Boca Raton, Palm Beach County's shoreline includes Riviera Beach, West Palm Beach, Lake Worth and Delray Beach.
The key to Palm Beach diving is the Gulf Stream, the planet's second largest ocean current. It flows as fast as 70 miles a day along the entire Gold Coast, and comes within a mile of land here. Pelagic gamefish and the baitfish that sustain them routinely hitch rides along this thoroughfare and the proximity of the stream to shore enhances visibility so much that dive boat captains can often position above wrecks without instrumentation.
"It's an amazing place; we have most everything," says Jay Mauney, PADI course director with Coral Island Charters in West Palm Beach. "There are more fish here than anywhere else, around 400 species of both temperate region fish and tropical fish."
The Gulf Stream currents allow divers the luxury of drifting effortlessly across reef lines and wrecks, surfacing to an awaiting dive boat. "The stronger the current, the better the dive because you can see more stuff," says Mauney. "Usually, you can cover a half-mile on one tank in 35 minutes in a one-knot current."
|The Gulf Stream's Caribbean influences mean divers will find plenty of tropical fish life on South Florida wrecks.|
Rather than focusing on one wreck, divers can drift along the Corridor, a spectacular collection of shipreefs just 10 minutes from Palm Beach Inlet. A multilevel dive that gets progressively shallower, the Corridor begins in 90 feet of water with the 185-foot Mizpah, a Greek luxury liner down since 1968. Rich sponge growth and tunicates line the sidewalls, while schooling grunts cloak the bow and stern. Also sunk in '68, the PC1170, a retired 165-foot patrol boat swept into the Mizpah during storms, sits off her bow. Structural tears and hull fractures have attracted a 300-pound jewfish, spotted morays and passing eagle rays. A path of rubble, known by locals as Rocky Road, connects to the massive Amaryllis, a 441-foot freighter that slammed into Singer Island in 1965. Stripped of her decks prior to sinking, she is only a husk of her former glory at 85 feet. The 20-foot walls of this ship, however, deflect the current, allowing a drifter to pause for a look at the engine.
Located northeast of the Corridor at 105 feet, the 350-foot transport ferry Princess Anne, scuttled in 1993, offers a tremendous multilevel profile at recreational limits. Experienced wreck divers can explore the vast interior, while sport divers drift by schools of jacks and spadefish that hang around the upper deck.
Another well-packaged set of wrecks is the Eidsvag Triangle, accessible from shore one mile from Palm Beach Inlet. Sharks, rays, permit and swarms of baitfish are all found here amid the sponge-covered wreckage of the 150-foot Eidsvag freighter, also known as the Owens. Fifteen feet off the freighter's bow is Murphy's Barge, an upright commercial ship down for 16 years and the jumping-off spot to drift three structures. The triangle is rounded out by the coral-caked remnants of the Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, sunk 16 years ago as a publicity stunt. She was a mint condition chariot at the time, but very little has survived the undeterred advance of coral.
Broward County: Wrecks, Inc.
Corporate and private sponsorships have been an essential ingredient in South Florida's artificial reef program. Nowhere is this more apparent than the wrecks of Ft. Lauderdale, where the names of benefactors adorn dive sites.
Considered the most unique artificial reef in South Florida if not the East Coast, Tenneco Towers--three retired oil platforms accessible by operators from both Lauderdale and Miami--sit like displaced lunar modules, coated in sponges and sea fans. Grunts and snappers cluster in the leeward backside of these rigs, while bull sharks are often found patrolling the current-swept bottoms with regal, yet menacing, ease.
The 199-foot Mercedes I, probably the most popular wreck dive in Florida, was a freighter whose career ended when she was thrust into a waterfront swimming pool by storm surge in 1984. Not six months later she was sitting upright in 97 feet of water attracting schools of snappers. Today, the coral that so readily appeared on her bow and wheelhouse is firmly rooted, and the process of reclamation is in its final stage. "Soon there's going to be hardly any definition, and it will blend totally into a natural reef and be a great attractor. It's amazing to see Mother Nature taking it back," says John Hudson, operations manager at Ft. Lauderdale's Pro Dive.
The same advancing reef has entombed the Rebel, a 135-foot freighter forced to the bottom in July 1985, not 400 yards north of the Mercedes. Jacks and groupers ride the humming currents over the toppled masts and booms that lie scattered over the ship.
South of the Mercedes are three ships purchased privately and donated to Broward County specifically for recreational scuba diving. Sunk in 1987 and knocked from her port side to an upright position by Hurricane Andrew, the 240-foot Jim Atria, named for the developer who purchased her at auction, begins at 83 feet but bottoms out at 135 feet. The generosity of one man, Dale Scutti, led to the creation of two more popular shipreefs located 1,500 feet apart in relatively shallow water. Named for Dale's late son, the Jay Scutti is a retired 100-foot tug that once hauled Caribbean tankers into Aruba. It now lists in 70 feet of water. The retired 95-foot Coast Guard cutter Robert Edminster, also donated by Scutti, was named for an ocean environmentalist. It rests at 75 feet.
Dade County: Miles of Wrecks
Lined up stern to prow, Miami's wreck dives would stretch for more than two-and-a-half miles. Indeed, Dade County boasts the largest artificial reef program in Florida with a growing armada of wrecks dispersed among five general sites--Anchorage Area, Government Cut, Haulover, Key Biscayne and R.J. Diving.
Like the Corridor in Palm Beach, Miami's Wreck Trek is a one-tank boat dive that links a cluster of wreck sites. Divers move deliberately in a counterclockwise arc inside the Anchorage Area dive site. While a two-tank trip allows more time for exploration, it's possible to sample all five sites on one tank. Miss Patricia, a 65-foot steel tug, sits with her bow to the east at 55 feet and is the entry dive of the circuit. The next stops are the two M60 tanks and a cluster of limerock boulders, excellent pockmarked structures that house settlements of banded coral shrimp, Spanish lobsters, morays and pufferfish. Concrete piping, an excellent base for reef-building corals, surrounds Billy's Barge, a 110-foot ship turned soft coral garden. Ben's Antennae Reef is the next stop and the circle is completed as divers pass over a derelict shrimp boat en route to the Miss Karline, a 100-footer lodged in the sand almost within sight of the Miss Patricia.
But the wreck that gets the most attention is The Spirit of Miami, a retired Boeing 727 intentionally sunk off Key Biscayne to allow relatively easy penetration and promote the local artificial reef program.
Dive In: Gold Coast
Getting There: Just follow Highway A1A, the coastal offshoot of Highway 1.
Water Temperatures: Range from 75F to 85F.
Visibility: Variable, depending on local rainfall and the strength of offshore currents. Days of 100-foot-plus vis are common in Dade and Broward, and expected regularly in Palm Beach. Deeper sites generally have clearer water and more current.
Dive Season: Conditions are most auspicious for diving from May through September as the fall hurricane season and the winter storms that follow can churn up seas, bring chilly temperatures and spoil visibility.
For More Information: The Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau is giving away a 20-minute dive video, interactive CD-ROM and a vacation planner. Call (800) 22-SUNNY.
Three Great South Florida Reefs
Before there were wrecks, there were reefs, and even steel addicts will want to save a tank for these natural beauties.
Palm Beach County: Breakers Reef
Depth: 40-60 feet.
Skill Level: Novice.
Within sight of the Breakers Hotel in West Palm is a world-class shallow reef that holds a tremendous number of Caribbean fish, the occasional wayward pelagic, huge green morays and loads of spiny lobsters. The reef stretches along the coast for two miles, providing several popular put-in spots--Elevator South, Elevator, Fourth Window, King Neptune and Turtle Mound. All feature swift drift diving along three- to 15-foot ledges.
Broward County: Fisher's Pedestal
Depth: 30 feet.
Skill Level: Novice.
This trio of coral mushrooms is bracketed with staghorn and star coral. Shy Christmas tree worms, bristle worms and feather dusters cover the ledges but share space with balloonfish, lobsters and alligator-faced stonefish. Consistent large numbers of copper sweepers, parrotfish, hamlets and groupers cruise beneath the three dome-shaped pillars.
Dade County: Emerald Reef
Depth: 10-30 feet.
Skill Level: Novice.
Called the "most beautiful shallow reef group in the Miami area" by Ned DeLoach in his Diving Guide to Underwater Florida, Emerald Reef beams with color--sponges and sea fans alongside elkhorn and pillar coral. A collection of patch reefs, Emerald Reef is teeming with juvenile tropicals like butterflyfish and the occasional spotted drum.