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Reef Smart Releases New Dive Guide Book to Northwest Florida

There’s a wide diversity of dive sites, but wreck geeks will be particularly pleased.
By Alexandra Gillespie | Authored On May 20, 2021
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Reef Smart Releases New Dive Guide Book to Northwest Florida

Reef Smart 3-D map of a shore access site

A Reef Smart beach access map guides divers from the shore and back for Beach Access 6 in Okaloosa, including cardinal directions and depth differences across the site.

Reef Smart

Reef Smart’s guide to Northwest Florida puts the panhandle under a microscope, detailing more than 120 sites across six counties, including 48 original 3-D site maps.

What “we thought was going to be a quick way to do a couple of shipwreck maps and throw it together in an easy book, turned into our longest, biggest, most comprehensive book yet,” says Peter McDougall, manager of Reef Smart USA.

Nearly 60 sites have in-depth descriptions, addressing need-to-know dive info like suggested certification level “based largely on the depth, but also the current and complexity of each site under ideal conditions,” how to get there, including length of boat ride or shore swim, and quality ratings of flora and fauna. Twenty-six are shore access and 31 are offshore.

“It's not so much that this area has more dives than anywhere else… but it was the diversity of the sites that Northwest Florida offers” that pushed it to become the largest of our guide book series, says Ian Popple, managing director of Reef Smart Guides. “There are shore accessible sites, there's freshwater springs, there’s natural ledges, there's concrete structures, bridge spans. There's the Underwater Art Museum there. And even within the wrecks that we map, there's diversity” from military wrecks like Oriskany to tugs, barges and freighters and even a hovercraft.

Wreck entries — (and the area is “full of shipwrecks,” says McDougall) — include background information about access information, suggested routes, and how the vessel came to rest. In large part thanks to its history, the Empire Mica is a favorite regional dive for both Popple and McDougall: the 479-foot British ship carrying more than 11,000 tons of kerosene during WWII exploded when hit by German U-boats more than 30 miles off the coast.

“Yet people were saying that, on shore, they can see this glow in the horizon of the ship getting hit,” says Popple. “So you know, structurally, the wreck was severely damaged when it went to the bottom now, it's really just a debris field, but an incredibly complex debris field that you can spend hours and hours exploring.”

Bookending these site briefings are operator contact information and more than 30 pages of local species identifications.

3D rendering of the wreck fo the USS Strength

A Reef Smart map provides tips for the best way to dive the USS Strength in Bay County.

Reef Smart

This is Reef Smart’s third regional Florida guide. The first two focused on Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, respectively, and Popple says a guide to the Florida Keys is in the works.

Cover of Reef Smart's Northwest Florida guide

Retailing at $34.99, the guide will be available at major sellers on May 25th. Several regional operators are offering early sales.

Reef Smart

Forty-eight sites include original, 3-D maps of the site created by McDougall and Popple. Using information collected in the field, Reef Smart maps peel back the water to give divers a holistic view of the site before even arriving. Annotated with depth and bearings, the maps also indicate frequently spotted marine life.

“I think for years, a lot of the Southeast US divers have either gone abroad or driven all the way down to the Keys,” says McDougall. That delivers “phenomenal diving, but you can cut a solid seven hours off your drive and just stop in Northwest Florida. And I think that combination of quality diving and a region really seeking to develop itself as a dive destination ended up being a perfect storm for our book.”

Northwest Florida ($34.99) will be available for general purchase on Tuesday, May 25th. It is available for early sale at Dive 30A in Grayton Beach, as well as Panama City Diving and Panama City Dive Center. Nine more regional dive centers will offer it in the coming weeks, and will be available at larger retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

“Particularly during the pandemic, there's been a real transition to people diving more and diving locally,” says Popple. “The timing for this book, I think, is great, and people can make use of it.”