Where to Scuba Dive in North Florida
A diver rubs the genie lantern for good luck at the Underwater Museum of Art.
The Emerald Coast, named for the distinct teal-colored waters that meet the white-sand beaches found on this 100-mile stretch of Florida’s Panhandle, is a year-round dive destination that includes the cities of Pensacola, Destin and Panama City.
As the center of the Emerald Coast, Destin offers a choice of several dive experiences, from the jetties at high tide to a variety of reef systems. Artificial reefs can be found as shallow as 60 feet, but natural reefs tend to be deeper. Marine life, from dolphins to schools of pompano and even reef, bull or nurse sharks, can appear on any dive. The Gulf of Mexico seafloor rises dramatically inshore to Destin, which provides quick, easy access to the deepest depths of the Gulf and is how it became dubbed the “luckiest fishing village.”
Conditions in this area vary widely depending on winds and weather. Summer tends to be the calmest season, but algae can bloom during this period.
Artificial reefs include a number of sunken military vessels and even an underwater sculpture museum near Destin.
The Underwater Museum of Art is a permanent sculpture exhibit that was created in 2018 to provide a marine habitat for a 1-acre seabed off the coast of Grayton Beach State Park. The sculptures rise 12 feet from the sand and are placed a mile from shore at 60 feet of depth to allow navigable waterways. This installation has quickly attracted some permanent residents that include porcupinefish, butterflyfish and angelfish.
Panama City boasts artificial reefs ranging from beginner to advanced and technical diving. Deep wrecks within recreational limits include the USS Strength, the Accokeek, the USS Chippewa Navy tug boat, and the FAMI twin tugs that Hurricane Michael rearranged when it set one on top of the other. Shallower wrecks include Black Bart, an oil field supply ship, and the Red Sea, sunk in 2009.
The Navy and Air Force bases are the main economic drivers of Pensacola, but it is also a tourist destination with a vibrant downtown, rounding out the abundant dive destinations in this unique slice of Florida coastline.
A reef shark offshore.
Underwater Museum of Art Pieces are added annually to this sculpture park directly offshore from Grayton Beach through a public submission process, so every year is a new experience. Book charters in advance to visit these larger-than-life installations. The genie lantern has a hole underneath, through which divers can blow bubbles out the spout.
These limestone ledges attract tropical fish and can be found at an average depth of 85 feet. Popular sites include White Hill Reef, Amberjack Rocks, Shoreline Reef, Long Reef and Triplets. Captains know hundreds of unpublished reef sites and choose the best reefs to dive depending on weather and the experience and wishes of divers.
Hundreds of artificial reef sites include barges, tanks and tug boats such as Miss Louise in Destin, part of the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail. Other popular destinations include ships such as the Accokeek, a 205-foot intact Navy tug in 106 feet of water in Panama City. Rubble beneath the Destin Bridge attracts turtles, eels and octopuses.
Need to Know
Conditions Viz varies from 20 to 60 feet; water temps range from 72 to 81 degrees.
What to Wear 5 mm wetsuit.
Dive Shops Recommended by PADI
- Emerald Coast Scuba
- Destin Dive Pros
- Pensacola Red Alert Diving
- Panama City Beach
Water activities of all kinds are very popular in Destin, Florida.
Restaurants get crowded quickly, so look for local spots such as Capriccio Cafe, the Craft Bar, and Lone Wolf Pizza, which is disguised by a bright souvenir facade. Either make reservations, go at opening, or dine during off-hours to eat in Destin. The Candymaker Candy Store is a memorable tourist destination.
White-sand beaches begin just west of Pensacola, a historic town with most dining destinations on the mainland side of the Pensacola Bay Bridge. Pensacola International Airport is the nearest airport on the Emerald Coast. Stay in Navarre to experience both Pensacola and Destin.
3. Panama City
This busy city is known for its water activities and local seafood. St. Andrew Bay is a protected waterway that is popular with kayakers and paddleboarders. Both the bay and the Gulf of Mexico are accessible from St. Andrews State Park, with a boat launch on the bay side.