04182014Fri
Last updateWed, 16 Apr 2014 5pm

Diving an Artifical Reef Paradise

USS Strength. Photo courtesy Franklin H. Price, Florida Department of State Historical Resources
Black Bart Wheelhouse. Photo courtesy Panama City Dive Charters.

By Rick Stratton
Publisher, Dive News Network

There is a place to dive in the Gulf of Mexico where the sand gives way to limestone ledges. Where the spearfishing is as exciting as the diving and where the diver can find themselves in a vast underworld paradise bursting with marine life like no other place in the world.

According to local dive shop owner Tony Snow, owner of Dive Locker Panama Beach, there are many reasons diving is so readily accessible in Panama but perhaps the best is the underwater topography. “As a whole the Gulf of Mexico doesn’t get deep fast anywhere,” Snow explains. “But here it gets deeper fast than anywhere else in the Gulf and this gives divers a chance to really enjoy the dive.” Snow says he takes divers to two different areas, offshore where the dives can reach 100 ft. and there are natural limestone reef ledges and inshore just five miles from shore with shallower dives of 80 ft. or less. “You can’t ask for a better atmosphere,” Snow continues. “The spearfishing is some of the best in the world, water temps hover around 84 degrees in the summer and 60 in the winter and we have shore dives, wreck dives, river dives and even fresh water spring dives. This is a great place for divers to vacation.”

Mike Gomez with Panama City Dive Center has been diving the area for over 30 years to many of the great dive sites. “Our crews are a lot more mature and experienced than most,” Gomez says. “We take divers out and they are always amazed at the choices of dive sites they have. Our artificial reef program is the best in the world.”

John Luzny, owner of Better Bottom Time Charters, agrees that the Panama City area offers some of the best diving in the world. He says many of the local dive sites offer divers an abundance of fish served up with a lot to see structurally. “These wrecks here offer divers a chance to really explore the structures,” says Luzny. “You have sites a lot of people visit that offer easy access and some with so much to see you need to stay with your guide so you don’t get lost in the steal piping.”

Pat Green of Panama City Dive Charters adds that part of the reason for this is because the underwater topography is different. “Our underwater world here has a natural bottom that is sand; there is very little coral,” Green says “It’s like a desert out there so the artificial reefs draws the fish to them. With great marine life and a vis range of 30 to 50, sometimes 100 ft. what’s not to like?”

We polled Mike, Tony, John and Pat on which sites they felt divers must dive when visiting the area. They gave us 10 to start us off with and the promise to guide us through others in the near future. We have profiled them in brief here, but scan the tag to access our full dive site reviews or visit www.divenewsnetwork.com.

USS Strength
The USS Strength has been a fixture on the Florida shipwreck scene for a long time now. It is deteriorated a bit but still intact, sporting a lot of sea life. Located 5 miles south of St. Andrews Pass, this is one of the larger sites with 75 ft. to the bottom and the structure beginning at 55 ft. The USS Strength was sunk in 1987 as an artificial reef after serving time as a Navy mine sweeper. The ship is 184 ft. in length with a 33 ft. beam. The ship was pushed upright by Hurricane Opal in 1995. A plaque on her side tells the history of the ship.

Red Sea
The Red Sea is located one mile past St Andrews Pass and was sunk 3 years ago. Several of the dive shop operators in the area including John Luzny spearheaded the sinking. She now rests at 75 ft. on the bottom and top starts at 47 ft. The Red Sea is intact with the exception of the top of the wheelhouse which was shaved off because it made it a navigational hazard. According to Luzny the Red Sea began attracting sea life immediately. The Red Sea was a 120 ft. freighter with several decks and numerous swim-throughs that are both fun and safe. She is upright.

Hovercraft
The Hovercraft is in the vicinity of Black Bart another popular dive site. This is an aluminum hulled hovercraft sunk in the 80’s. It is a square craft with big rubber skirts. Green says that it looks like two school buses parked next to each other with a deck between them. In the rubber skirts divers will find octopus, toad fish, frog fish as well as a number of other small critters; it’s a great wreck for macro photography. The Hovercraft has a lower profile then most because it is 72 ft. to sand, 65 ft. to the top of structure.

Stage 1  
Stage 1 is an off shore naval training platform taken out of service in the 80’s. The Navy cut them off at the legs and let them sink. There is a lot of underwater steel grid work. The structures start at 60 ft. and goes down to 110 ft. It is a large dive site sitting on about an acre in terms of area. According to Gomez there is a jungle of hollowed out steel piping that makes an amazing fish habitat. It’s hard for fishermen to fish here so the marine life is more than abundant here. Stage 1 is located 13 miles southwest of St. Andrews channel entrance.

Stage 2
Stage 2 is also an off shore naval training platform taken out of service in the 80’s. Stage 2 has much the same structure as Stage 1 however this site is closer to the shore; just 2 miles off the beach. The max depth is 50 ft. There is often lower vis on Stage 2. The grid work is also more erratically spaced than Stage 1. This is a popular site.

Grey Ghost
The Grey Ghost was a 105 ft. long ex-Navy ocean going tug sunk 22 miles offshore by Panama City Marine Institute’s Artificial Reef Program in coordination with Bay County and a federal grant in 1978. She rests on her port side at 105 to 110 ft.  Because of her location on the edge of a natural reef, she has attracted a huge variety of aquatic life. Vis on this site ranges from 20 to 50 ft.  This is a great wreck for photographers.

Tarpon
The Tarpon is one of only two of the local shipwrecks that weren’t intentionally sunk. She was a double ended steam ship that operated in the area and hauled freight. The Tarpon is 137 ft. long. In the 1930’s the Tarpon left out of port overloaded with bottled beer, ran onto a storm and broke apart and sunk. She is now located 9 miles west of Panama City Pass and it is a Florida historic shipwreck. There are beer bottles surrounding the wreck and the boilers are still standing. There is a natural limestone bottom surrounding it. The bottom deck sits at 90 ft. and the stacks are at 18 ft. There’s a plaque and a stone monument marking the wreck.

Accokeek
The Accokeek was a supply boat, similar in structure to the Black Bart. She sits upright at 90 ft. This is a wreck you can penetrate with 175 ft. of ship to explore. The Accokeek is located 13 miles south southwest of Panama City Pass. This is one of the deeper sites and there is a lot of good life surrounding it. It generally has a resident goliath grouper that will swim with you. The top of the wreck is at 65 ft. and the decks are at 80 ft.

Chippewa
Considered a “must see” dive site in Bay County, The Chippewa was scuttled in Feb. 1990. It has a large cabin and lots of places to explore (stairs, compartments etc.) Don’t forget your light on this one. It’s located in 100 feet of water about 11 miles south to southwest of the St. Andrews Jetties, and sits on the tower rests on the sandy bottom. The Chippewa is considered an advanced dive site, and rests in a safety fairway.

BJ Putnam
The BJ Putnam was a 180 ft. supply vessel. She now rests at 110 ft. The wheelhouse has become separated from the main structure and now lies in the sand to the side. It holds a large variety of marine life, and is a good fishing and diving site for advanced divers.

Black Bart
The Black Bart is a local favorite. It is an old tug boat that was sank in 1993. It sits at70 ft. and is 180 ft. long. There is very little current in this area so it’s a good dive for less experienced divers. The vis averages 50 ft. but can be over 100 ft. The only hazards on this wreck are depth and time. Currently the Black Bart sits upright and is fully intact. Her bow points due south and the bridge can be reached at 45 ft. and the main deck at 70 ft. The cargo holds are open for exploring.
We can’t wait to write more articles in the future. There are just too many great dive sites to cover in just one article.

Special thanks to the following for their contributions:

Better Bottom Time Dive Charters
Diver’s Den - PCB - Warehouse
Dive Locker
Panama City Dive Center
Panama City Dive Charters
made with love from Fuerteventura
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