Imagine following a trail back through time—a trail lined with the hauntingly beautiful remains of old ships. Now imagine that trail under the warm waters off Florida’s north coast. And to make this trail even more enticing, imagine exploring half of these wrecks with just a snorkel and mask, no heavy tank or diving equipment necessary. Sounds like a pretty wondrous winter diversion, doesn’t it?
The Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail is sponsored by the Florida Department of State and aims to promote underwater cultural heritage, tourism and stewardship throughout Florida's beautiful Panhandle. Launched last year, the trail consists of 12 unique and historic shipwrecks, all of which are protected by law and many of which were sunk as artificial reefs. They are located in varying depths of water and are home to a wide array of marine life.
Article by Jennifer Wilkins; photos courtesy Florida Department of State's Bureau of Tourism Board
"Florida has and always will have a great maritime heritage," says Roger Smith, the State of Florida's Chief Underwater Archeologist and the driving force behind the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail. "In Florida much of our revenue depends on tourism, and these sites are a combination of heritage, recreational and ecological tourism all in one destination. We worked with the dive industry - charter boats and dive shops - and asked for their ideas on what they thought would be a good trail. They were all very excited and very supportive. Ultimately we managed to agree on 12 different shipwrecks: five in Pensacola, five in Panama City, one in Destin and one in Port St. Joe."
“It’s such a wonderful program for Florida,” says Katie Kole, Director of Marketing for the Florida Department of State. “Many people had no idea that this diving resource even existed, so it’s been very well received by everyone in the dive industry.”
“The trails have allowed us to not only dive locally, but to travel over to Panama City or Destin and do the additional wrecks along the trail,” says Kerry Freeland, co-owner of Florida DivePros in Pensacola Florida. “It’s proven to be a great boost for tourism.”
|“[The trail] features some of the more interesting and historically significant wrecks off the Florida Panhandle,” says Tim Thorsen, owner of Viking Diving in Pensacola. “These wrecks are quite popular and have been for some time. One of the most noteworthy is the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany. But the northern coast has so much more to offer—we have over 50 wrecks and artificial reefs in the area.”||Tim Thorsen
Visitors can obtain an official passport from local dive shops and charter boats in Florida’s Panhandle. After completing each shipwreck dive, the passport will be validated with a sticker. Other prizes will be awarded upon completion of the passport. These 12 shipwrecks of the trail were selected as the best destinations for various levels of diving:
The sunken aircraft carrier USS Oriskany is the largest artificial reef in the world and the flagship of the Shipwreck Trail. Built shortly after World War II, the “Mighty O” served primarily in the Pacific, earning two battle stars for service in the Korean War and 10 battle stars for service in the Vietnam War. The warship was sunk in 2006, 22 miles south of Pensacola in more than 200 feet of water. Nicknamed “the Great Carrier Reef,” the site is one of the most popular diving destinations in the U.S. With a myriad of pelagic and sedentary marine life, opportunities for underwater video and photography are superb. Water depth to the top of the ship is 80 feet and the flight deck is at 145 feet, making this a unique dive for a variety of skill levels.
Discovering this ship’s history is as much an exploration as diving the wreck itself. The San Pablo was sunk in August of 1944 during the course of a highly classified exercise by the Navy. They were working to develop a special missile to be used against Japanese ships in their home harbor, and the San Pablo was the unfortunate test subject. The project was eventually abandoned with the war’s end, but information regarding the ship and her sinking remained a secret. For years she had been mistaken for a Russian freighter. It was only recently (since the start of the Shipwreck Trail) that her story has been declassified and the true details have come out.
“The San Pablo is the most popular wreck in the Gulf of Mexico, bar none,” says Thorsen. “I had been diving the wreck for over 30 years. But this new information has allowed me to see it in a different perspective. We ventured out away from the blast area and the original point of impact and discovered new portions of the wreck we never knew existed.” Still commonly known as the Russian Freighter wreck, the San Pablo sits in 80 feet of water nine miles off Pensacola Beach. Her stern is still intact on its port side, her bow is upright, and her boilers are still recognizable amongst her scattered wreckage.
Interested in a Florida diving overview? Check out this January article!
“The YDT-14 and the San Pablo are two of my personal favorites,” says Jim Meyers, owner of Doctor Dive in Pensacola. Constructed in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1942, this utility ship navigated the South Atlantic and Caribbean waters during her naval career serving in San Juan Harbor, Norfolk Harbor and Key West. The YDT-14 is one of two U.S. Navy diving tenders sunk as artificial reefs in April 2000, the other being her sister ship YDT-15. The upper structure rises to about 65 feet and descends to her waterline at 100 feet.
Pete Tide II
After servicing the Gulf for years, supplying workers and materials to offshore oil rigs, Pete Tide II became an artificial reef in 1993. Sitting upright in about 100 feet of water, Pete Tide II offers divers three decks of superstructure to explore starting at around 60 feet. The intact pilothouse, with an enticing swim-through, is often teeming with schools of spadefish and minnows.
Three Coal Barges
In 1974, while en route to their designated offshore reef site, the Three Coal Barges broke free from their transport. In an emergency operation, U.S. Navy demolition experts boarded the runaway barges and detonated explosive charges, sinking them in their present location before they were driven ashore by rough seas. “The [Three Coal Barges] site is a bit older,” says Meyers, “so it has a lot more growth and sealife on it then some of the artificial reefs. The barges lie end to end in a field of rubble, creating a great undersea habitat.”
A World War II minesweeper, the USS Strength saw action off Iwo Jima and Okinawa where she survived both a midget submarine attack and a kamikaze raid. Later in life, Strength served as a training hulk for Navy salvage divers in Washington, D.C., and then Panama City. Sunk for the last time in 1987, she lay on her side for years before being righted by a hurricane in 1995. At less than 80 feet, divers can easily swim between two sections where the bow separated from the rest of the ship.
Built in 1944, USS Accokeek led an eventful and global career as a fleet tug. She towed damaged ships from the invasion of Okinawa, transited the Panama Canal, and assisted Navy vessels ranging from cruisers to submarines along the East Coast, in Lake Michigan, and as far away as Labrador and the South Atlantic. She was turned over to the Navy Dive School in Panama City, Florida for salvage and ordinance training in 1987. Finally, on July 9, 2000 she was sunk as an artificial reef off Panama City.
Launched in 1942, the U.S. Navy tugboat USS Chippewa performed standard towing and salvage duty from the Caribbean to Newfoundland. Sunk as a Navy training platform for the Panama City Experimental Dive Unit in 1990, Chippewa now sits upright on the bottom in 100 feet of water.
This offshore oilfield supply vessel was sunk as an artificial reef in 1993 in memory of Navy Supervisor of Salvage Captain Charles “Black Bart” Bartholomew. Divers can swim through the intact wheelhouse at 40 feet, investigate the deck at 66 feet, and explore the open cargo holds at 80 feet.
The FAMI Tugs are one of the most unique and unexpected artificial reefs off the Gulf coast. When they were originally sunk, the tugs rested bow to bow joined by a 30-foot tether. As luck would have it, a storm picked one boat up and placed it directly on top of the other, allowing divers to enjoy two shipwrecks at once.
Miss Louise was a push tug sunk as an artificial reef in 1997. “The Miss Louise is one of our shallowest sites,” says Anna Schmitz, co-owner of Emerald Coast Scuba in Destin. “She is the only wreck off Destin’s coast that’s less than 60 feet, making it the perfect spot to bring new divers to. In the summertime it collects a lot of bait fish—sometimes you have to wave your hand in front of you to part the fish so you can see your buddy two or three feet away. It’s pretty cool!”
The Vamar is a fantastic shallow reef, sitting in only 25 feet of water. Built in England as a patrol gunboat, the steamer became famous for carrying Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s American expedition to Antarctica in 1928. She eventually became a tramp freighter, and while carrying lumber to Cuba in 1942, sank under mysterious circumstances while leaving Port St. Joe. Today divers can see a large steam engine, bilge keels and a wide variety of marine life.
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