By: Annette Balestreri, Photos by Dan Gappa
Last summer, 2015, I felt dive-deprived due to my son Dan’s (AKA dive buddy) work schedule. So, when he had a weeks’ vacation in October, we drove south to Pensacola to dive. The western Florida panhandle, from Panama City west to Perdido Key at the Alabama border, is nicknamed the Emerald Coast. For those who stay above water, the area is famous for its white-as-sugar beaches and laid back atmosphere. There are no natural reefs, and the attraction for divers is the many shipwrecks, some sunk by storms and others intentionally sunk. Divers can get a “Passport” which is stamped by the dive shop after a diver has completed each of 12 of the best wreck dives between Panama City and Pensacola. http://www.floridapanhandledivetrail.com/ has information, including descriptions and short videos of each of these dive sites. The USS Oriskany is the pearl of all these and one of the most popular dives in the U.S.
I did most of my pre-trip research, as usual, on Trip Advisor and linked to local websites from there. I chose Scuba Shack in Pensacola because of the good reviews it received. We were very happy with that decision and would definitely go with them again. They have a dive shop right on the channel and a couple of boats used for diving. I think we would have been happy with the other shop in town that has a dive boat as well. While we were there, the two shops were actually sharing equipment and the people at Scuba Shack spoke well of the other shop.
We dove four days; 2 boat dives each day. Visibility wasn’t the best at times due to silt in the water and schools of bait fish so thick you couldn’t see anything on the other side. The first two days we used air, but after hanging onto the anchor line for our safety stops for 5 or 8 minutes, with pink jellyfish and curious barracuda circling around, we switched to Nitrox for the third and fourth days and were able to get back to 3 minute stops. The interesting stuff on most of the wrecks is at 70 to 90 feet (many wrecks are deeper; we asked for shallower dives).
The first wreck, the Tex-Ed, was interesting, a long barge split in half with a goliath grouper “about the size of a refrigerator” which we were fortunate enough to see as he darted out from under the ship and back again. The “3 coal barges” was a frustrating dive; they looked like they’d been blown up, with the result being no recognizable form or landmarks. Add the current, silt in the water and those pesky baitfish, and we found the anchor line to the dive boat only by accident. That is the only one of the dives I’d prefer to skip if we go again. Then again, maybe with better visibility and a divemaster to show the way… We also dove the Russian Freighter, which is not Russian at all; it was used for military training exercises and eventually intentionally sunk. The Pete Tide, which spent its working life as a supply ship to offshore oil rigs and workers, sits in 100’ of water and is interesting because it is intact, upright, and has a lot of windows. The Patti Reef is actually a barge that had previously been an attraction belonging to a local seafood restaurant. The people diving with us described it as “metal shop gone nuts”, which is about right. It’s delightfully tacky and a “must see”, with metal flags of various countries, a bar with four barstools and a “beer”, several plaques which are unreadable because of marine life growing on it, etc. This was the shallowest of our dives, touching sand at 49’.
Last of all, we dove the mighty USS Oriskany. Twice. Nicknamed the “Great Carrier Reef”, the 911 foot Navy aircraft carrier, now the world’s largest artificial reef, was intentionally sunk in 2006 and then dropped another 15’ due to a hurricane a few years later, so it now sits upright in 220 feet of water. At 145 feet, the flight deck is too deep to dive to, but dropping down the line until you can see the top of the conning tower, which is at 80’, and the carrier spread out below, is an impressive sight. There is a U.S. flag to stand and salute at 94’. The hurricane blew a hole right through the conning tower and you can swim through it at about 105’. There are a lot of fish everywhere and stairways and rooms inside the tall conning tower, much of which can be seen from outside. Visibility here was the best by far of any of the weeks’ dives. This place is fantastic, and if we go back to the Florida panhandle, diving the “Mighty O’ again will be at the top of our list. At about 25 miles from shore, the long boat ride and the extra cost are well worth it.
On Saturday morning, before beginning our drive back north, we visited the Naval Air Museum on the base. This “must see” museum is very different from, but rivals, the EAA museum in Oshkosh. Our tour guide was a retired USAF Colonel and an aviator – top notch! To top it all off, one of the many models of aircraft carriers was the Oriskany, and in the rotunda hangs the plane that Senator John McCain flew when he was stationed on that same ship.
If you decide to dive the panhandle, do call the dive shop and make reservations ahead of time. I found that October is not the high season and not all shops are running their boats, especially during the week. Some shops run spearfishing dives on the weekends, and these tend to fill up quickly. The day we dove the Oriskany, there were three dive boats there, which was not a problem. Being so deep, average bottom time is fairly short. Weather conditions do not always permit the boats to take divers there either. There is a bouy that sends this information back to shore, but you may want to avoid scheduling this dive on the last day of your trip.