Favorite Emerald Coast Dive Sites
So far I’ve only scratched the surface of the nearly 100 dive sites along the Emerald Coast. All of the sites I have explored have been fairly enjoyable with most being worth repeating, but some are quickly becoming my favorites. With so many sites remaining to explore it might change in the future, but below is my current list of favorite dives along the Florida Panhandle.
Navarre Beach Artificial Reef
The Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary includes three sections of artificial reefs – two on the bay side of the island and one on the gulf side 100 yards off the beach. The artificial reefs consist of concrete discs suspended on pylons. When conditions are good you can enjoy visibility approaching 30 feet on the gulf side and can find a great assortment of marine life living within the reef pods. It’s a shallow dive with a maximum depth around 15 feet, which also makes it possible to snorkel. The best conditions are during light winds particularly from the north so that there is less wave action stirring up sand and particulate. The draw of this dive site to me is that it is great for practicing underwater photography. There are good macro subjects like blenny and damselfish but also wide-angle subjects like schooling spadefish and resident turtles. The shallow depth allows you to shoot ambient or you can bring a strobe and alternate its use in order to see the difference a light source can make. You can get a nice long dive too so you won’t feel any rush finding subjects and composing your shots. There is ample parking, good facilities and the majority of your walk geared up is on a boardwalk.
St Andrews Jetty
Another shore dive and perhaps the best along the entire Emerald Coast is the St. Andrews Jetty in Panama City Beach. It is an inlet dive so timing a slack tide is important – particularly a high tide – in order to maximize visibility. While you can reach maximum depths of 70 feet, there is so much underwater structure from the sloped jetty wall that you can vary your depth as desired. The marine life along the jetty wall is pretty incredible and ranges from excellent small subjects of blennies, damselfish, belted sandfish and nudibranch to larger subjects such as sheepshead, grunt, angelfish and toadfish. There is also coral growth beginning along the jetty that wasn’t as evident in previous years. It’s thought that coralline algae started coating the jetty rocks which created an environment more appealing for coral growth. There have also been reported sightings of goliath grouper recently. If all the marine life wasn’t enough, the facilities are excellent and the walk from the pavilions where you gear up to the entry isn’t bad.
A mile south of the Destin pass are several sites created in the 1970’s from the old Destin bridge rubble. Because these sites are near shore they are sometimes seen as fallback sites for dive operators when the weather isn’t cooperating, but they are still enjoyable dives. The large piles of rubble provide good relief which attracts large amounts of fish, and the rubble also creates a lot of crevices for creatures to hide within. Leopard toadfish seem to inhabit every other crevice and spotting a scorpionfish or ocellated frogfish isn’t uncommon. As you scan the rubble don’t forget to look up occasionally for barracuda, jack and large bait schools and also keep an eye out for the resident goliath grouper on the main rubble stack. On days with lower visibility navigation on the rubble piles can be a little more challenging than other sites, so be mindful of your location and heading when leaving the anchor line. Also, during your descent and ascent you could find yourself enveloped by a large school of spadefish or have a curious remora sizing you up for a ride.
The one dive site for me that continues to separate itself from the others is about 6-7 miles southwest of Destin in about 85 feet of water. It’s a natural limestone reef that rises about five feet off the bottom and runs east and west parallel to the shore. When conditions are good you can enjoy 50+ feet of visibility and an aquarium of marine life. The reef itself is an excellent subject for wide-angle shooting and some of the more notable marine life includes moray eel, batfish (several species), frogfish, blue and queen angelfish, butterflyfish, barracuda, toadfish and soldierfish. Less common but always a possibility are loggerhead turtles, eagle rays and nurse sharks sleeping in reef overhangs. Navigating the site is very easy, most operators try to anchor mid-reef so you can explore both directions if your air allows. On several occasions at Whitehill and the neighboring Thomas Hayward Liberty Ship, a good sized sandbar shark has made an appearance but expertly stayed just out of camera range. If you get the opportunity to dive Whitehill Reef you are definitely in for a treat.