Best Places to SCUBA Dive in Florida: The Panhandle

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For a diver who doesn’t want to brave international travel at the moment, I can’t think of a better destination than Florida. Florida offers a surprisingly varied array of dive spots. I know you’ve heard of all the great diving in the Keys. But there are about 1350 miles of Florida coastline. This includes 580 miles for the Atlantic Ocean area and 770 miles for the Gulf Coast.

We’ll start our trip in the Panhandle of Florida. We call it the Emerald Coast because of the emerald green of the water at the brilliantly white beaches. This trip is worth it just to go to the beach.

Panhandle diving is more excitement than serene beauty. Don’t get me wrong, there are some astoundingly beautiful dives here. But the dives tend to be deep dives. They start at about 60 feet and average 80-90 feet for most of the natural sites.

There are lots of wrecks along the panhandle coast. These are artificial reefs created by sinking ships, airplanes, railroad cars, even rubble from demolished bridges. Some of these artificial reefs are in less than 60 feet but again, most are considered deep dives.

These wrecks and reefs are teeming with sea life. This is a spear fishing paradise. Large Grouper, Red Snapper, Flounder and Amberjack abound. Massive schools of bait fish can literally envelope you in complete darkness.

The stand out dive here is the Empire Mica. This is a 460′ merchant vessel that was torpedoed by a German U-boat during WWII. The spectacular wreck sits on the bottom at 105′. Some of the structure was torn up by the unprecedented series of hurricanes in the last ten years. Despite the decay this is a spectacular dive.

There are no regular dive boats going to the Mica. Your best bet is to book a charter out of Panama City.

This dive is not for the beginner. It’s a 45 mile run out to the wreck from Panama City which makes this an all day trip. The currents at the wreck can be very strong and has been every time I dove this wreck. Great visibility is rare on the Mica but when it’s good this is a spectacular dive. The Empire Mica is one of my favorite Florida dives.

From the Panhandle and on over into Central Florida there are a scattering of rare gems. These are the famous Florida Springs.

The dry land in Florida is just a thin crust that basically floats on a giant sponge of limestone. This sponge is saturated with crystal clear water. The country side is speckled with holes where this water can be accessed from the surface. Some of these holes are over 100 feet deep and you can clearly see the bottom from the surface.

My favorite is Morrison Springs. Until a few years ago, Morrison Springs was privately owned. Now the spring is managed by the state of Florida and entry is free. There is a cavern and a cave here. Stay out of the cave! Unless you are specially trained, cave diving is deadly.

I like Morrison because it’s larger than the average Florida spring. There’s lots of room to swim around and you can even follow the spring outflow to the Choctawhatchee River.

The water flowing out of the spring is a little nippy. 68 degrees F. is chilly for a Florida boy. I’ve noticed that people from northern climes find it refreshing but if I plan to spend a long time in the spring, I’ll wear a light wetsuit.

Bill Seal

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