Palm Beach County, Florida

Abundant wrecks, healthy reefs, scads of fish and warm Gulf Stream water add up to world-class diving in southeast Florida.

It was one of those flat-calm South Florida days that divers dream of as I strode off the dive boat platform. We were diving the 258-ft (78-m) wreck of the cargo barge MV Castor, which sits at a depth of 110 ft (33 m) off Boynton Beach. Within seconds of submerging, I crossed the prominent bow and was thrilled to discover no less than seven goliath groupers, all in the 200-300 lb (91-136 kg) range. They warily rolled their eyes as I passed, but they didn't appear particularly skittish.

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Gray angels, schooling porkfish and barracuda gracefully veered from my path as I glided along the main deck toward the stern with its intact prop and towering pilothouse. The steel hull has taken on the colorful appearance of a Turkish carpet with thousands of encrusting marine organisms from brilliant orange cup coral to delicate blue tunicates, all vying for space. All around me strobes fired like twinkling Christmas lights, as my diving buddies were clearly as enthralled with the photo ops as I was.

The Castor is just one example of why I love diving in Palm Beach County. The Gulf Stream, which can turn a discarded barge into a thing of wonder, comes closer to land here than it does any other place in the country. Every dive shows the influence of this warm tropical current. On most dives you can expect visibility of 50-100 ft (15-30 m), large schools of reef fish and a better-than-average chance of seeing pelagics. The steeply sloping bottom is home to three nearshore reef systems running parallel to shore and more than 65 named dive sites. Throw in a great selection of artificial reefs and it+s no wonder that in-the-know divers come back again and again.

The Gulf Stream influence means most Palm Beach dives are drift dives, allowing you to cover a lot of ground with minimal effort. Many divers don't think of wrecks as drift dives, but the Mizpah Corridor will change their minds. It starts with the Mizpah, a Greek luxury liner that is 185 ft (56 m) long, intentionally sunk in 90 ft (27 m) of water in 1968.

The wreck is a wonderfully mature artificial reef with easy penetration to a well-exposed interior. Orange cup coral and gorgonians abound on the inner structure, while barracuda and jacks patrol the exterior.

Next along the northbound current is the PC-1170, a patrol craft that is broken in two. The current then carries you over enormous piles of rock that are teeming with small tropicals.

A stop is tempting, but it's better to keep going until you come to the 441-ft (134- m) hulk of the Amaryllis. Devoid of superstructure, the old banana freighter is one huge fish bowl where angels, wrasse and glassy sweepers carouse, and every inch of metal supports life.

The Breakers Hotel and Resort is one of Palm Beach's most famous institutions, and right offshore is Breakers Reef, providing several of Palm Beach's signature dives. The reef is a good two miles (3 km) long with an average depth of 45-60 ft (14-18 m), and every part of it sprouts blazing orange sponges, purple sea fans, plump gorgonians and robust barrel sponges. Schooling grunts and snapper are everywhere. Angels parade by regularly. Atlantic spadefish appear in groups of three to 30, flashing like mercury in the sun, while holes in the reef overflow with silversides and copper sweepers.

Off northern Palm Beach County, divers will find a more rugged, but no less pristine, reef at Juno Ledge. Accessed from Jupiter Inlet or Palm Beach, the ledge features 20 ft (6 m) of relief and a maximum depth of 90 ft (27 m), with small canyons packed with fish hiding from the current. Sightings of green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles are all possibilities; encounters with enormous morays and schools of barracuda are the norm.

The Tunnels at 60-72 ft (18-22 m) are good-sized "swim throughs" in the reef, which are often home to several reef sharks. But the whole ledge is craggy, pockmarked and wild. Eagle rays, nurse sharks, big southern stingrays, reef sharks, mammoth goliath grouper and swarms of schooling fish are all regulars. On a good day, this dive can serve up experiences that, like the rest of Palm Beach County, will provide pleasant memories for a lifetime.
How To Dive It
CONDITIONS: You can dive Palm Beach County year-round, but the summer dive season — May through September — offers the calmest seas and warmest water. Expect water temperatures from 75°-80°F (23°-27°C) with visibility from 50-100 ft (15-30 m). In winter, water temperatures average 68°-72°F (20°-22°C).

GETTING THERE: You can get to the dive ports of Palm Beach County from almost anywhere by following I-95 or US 1. There are also numerous daily flights into Palm Beach International Airport (PBI). For more information on travel, accommodations and topside attractions, visit Palm Beach County Vistors Bureau.

DIVE OPERATORS: Underwater Explorers; Narcosis Dive Charters; and Emerald Charters. See Palm Beach County's Dive Operations Listing for more.

© Alert Diver — Fall 2009