Drive and Dive: Palm Beach County, Florida
Let me get this right: a 10-foot hammerhead right off the bat, followed by two portly loggerheads, hubcap-size French angels and a supporting cast that makes me swear Iâ€™m diving in exotic waters. Then a 10-foot sailfish lollygags 20 feet away during my safety stop, something Iâ€™d never experienced anywhere. All this at Boynton Ledge, my first-ever dive in the waters of southeast Floridaâ€™s Palm Beach County? I could get used to this.
â€œNot bad for a first dive, eh?â€ says William â€œTazâ€ Tuzinsky, the imposing ex-police detective turned tec diver behind Scuba Center Delray, my dayâ€™s dive operator. â€œI get divers all the time who tell me theyâ€™ll rethink plopping down $5,000 for exotic dive vacations.â€
Heâ€™s got a point.
If bragging rights are due for the Palm Beaches, as the county calls itself, you can thank three auspicious factors. First, thereâ€™s the Gulf Stream, a conveyor belt of clear, clean, warm, nutrient-rich water that provides a buffet for the entire marine food chain. The northbound current can be robust â€” and close. Just off Singer Island, the Gulf Stream comes nearest to shore at barely a mile out. Then thereâ€™s the reef. Swinging up from the Florida Keys is the worldâ€™s third-largest living reef, formed from ancient beach ridge complexes that anchored subsequent coral growth. Itâ€™s a virtual divers fun house, comprising an inner, middle, main and outer ledge system full of nooks, crannies, wrecks and rock piles at multiple depths that parallels the entire 47-mile length of Palm Beach County. Finally, thereâ€™s the dynamic of the Florida peninsula itself. As the interior heats, moisture-ridden clouds unleash massive convectional downpours that flow into estuaries, adding to the organic soup and sustaining incredible macro marine life along the Intracoastal Waterway as well as the reef system.
A DELRAY DAY
With lodging in Delray Beach, a rental car and my own dive equipment, Iâ€™m on a marathon, aiming to rack up as many dives as possible â€” a fairly simple quest because scores of dive sites are barely 10 minutes offshore. After my intro dive, Tuzinsky takes me to nearby Delray Ledges to the south. Talk about drift diving. At 60 feet, we scoot at 4 knots over a profuse tapestry of gorgonians, barrel sponges and 15-foot ledges with shadowed alcoves of snapper and jacks peering into glints of sunlight. Along our flight path we come face to face with the vacant-eyed stares of several lemon sharks, and at least two nurse sharks tucked beneath ledges. After weâ€™re a mile from our drop, itâ€™s time to call it a day, and once again I get a parting gift when I spot a green sea turtle employing its finely serrated beak to tear sea grass swaying in the current.
Driving north to my next dayâ€™s dive rendezvous in Jupiter is an eye-opener. You can just smell the money in Palm Beach. Gorgeous white sand, swaying palms, Bentleys and Mercedes, trendy cafes â€” itâ€™s almost surreal. But even if the price of admission here is high, the diving is equal opportunity â€” a bargain, really, considering the variety, quality and convenience.
I put this assertion to the test when I hook up with Philip Berg at Jupiter Dive Center. â€œItâ€™s all about the Gulf Stream. Weâ€™ve got everything â€” manta rays, tons of sharks,â€ Berg says during an en- route rundown of todayâ€™s possibilities.
I learn that the area is dive central for four world-class seasonal aggregations that divers go nuts for: lemon sharks (January and February), marine turtles (May and June), goliath grouper (August and September) and lobsters (late spring through summer). â€œGoliath grouper and lemon sharks are huge here. We get destination divers from all over the world who come for these alone,â€ he adds.
Our first drop zone is a threefer of sorts: a mile drift that begins at Captain Mikeâ€™s and continues past Area 51 to just north of Juno Ledge. We fin diagonally and thread between ledges, peer into fishy grottoes and fly over sand flats where, just as Berg promised, we see it all: blacktip reef sharks, nurse sharks, goliath grouper, loggerhead and green turtles, schools of blue runners and parrotfish galore, not to mention humongous barrel sponges and colonies of sea whips and fans. By the time weâ€™re ready to surface, Iâ€™ve added green morays, a school of large barracuda and a school of horse-eye jacks to my list.
Two more dives out of Jupiter are just as riveting. At Spadefish, we trade abrupt ledges for a gentle slope leading to a hard, steep wall. Sharks, turtles, green morays: check, check and double-check. Our final dive at Bluffs, known as Jupiterâ€™s prettiest, is simply extravagant. Intermittent sand patches of an ancient riverbed separate a series of cul-de-sacs, each an aquarium unto itself. There are napping loggerheads in one. Over there a small hawksbill munches on sponges. Down below an eagle ray flutters in the sand. Just ahead a lemon shark hovers above a ledge. When I put on the brakes â€” not easy in the current â€” I take in a bevy of angelfish, wrasses, blennies and parrotfish that all sparkle like gems in a jewelry box.
MACRO WONDERS AND GENTLE GIANTS
If thereâ€™s one dive you donâ€™t want to miss in the Palm Beaches, itâ€™s Blue Heron Bridge at Phil Foster Park, christened by many as one of the worldâ€™s premier easy-access macro sites. The critter list is a whoâ€™s who of macro stars, from seahorses and pipefish of all stripes to frogfish, batfish, stargazers and upward of 100 species of nudibranchs. It all comes easily because of its shallow 12- to 20-foot depth and choice location in the protected Lake Worth Lagoon, just beneath the bridge leading me to my next dive appointment with Jim Abernethy, owner of Scuba Adventures.
â€œThere have been eight species of newly IDâ€™d nudibranchs at Blue Heron in one year, plus three species of batfish and six species of seahorses,â€ Abernethy tells me at the nearby docks, where we suit up aboard M/V Deep Obsession. But this macro mecca was not in the cards for me on this day because of tides. â€œItâ€™s a little tricky. You have to stay clear of the channel and enter just before high slack tide because of the currents,â€ Say what you want about the doâ€™s and donâ€™ts of interacting with marine life â€” this 400-pound grouper has become a revered mascot throughout the area. Epinephelus itajara can grow to nearly 10 feet and reach 800 pounds. The species almost crashed due to overharvesting but was declared off limits to fishermen in 1990. Its numbers have since grown to the point that thereâ€™s talk of lifting the ban, and thatâ€™s a big concern in the diving community here. As I watch Shadow, itâ€™s easy to tell he (she?) has an affinity for divers, and for Abernethy in particular. The big grouper makes numerous passes as Abernethy wields his DSLR, twin strobes flashing. Shadow comes my way and purposefully rubs against me, begging for scratches, Iâ€™m thinking. Itâ€™s tempting, but I stay put, hugging the bottom while Shadow weaves between Abernethy and other divers in an inter- species duet that is as poignant as it is routine in this Gulf Stream water world.
Need To Know
When To Go Diving is excellent year-round. During spring, turtles are mating, schooling sharks jump out of the water and eagle rays, manta rays and swordfish abound. With the cooler water of winter, larger fish move in.
Dive Conditions Most Palm Beach County dives are drifts ofupto1mile.May through September offers the calmest seas and warmest water, hovering in the mid-70s, though temps can reach 86 degrees. In fall and winter,water temps drop to 68 to 72 degrees; come spring, water temps hit the mid-70s. Visibility averages 60 feet but can reach 100 feet during cooler months.
Operators In Delray Beach, Scuba Center Delray (scubadelray.com) visits reef and wreck sites along the middle and southern region to Boca Raton. Scuba Adventures (scuba-adventures.com) in Lake Park visits Palm Beach offshore sites while offering custom itineraries. In Jupiter, Jupiter Dive Center (jupiterdivecenter.com) cruises the northern-most sites as well as wrecks and reefs.