Scuba Diving in the Gulf
Scuba divers, take a look at Florida’s west coast
The Florida Keys is a scuba destination that every Sunshine State resident and visitor seems to know about, yet the Sarasota “Cultural Coast” and Lee Island Coast areas of the Gulf of Mexico actually offer more than twice the amount of real estate underwater. However, these stretches aren’t top of mind for dive enthusiasts.
Some of Florida’s west coast operators find that surprising. “It’s a body of water—I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t know there is diving here,” says Troy Sorensen, instructor with Dive Florida based in Bradenton.
“Well, it’s about half and half,” says Ian Kaye, divemaster with Scuba Quest in Sarasota. “Half the people think our diving will be just like the Florida Keys, and the other half think that there is nothing.”
The truth is somewhere in between those two assumptions.
“We definitely have fish, but we don’t have the soft corals of the Keys,” adds Kaye. So many fish, in fact, that the largest spearfishing tournament in the world is held in St. Petersburg. The nonstop bounty includes snapper, grouper and other big species. “The schools of fish out here are massive,” he explains.
Fish aside, the topography may not be entirely what a Florida diver might expect. The bottom is mostly sand. If it’s not sand, it’s limestone ledge. But the appeal of the Gulf is what sits on top of the sand and ledges.
Says Sorensen, “I have more than 4,000 numbers in my GPS for dive sites.” Those numbers include wrecks, bridge pieces, statues, ledges and a variety of manmade artificial reefs. The area’s most popular sites for recreational divers include the following: the USS Mohawk, a 165-foot cutter 28 miles off Captiva Island; the 80-foot-deep USCG Blackthorn off St. Petersburg; and the new Circle of Heroes underwater dive memorial, honoring fallen soldiers.
With a long list of sites—which Pinellas County has posted online—there’s no debating that there are underwater structures to see. But the biggest variable that limits diving in the Gulf is visibility. “Visibility can be really good, or it can be really bad—and there is no average when it comes to what to expect here,” says Kevin Sweeney, owner of SCUBAdventures Naples, of the water clarity off Florida’s west coast.
The biggest factor determining what divers will get underwater is the runoff from Lake Okeechobee, emptying into the Fort Myers area via the Caloosahatchee River. Because of this, areas south of Fort Myers are subject to more unpredictable water quality, but north of this area tends to be noticeably better.
During the summer of 2019, Steve Jones, owner of Florida West Scuba & Charters, says visibility was 30 feet on most days that he was underwater with guests who chose Venice for shark teeth dives. Venice is famous for regularly yielding up fossilized shark teeth and other finds dating back to the Pleistocene Epoch some 11,700 years ago.
The teeth serve as tangible evidence of what Jones, Sorensen, Kaye and most everyone else who has been diving in the Gulf already know: This area may not serve up perfect water visibility, but it still offers divers loads to see.
Easily the most well-known wreck in the Gulf, the 165-foot-long cutter was purpose-sunk 28 miles west of Captiva Island’s Red Fish Pass and now sits upright with its bow facing east. It has become a gathering site for goliath grouper and big schools of snapper, grunts and other warm-water fish.
The Mexican Pride, a 200-foot bulk cargo ship, fell into disrepair in 1970, and soon enjoyed its next life as an artificial reef after being towed 35 miles offshore to a resting place in 130 feet of water. The ship is now broken in half, offering an exposed view of the midsection serving as habitat. In and around the ship, divers can expect to see goliath grouper and schools of amberjack and cobia.
The Blackthorn suffered a collision in 1980 before being towed to a spot 80 feet deep and sunk as an artificial reef. Today, the wreck is broken into two sections and covered in marine growth: feather duster worms, wire corals, sponges, encrusting corals and other pops of color. On occasion, spotted eagle rays can be found cruising around the wreck.
Sunk 20 miles off Indian Rocks Beach in St. Petersburg, this 180-foot tugboat sits upright and intact. The vessel is often considered one of the best wreck dives in the Tampa and Clearwater areas—thanks to the healthy populations of Spanish mackerel, amberjack, crevalle jack, snapper and sometimes even a passing shark.
Brooke Morton is a freelance writer specializing in the outdoors. She’s also the founder of Sober Outside, a travel company for teetotaling adventure-lovers.