FELICIA KITZMILLER / News Herald Writer
PANAMA CITY — Millions have enjoyed the sugar sand beaches and clear waters of the Emerald Coast, but far fewer have seen the attractions that wait off the coast, below the surface of the inviting waters.
The Panhandle is the No. 2 most popular drive-to recreational diving location in the country, only behind the Florida Keys, dive instructor and enthusiast Danny Grizzard said. The Panama City Beach Convention and Visitor’s Bureau’s website lists more than a dozen popular dive locations including shipwrecks, bridge remnants, sunken Army tanks, aircrafts and more than 50 artificial reefs teeming with marine life.
In the months following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster that devastated the economy of the Florida Panhandle, Roger Smith, an archeologist with the Florida Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources, said he found himself contemplating ways to help boost tourism in the struggling region.
Having recently completed two successful public education and interpretation projects related to diving – a collection, or trail, of underwater archeological preserve wrecks from the Keys to Pensacola, and another trail of the very popular fleet of sunken Spanish galleons in South Florida – Smith decided to stick to what he knows and honed in on the region’s already successful diving industry.
After contacting friends in the region, an idea has begun to take shape for an interactive map and trail of Panhandle shipwrecks that will hopefully pique the public’s interest and help bring people back to the Panhandle.
“This would present your classic shipwreck, because when people go diving, that’s what they want to see,” said Gizzard, who is helping to organize local dive shops to assist in the effort.
The trail will likely consist of about a dozen shipwrecks spread from Mexico Beach to Pensacola. He and his team are currently meeting with people in the dive community to take suggestions for sites and put together a list. Some of Panama City’s attractions in consideration for the trail include the SS Tarpon, a steamer used in the Spanish American War to bring troops and supplies to Cuba; the Black Bart, the Grey Ghost, and the Red Sea, all tug boats; and the Chippewa, a coastal freighter.
“The history of each one of these sites is very interesting,” Smith said.
The trail will be designed to accommodate divers with different levels of experience and will have ships at varying depths, Grizzard said.
The trail will be branded as a cohesive unit and “passports,” similar to those produced by the National Parks Service, will be produced to encourage people to visit each of the dive sites and check them off on their passport. Brochures and an interactive website map that can be linked to by dive shops and tourism websites will hopefully spread the word about the trail and what it has to offer, Smith said.
“When people think about coming to the Panhandle they can see that there’s a shipwreck trail and hopefully it’ll keep them there a day or two longer,” he said.
So far, the response to the project has been very positive and energetic, Smith said. He wants the project to be community based and is looking for people who have or are interested in shooting underwater video and photos of the wrecks for the project. Such contributions will enhance the quality of the marketing of the trail, and will speed the project along. Smith said he wants to have the trail and its supporting materials completed by spring 2012.
Though he is not involved in commercial diving anymore, Grizzard said he has owned and operated dive shops and dive charters and he knows almost all of the local dive leaders and he is excited about the potential this project holds for Panama City and the entire region.
“I know how tough last year was, and not just on the dive shops. I really think tourism affects us all,” he said.
Though the project is geared toward tourists, Smith said he thinks it will appeal to more than a few locals as well.
“If you live in Florida, you really need to learn how to dive because there’s so much under the water and it’s quiet and it’s peaceful and it’s beautiful,” he said.
People interested in helping with the project can contact Smith by email at email@example.com