Terry Ward of Scuba Diving Magazine visited PCB recently and spent three (3) days diving with us. The article came out in the January issue.
The following is a reprint of the article.
Panama City Surprise
Florida’s spring-break capital is bustling with wrecks, bridge spans and some of the stat’s fishiest dives —By Terry Ward
The booty music blasting from beachfront party clubs like Club La Vela on Panama City’s white-sand shores feels a universe away when you submerge in the clear Gulf waters a few miles offshore. The reefs here don’t hose the diversity of tropical species you’ll see in Florida’s southern waters, but sponge-covered limestone shelves attract their share of wrasses, butterfl angelfish and slipper lobster. Panama City’s real calling cards for divers, however, are big animals — whale shark and manta sightings occur in the summer months —-and adrenaline-charged wreck diving, with the best action found on the 30 or so wrecks and spans sunken at depths of around 65 feet and below.
Dive shops classify trips into “inshore” and “offshore” sites, but don’t let the wording confuse you. Inshore sites are typically around three to six miles offshore and bottom out between 60 and 80 feet, while offshore sites are a little farther out (up to 13 miles), offering some solid wreck and span dives at depths averaging between 90 and 105 feet. Whether you’re inshore or offshore, you;ll see the same tropical and game species, for the most part—what sharks are more often sighted inshore—but the offshore sites tend to be more abuindant with fish life, since they’re lee frequently dived.
Diving inshore, urchins and sponges grow thick on the wreck of the Red Sea, scuttled in 2009. It’s an easily penetrated wreck sitting at 70 feet and holds lots of everything—from goliath groupers pushing the 300 pound mark to smaller jacks and damsels. Look for blue chromis flitting in and out of urchins, and rough-headed blennies poking from sponges in the steel. Spadefish often patrol over the engine room and smokestack.
A shore boat ride away at Hathaway Span 12, divemasters sometimes have trouble seeing where to anchore for all the schooling baitballs that cloud the span like silvery shadows. Fin across the bottom to shelter from the current — if you’re lucky, you might see a seahorse hooked tight to a weed —and then cross back over the top of the span to mingle with the bailballs and hunting amberjack packs.
Panama City’s offshore dives deliver more sunken bridge spans and wrecks, including the Florida Aquatic and Marine Institute Tugs — two tugboat wrecks lying on top of each other (the bottom wreck is just the hull) in about 100 feet of water. Nearby the Accokeek, the area’s largest wreck at nearly 200 feet long, is a former Navy supply ship that sits upright on its keel. The wheelhouse is at 65 feet and there are plenty of opportunities for penetration. Look for sandbar sharks and nurse sharks here.
“In Panama City, there’s not one thing to hang our advertising on, like the Vanderbery (Key West) or the Oriskany (Pensacola),” says Tony Snow of Dive Locker, summing up the Panama City diving experience. “But we do have a lot of wrecks and bridge spans. Come here and you’ll have lots of places to dive.”
You might even get a snorkel bonus too — on the way back to shore, dolphins are often spotted finning the surface, and captains are only too happy to cut the engines and let you join them for a frolic.
NEED TO KNOW
WHEN TO GO Year-round
DIVE CONDITIONS Water temps can vary by as much as 30 degrees throughout the year with summer through late October generally above 80 degrees and winter months dipping into the low 60s. Average visibility is 50 feet, but August through October can reach up to 100 feet.
OPERATORS DIVE LOCKER (DIVELOCKER.NET) RUNS DAILY TRIPS INSHORE AND OFFSHORE. Rooms at the Shores of Panama (shoresofpanamacitybeach.com) start from $119. per night.
PRICE TAG DIVE LOCKER charges $79 for two tank dives inshore and $89 for a two tank day of diving offshore.