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Time To Dive – Along Panama City’s Shipwreck Trail

By Franklin H. Price, Archaeologist, Bureau of Archaeological Research, Division of Historical Resources, Florida Department of State
Photography by David Benz

Panama City is known not only for its white sandy beaches and sunshine, but also for its phenomenal shipwreck diving.Visiting a vessel underwater is an unforgettable experience. The adventure of exploring a wreck is breathtaking, whether the dive site is a wreck lost in a maritime disaster or a deliberately placed artificial reef. Each of these ships has a unique history and stands witness to times long past, vividly preserved in its last underwater resting place. Each wreck offers fascinating structures to explore and teems with marine life, including massive schools of fish.

Shipwreck Diving Panama City

Five of Panama City’s wrecks are part of the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail, a cooperative partnership between the Florida Department of State and local dive communities, which highlights outstanding dive sites in northwest Florida. The trail consists of 12 exciting shipwrecks between Pensacola and Port St. Joe. Visitors can get a passport for the trail at participating dive shops and have it validated with a signature and sticker at each stop along the way. Once completed, divers receive a certification card from the Florida Department of State.Panama City has contributed five shipwrecks to the Trail: FAMI Tugs, USS Strength, USS Accokeek, USS Chippewa, and Black Bart.

According to JD Moore, divemaster at Panama City Beach-based dive charter operator Diver’s Den, early spring to early fall is the best time of year to dive. “There is a run of giant southern stingrays that is followed by cobia and various other marine creatures.Around middle May, the water temperature starts to creep up above the frigid 55 degree winter temperatures. It goes from 7mm wetsuits to rash guard and board shorts as the spring and summer arrive.Visibility is on average around 30-60 feet depending on algae blooms and the amount of rainfall we have.” The time of day is another consideration to take into account when planning a dive trip. “It’s always going to be busy during the spring and summer, but the early bird gets the worm. You’re going to always have competition on the public sites but usually from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. is the best time in the day to dive. The sun is at its highest and the water brightens up with the sunlight penetrating through.”

The first of these five Shipwreck Trail dive sites offers a unique setting.Divers are in for a rare treat when they visit the site of the FAMI tugs, two tugboats resting one on top of the other on the bottom of the sea. There is not a dive quite like it anywhere.Here, courtesy of the force of the ocean, divers can explore two wrecks at once. Originally tethered end to end under 100-feet of water, a powerful storm lifted one tug off the seabed and literally dropped it on top of the other. This is no small feat, considering that each tug is more than 85- feet long.Tons of steel were thrown across the seafloor as if the two were toy boats.

Divemaster JD Moore remembers one of his favorite diving experiences at the FAMI tugs. “It was the middle of June and a gorgeous day to be on the water.Visibility was between 60- 80 feet and the water temperature was a warm 78 degrees Fahrenheit. I dropped down to tie in and as I get to the wreck and was wrapping the chain around a secure fixture, two giant spotted eagle rays came gently gliding past me.They were huge. At least a seven-foot wingspan and it looked like they didn’t have a care in the world as they were swimming with ease. They had a school of jacks swimming with them; I’m assuming looking for a free meal with anything that they disturbed. I swam with them and they didn’t care that I was there. When I turned around to go back to the wreck there were two giant Goliath groupers sitting at the tie-in chain waiting on me. I estimate they were between 200 to 400 pounds.It was truly one of the best dives I’ve ever had. It’s not too often that you get to dive with such amazing and large creatures and it was an experience I will never forget.”

The second of Panama City’s contributions to the Trail is a minesweeper with a storied past.USS Strength fought at Iwo Jima and Okinawa and was attacked by both a kamikaze raid and a midget sub, but she made it back to home port, nonetheless.After the war, she served as a training platform for US Navy divers in Washington, DC, and later in Panama City.Sunk at her present location in 1987, she spent years lying on her side. A hurricane in 1995 righted her, and now the shipwreck is upright, but her hull is broken in two. Divers can explore between the two sections amid spectacular schools of fish, and they might spy a resident Goliath grouper that peeks its head out from one of the portholes.

The fleet tug USS Accokeek is another former US Navy vessel that has become a popular dive site on the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail. USS Accokeek served in faraway places like the Panama Canal, Okinawa, Lake Michigan, Labrador, and the South Atlantic. The end of her career was spent with the US Navy dive school in Panama City, where for 13-years she was sunk and refloated in training exercises before being placed on the bottom for a final time in 2000. Now visitors can swim through clouds of fish that circle the structure.

Black Bart is Panama City’s fourth wreck on the Trail. She was christened Vulcano del Golfo, a 185-feet long and 38-feet wide oil rig supply vessel built in Lockport, Louisiana. She plied Gulf waters for years before becoming an artificial reef.Sunk in 1993, she was placed off Panama City to memorialize Navy Supervisor of Salvage Captain Charles “Black Bart” Bartholomew, and bears his name today. The ship has several levels to explore, with the holds at 80-feet, the deck at 60-feet, and the superstructure at 40- feet of depth.Divers can also investigate the wheelhouse, a galley full of appliances, and the ship’s head.

Shipwreck Diving Panama City

The fifth shipwreck on the Trail off Panama City is USS Chippewa, a US Navy tug launched in 1942. The tug worked from Newfoundland to Morocco to the Caribbean Sea. She once carried a torpedo bomber and broke speed records for her class.Sunk by the Panama City Experimental Dive Unit in 1990 as a training platform, she sits upright on the seafloor and offers plenty of structure to explore.

These sites represent just five of the many shipwrecks that make Panama City a world-class dive destination.

Diver’s Den’s divemaster JD Moore states, “Diving out of Panama City is, bar none, one of the best diving experiences you will ever have. I have made more than 500 dives out of Panama City.It is definitely the favorite dive destination I have been to. The marine life is phenomenal; the visibility is usually great depending on the weather and circumstances. The cool thing about diving out of Panama City is that you can dive here every day and still will not have seen all the wrecks and natural lime stone reefs we have to offer. We have everything from giant bridge span trusses to the smallest tugs. We have military tanks, fighter jets, tugboats, giant Hovercrafts, and anything else your heart desires to dive on as a wreck. You’re always bound to see something amazing and, even if nothing giant or majestic swims by, the healthy amount of small marine life our wrecks hold is out of this world.Diving out of Panama City truly is like none other.”

If you are a scuba diver, these sites are waiting for you to explore.If you ever thought about getting scuba certified, the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail gives you an excuse to dive right in with both feet.

“Take only pictures, leave only bubbles”

For more information, see floridapanhandledivetrail.com

The coordinates for the five wrecks:

FAMI Tugs 29º 58.132’ N, 085º 51.259’ W
USS Accokeek 29º 58.475’ N, 085º 51.915’ W
Black Bart 30º 03.648’ N, 085º 49.433’ W
USS Chippewa 29º 57.700’ N, 085º 48.220’ W
USS Strength 30º 01.936’ N, 085º 42.413’ W

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