Break out the wetsuit and booties, and check out the unbelievable undersea beauty of our scuba Panhandle Shipwreck trail. Winter diving? You can see the difference. Visibility and sealife make winter diving the choice.
Think of scuba diving in the winter along the Gulf and you’re like, “What? Brrrrrrr…”
But wait, there’s a beautiful, simple science behind why you should try winter diving in the mild Gulf.
You can see the difference. Crystal clear azure waters. Sealife swarming artificial reefs. There’s an aircraft carrier, a “fake-Russian” freighter, and so much more – epic keystones along the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail.
First, the science. It doesn’t rain here as often in the winter, so there’s less runoff from the bays to disrupt visibility. The offshore and mid-shore Gulf waters don’t cool as fast as the land and shallow bays.
The majestic sea life we love to see here follows the warmer water offshore. We get more things to look at and greater visibility to see them.
The gear? Plan on thicker wetsuits – say 5 mm. Our local dive shops can help you choose the right fit.
Pick up a Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail Passport at participating dive shops. It’s a dive guide and dive log, with stamps for some must-see shipwrecks. Five shipwrecks in the passport are just a short boat ride from the Pensacola Pass.
The Mighty O – The Great Carrier Reef
As you descend below 85 feet, the tall shape of a smokestack appears out of the blue, circled by squadrons of amberjack. Slowly, the superstructure and massive hulk of an 872-foot aircraft carrier appear – the world’s largest artificial reef. Welcome to the final resting place of the Mighty O – the former USS Oriskany. We call her The Great Carrier Reef.
The Oriskany stands upright on the sandy seafloor 220 feet, some 25 miles from Pensacola, as if she’s ready to launch a ghost squadron of A-4’s. She boasts a proud history as a fighting warship from the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
The bottom is well beyond the depth for recreational divers, but the stack reaches up to about 84 feet, and the spectacular island superstructure looms above the recreational diving limit of 130 feet. The flight deck (145 feet) and open hangar bays (175 feet) are deep rewards for technical divers.
The Russian Freighter
The 315-foot San Pablo, dubbed “The Russian Freighter,” was born in Ireland. It sunk twice: first by a German U-boat off Costa Rica. It was re-floated, but then as the cooler story goes, we (the USA) sunk it as part of a secret weapons test off Pensacola, with a radio-controlled boat packed with 3,000 pounds of explosives. Sea drone/missiles! Wow.
Now divers can explore the freighter’s splintered parts in about 75-85 feet of water about 8-9 miles south of Pensacola Beach. Her wreckage is very scattered, but her boilers are her most recognizable features. Schools of baitfish frequent the wreck, which in turn attract grouper, snapper, cobia to the site. The wreckage is also a great spot for underwater photography.
YTD – 14 – Still Tending Divers
One of two U.S. Navy diving tenders sunk as an artificial reef in 95 feet of water, YDT-14 now still serves divers! Explore YDT-14’s upper structure around 65 feet, home to resident barracudas, down to the waterline at 100 feet.
The Pete Tide II
The Pete Tide II stands upright from 100 to 60 feet of water – like it just stopped along the bottom for re-fitting. Skilled divers can join the fish exploring the open bridge and three decks of superstructure. The intact pilothouse, which you can swim through, is often teeming with mesmerizing schools of spadefish and minnows. Keep an eye out for wahoo and blackfin tuna as well.
Three Coal Barges
Three Coal Barges broke free in 1974 and were sunk by demo charges set by Navy demolition teams just a few miles from shore. Today the barges lie end-to-end in a field of bridge rubble, creating a rich undersea habitat in just 50 feet of water. The closest of the artificial reefs and its shallow depths provide an easier dive for beginners.
Who You Gonna Call?
We know diving in unfamiliar territory isn't always ideal. Explore our list of dive partners below to find someone that can make your next Pensacola dive your best trip yet.
Sean Smith is a native of Liverpool, England, but has been Gulf Coastified since he moved to Pensacola in 1992 after serving as a weather specialist in the Air Force. A journalist and writer for more than 20 years, he loves to share his affection for the natural beauty of Pensacola and the Northwest Florida Gulf Coast.