Shipwrecks and other reefs make Pensacola a historic hotbed for divers

The world took notice of the Pensacola dive scene in 2006 when an 872-foot aircraft carrier, the former USS Oriskany, took her last voyage to become the world’s largest artificial reef — about 25 miles south of Pensacola in the Gulf.

The secret is out, but Northwest Florida has been a haven for scuba divers and snorkelers for decades. The pristine Gulf waters around Pensacola are home to dozens of ghostly shipwrecks—teeming with sea life and begging to be explored by scuba divers.


The Great Carrier Reef and the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail

Sailors called the Oriskany “The Mighty O” when it served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Senator John McCain was a naval aviator flying an A-4 from her decks during the Vietnam War, and flew his fateful mission from the Oriskany when he was shot down over North Vietnam and captured.

Now, The Mighty O is making natural history as The Great Carrier Reef, the flagship of the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail. It’s a bucket list of 12 explorable shipwrecks from Pensacola to Port St. Joe. The dive spots are all detailed in the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail Passport, which serves as a dive log and can be stamped at participating dive shops.

Diving Shipwrecks

Five of those ships lie a short boat ride from Pensacola Pass. It’s quite an incredible experience, seeing stately vessels absorbed into the Gulf habitat. Powerful amberjack, grouper and snapper call these wrecks home, inviting divers of different skills.

The Oriskany sits upright on the bottom in 220 feet of water, its tower up to 84 feet below the surface. The island superstructure, including the bridges, are above the recreational diving limit of 130 feet. Technical divers can land on the flight deck at 145 feet, and the cavernous Hangar Bay beckons at 175 feet.

Another mysterious ship has wowed divers for decades. The San Pablo, also called “the Russian Freighter,” once hauled fruit until it was sunk by a U-Boat near Central America. It was re-floated, only to be sunk again off Pensacola in 1944 — by the U.S. as part of a top-secret weapons test. A radio-controlled boat packed with 3,000 pounds of explosives scattered the San Pablo across the seafloor. Today divers can explore boilers, refrigeration coils, and huge sections of twisted metal, all home to an impressive array of marine life.

Even a lowly supply boat makes a magnificent sight on the seafloor. Sunk in 1993, the Pete Tide II looks like it’s ready to set sail. It stands eerily upright from 100 to 60 feet of water, luring divers to explore the bridge. Three runaway coal barges scuttled during an emergency in 1974 are home to sea life at 50 feet — a favorite for divers to hone their skills.

Pick up your Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail Passport and start your adventure!


Snorkelers Find Heaven Too

Considered the oldest battleship still in existence, the USS Massachusetts has spent the past 97 years rusting at the mouth of Pensacola Bay. In 1920, the retired battleship served as target practice from the battery at Fort Pickens. After weeks of cannon fire, she finally sank in 26 feet of water.

Now an Underwater Archaeological Preserve managed by the state of Florida – the USS Massachusetts takes you back in time more than a century. Her wreckage is a popular shallow diving spot as it is well lit by the sun and swarming with marine life, but it is possible to snorkel the Massachusetts at times, as the top of her wheelhouse still breaks the surface at low tide.

When diving or snorkeling the Mass, caution is advised. Because of her location in the pass, the current rips through her wreckage at a high velocity, except during slack tide. Arrive at the tail end of high tide, and prepare to dive in the slack hour or two before the water starts rushing back out of the pass.

You don’t need a boat to enjoy the underwater world. Public artificial reefs welcome snorkelers on Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key. Typical depths range from 12 to 25 feet.

Three snorkeling reefs have been created for the public. On Pensacola Beach, the Park East snorkel reef lets you take a paddleboard or kayak with your snorkeling gear and dive. It’s located 1.4 miles east of Portofino Island Resort on the Gulf side — about 500 feet offshore.

Pensacola Bay Snorkel Reef offers diving fun in the protected waters near the Fort Pickens gate.

The Perdido Key Reef on Johnson Beach features a 24-module ecosystem resting at a depth of about 10 to 16 feet — starting at 300 feet offshore.

The reef is located off Public Beach Access #1 on Sandy Key Drive, off Johnson’s Beach Rd. There are two range markers that are placed at the end of the walkway to the beach from the parking area on shore to help divers and snorkelers line up with the reef.