Although the abundance of marine life might give some basis to this particular region's
nickname, the epithet "Treasure Coast" was actually acquired from the demise of the
luckless Spanish Plate Fleet. This armada was destroyed in 1715 by a hurricane while
bound for Spain with a capacious cargo of gold and silver. Despite the fact that the
bulk of the treasure has never been found, on occasion, the sea has yielded some pieces
from the ill-fated fleet to those fortunate divers who were "in the right place at the
At the very heart of Florida's Treasure Coast is the Palm Beaches,
a stretch of coastline which spans Riviera Beach, down through West Palm Beach and
on to Lake Worth. For decades, the Palm Beaches have been defined as the Southeast retreat
for the rich and famous. Simple cruising down this section of the coasts famed
A1A highway, past the bright sand beaches and stately mansions, will easily substantiate
A little more than twenty years ago, were vacationers so preoccupied with what was happening
on land, almost no one paid attention to what lay offshore. Much less below the surface.
In addition, this portion of Treasure Coast was overlooked as a major dive destination because
the Florida Keys were receiving most of the publicity. All too often
the dive community would hear advertising campaigns encouraging "Dive Pennekamp", but that,
is understandable. In comparison, the reef structure of the Treasure Coast is no match
to the striking coral formations in the Keys. Instead, they share a similar low
profile bottom topography with deep undercuts and ledges like those found off Miami and
Fort Lauderdale. However, they do have one unique advantage over all other diving locations
along Florida's coastline - the Gulf Stream.
This massive oceanic current swings closer to shore to West Palm Beach than anywhere
else along the state. The result is a remarkable catalyst for an environment of warm,
clear blue water (70 to 100 foot visibility is the norm) deposited by the currents steady
northward flow, and a host of marine creatures, some seldom found anywhere else in
Florida. This also gives rise to West Palm Beach's special forte, drift diving. The
drill is quite simple. The dive boat (depending on the operation of choice) lines up
on one of the two main reef tracts that run just offshore. Divers are then dropped in
groups of six to twelve and they are followed by the boat while the current takes
them along the reef. To aid proficiency in ascertaining divers' position, the position
of the divers, each group is assigned a tethered float that marks their exact
location as they drift. While some may view this type of diving as somewhat of an
annoyance, the current (often traveling two to four knots) allows divers to experience
the thrill and grace of drifting over a large expanse of subsea terrain in a short
period of time, with little to no effort! And when you're 60 to 90 feet down
sucking air, time is everything. What makes the Palm Beach area even more compelling is
the noted populace of sea turtles! We all know how envious we can get whenever someone returns
from a dive boasting about swimming with a large sea turtle. Here that type of
bragging might only elicit a yawn. To be more succinct, this area alone has perhaps
the highest number of resident sea turtles per acre than anywhere in the Southeastern United
States. So much so that divers have on occasion reported being outnumbered by these
mammoth marine reptiles during the months of April through June (the peak of
mating and nesting season). Now that's something to boast about!
At present, four of the world's seven species of sea turtles visit the area- green
(Chelonia mydas), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), loggerhead (Caretta careta),
and the colossus of them all, the giant leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) which can
grow to 1,300 pounds. While green and leatherback (rarest of the two) are generally seen
only during their nesting periods, hawksbills, and loggerheads are the most frequently seen
year-round. It is now considered rare not to see one or more of them either cruising
along the bottom or resting under one of the reefs or many ledges found along the
To increase the odds of observing turtles in their environment it is recommended you
venture to the reefs in the 60 to 90 foot range. The reasoning behind this hinges
on West Palm's unique geography. In relation to the rest of the Florida East coast
in the area around the Palm Beaches features a slight eastward protuberance into the sea.
This is coupled with the fact that this region also fronts the narrowest continental shelf
in the state, giving some rise to why the Gulf Stream sweeps in so close. Since it is
further up the state and farther away from the tropics, West Palm's reef system is
initially made up of remnants of ancient coral beds and limestone bedrock. Consisting
mainly of two principal tracts, one located in the 50 to 70 foot range with the second
in the 70 to 100 foot range, both run as a series of broken stretches in a north
south progression along the coast. Some of these locations are recognized by such
names as Valley Reef, Koller's Reef, the Bluffs, Mid Reef, the Anchorage, Double Ledges
and Breakers. Ornately covered with a host of live corals and brightly colored sponges
(most in shades of orange), these deeper reefs feature the type of profound ledge
formations sea turtles rest under, safe from predators and wave surge.
In addition to finding sea turtles, the ledges are also home to many of the things
divers often like to see: schools of assorted reef fish, small tropicals,
lobster and the occasional eagle ray, shark or amberjack. If you're thinking about
taking lobster, it is advisable to check with the dive shops for state rules and
regulations regarding taking game. At present, the carapace of a spiny lobster must
measure three or more inches, or the tail at least 5 1/2 inches in length. The season
runs from August 1 to March 31. Failure to comply with game laws can result in stiff
fines and/or penalties.
In addition to the reefs, fish and sea turtles, the waters of the West Palm Beach
area are not without at least a few wrecks of their own. One of the areas most famous
and well known sites is the wreck of the Mizpah. Sunk intentionally as an artificial
reef more than fifteen years ago, the history of this 185 foot ship goes back a long way.
As the story goes, the Mizpah was a private, steel hulled, luxury yacht, formerly owned
by a Greek tycoon before WWII. Following the onset of the war, she was donated for
services as a troop carrier in the Atlantic. After successfully evading German U-boats
all the way to the close of war, she was later sold and used as a banana freighter.
Like many old and tired ships in the Caribbean, she subsequently found her way to the
Miami River to be used as scrap. Seeing a need for some better fish attractors for
sportfishing in the West Palm Beach area, the Mizpah was purchased for what was to be her
last and final mission.
Sitting upright in 90 feet on a sand bottom, she is still remarkably intact. What
makes this site so memorable is its tremendous coral and other types of marine growth
as well as being home to a large populace of fish, including some of the largest blue
angelfish I have ever seen. The Mizpah is one of the most entertaining wrecks to penetrate
and explore. Before her sinking, all the doors and portholes were removed for divers'
safety, leaving her well-exposed to light for the flushing effect of ever-present currents.
Consequently, lights are seldom needed when exploring the wreck.
Not far from the Mizpah, in fact right next to her, is the wreck of PC11, a
former military patrol craft that was sunk a few years later. A little further
away (approximately 300 yards) on the barren sand bottom is the wreck of
the Amaryllis. Approximately 300 feet in length the Amaryllis is a huge freighter with
only the hull and lower decks remaining. But, like many of the wreck sites here it is
not without copious fish. In addition, the interior of all three of these wrecks abound
with an impressive collection of spiny oysters.
Just a short distance north of the Palm Beach Inlet is the Barge Wreck. While barges
used for artificial reef sites may not quicken the pulse, what sometimes collects around
them just might. From what I have heard, Barge Wreck is home to a couple of large green
morays and the occasional 200 to 300 pound jewfish. Unlike the wreck sites further north
, the barge lays atop a natural reef at a depth of 65 to 75 feet. Many dive operators plan
drifts over the reef and the barge so divers can experience both at the same time.
Not surprising is that the West Palm area is host to a multitude of diving facilities
ready to offer local and vacationing divers just about anything they could ask for.
I do most of my Palm Beach diving with The Scuba Club, Inc. Billed as the "Country Club for
Divers", they are a full-scale facility with a well stocked and staffed Pro Shop and most
of latest lines of diving equipment and rental gear. They also have their own classroom
with training pool, bathrooms with hot showers, swimming pool and a steam room,
as well as their own boat dock on the premises. What makes the diving here even more
enjoyable is an overnight stay in their upstairs, fully furnished apartment, large
enough for four, and the fee starts at $100 per night. Most significant is that while
most of their attention is focused on safety first, the "Club" is able to provide trips
that are not only convenient, but also equally exciting and diverse. Going
out each day, all trips are conducted as a series of one tank, escorted dives
(with at least two divemasters) on the outer reefs and/or wrecks. Once the dive
is completed, they make a quick return trip (approximately 15 to 20 minutes) to their
dock so that the divers can cool off in the pool while degassing for their next
dive. It beats sitting in the boat under the hot sun for an hour.
Despite their continual growth in popularity, Palm Beach dive sites are never as
crowded as those in the upper Florida Keys. With visibility normally 60
feet or better, (although 90 to 100 feet is not uncommon) there is always an
abundance of marine life for the photographer or sightseer. In knowing this,
I find the lack of attendance somewhat strange. My best reasoning is that quite
likely, most local divers (in the state of Florida) as well as those out-of-state,
are still not aware of West Palm's undersea find. And if that should be the case,
do you think I should tell them?