Whether purposely submerged to create whole-ship artificial reefs or destroyed by fierce storms or collisions, Florida's shipwrecks are marine-life magnets. Over time, nature coats the haunting, cavernous vessels with flora and fauna. The resulting feeding grounds attract sea creatures up and down the food chain—and divers drawn to the vibrant spectacle.
Splashdown Divers, Boynton Beach
The crystal-blue waters just outside the Boynton Inlet are considered one big dive site. "Our small inlet restricts boat traffic, so there's not a lot of pressure on the reef and pollution is negligible," says local marine biologist and boat captain Lynn Simmons, owner of Splashdown Divers. The lush, underwater landscape is nurtured by the Gulf Stream and includes three whole-ship artificial reefs: Captain Tony (the former M.V. Becks, renamed in honor of a local dive charter captain), a Dutch freighter resting 85 feet below the surface; the 95-foot-deep Budweiser Bar (a nod to the brewer that help fund sinking the coastal freighter in 1987); and the M.V. Castor, sunk in 2001 in 110 feet of water. Grouper, turtles, eels, and sharks are among the multicolored marine life awaiting wreck divers. "Bring a bathing suit and a dive certification card," adds Simmons, "and I will do the rest."
Wreck Trek 3.0, Florida Keys
The Wreck Trek 3.0 challenge adds an extra incentive to dive the Florida Keys trail of shipwrecks and artificial reefs. The special dive program, which runs through January 2016, includes nine shipwrecks from Key Largo south to Key West. Participants receive a passport-looking Florida Keys Wreck Trek logbook and earn a stamp for every wreck dive. Complete five wrecks (one in each part of the Keys) to receive a personalized diving collage print, or do all nine wrecks to be eligible to win free dive trips and equipment. "People love the overall adventure of the shipwreck trail and the chance to improve and progress as a diver," says former scuba instructor and avid Keys diver Julie Botteri. "You can take advantage of the wreck-diving specialty training available from the diving pros here and achieve a goal of completing dives along the entire length of the Keys."
Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail, Pensacola to Port St. Joe
Pick up a free Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail Passport from a local dive shop or dive operator trail partner to choose a wreck to explore. The passport includes a log and stickers to document each completed dive. There are also brief profiles of the trail's 12 wreck sites, including the world's largest artificial reef, the 888-foot-long U.S.S. Oriskany, nicknamed "the Great Carrier Reef."
Inside Tip: In October 1967, the flight deck of the U.S.S. Oriskany was the departure point for the ill-fated bombing mission of U.S. Senator John McCain, then a Navy fighter pilot. McCain's plane was shot down over Vietnam, where he was held as a prisoner of war until 1973.