Beyond the Beach and Into The Ocean

November 1, 2017

Snorkeling and diving the ideal waters of The Palm Beaches

When my German friend, Astrid, announced she was coming to visit me in Florida, I knew I had to put together an all-star itinerary to show her the best of the Sunshine State.
 
Here was a friend I had known and traveled with for years, and with whom I’d had some of the greatest adventures of my life. We’d gone sailing in the Arctic, sledding in Bavaria and backcountry skiing in Austria. So for Astrid’s first trip to visit me in Florida, I knew I had to roll out the red carpet and show her the best of what my state has to offer.
 
Like me, Astrid is an avid scuba diver, and coming to Florida without heading underwater would be like visiting Bavaria and not seeing a castle.
 
We’ve both explored reefs the world over and encountered some of the most exciting marine life out there. When Astrid asked for a suggestion of where to dive in Florida, I told her I knew just the spot. We would head to The Palm Beaches to dive and snorkel at world-class sites that only in-the-know ocean fanatics have on their radar.
 


The glory of the Gulf Stream
What makes the waters off The Palm Beaches so rich with life and fun to dive, I told Astrid as we arrive at the Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort & Spa, is a little thing called the Gulf Stream.
 
The mighty “river within the sea” acts like a conveyor belt of life, carrying warm water and tropical fish, dolphins, sea turtles, whale sharks and more along with it. The Earth’s second-largest oceanic current, the Gulf Stream also happens to come closer to the shore along The Palm Beaches than any other place along the Eastern seaboard, making the conditions perfect for diving and snorkeling.
 
After a tasty surf and turf dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, 3800 Ocean, Astrid and I hit the sack early to be in shape for the next day’s early wake up call, visions of tropical fish dancing in our heads.
 
Underwater snorkel trail extraordinaire


For our first foray into the waters off The Palm Beaches, Astrid and I started with a leisurely snorkel along the Underwater Snorkel Trail at Phil Foster Park, in the shadow of Blue Heron Bridge.
 
Here, during the two hours leading up to slack tide, the water of Lake Worth Lagoon floods with crystal clear ocean water for a brief window during which you can spot some of the most fascinating ocean animals on the planet, including six different species of seahorses, plus frogfish and neon-hued sea slugs. And since you’re not diving in the open ocean here, the sheltered waters are usually calm.
 
As we pulled into the parking lot, the excitement was palpable. All around us, divers of all levels—from underwater photography pros loaded down with cameras to newbies embarking on their first open water certification dives—were pulling on their wetsuits in the shadow of the bridge and snorkelers were preparing to enter the water.
 
The Underwater Snorkel Trail stretches some 800 feet along a series of submerged boulders and sunken objects that mimic the structure of a natural reef, and it similarly attracts all kinds of exotic denizens.
 
Astrid and I slipped on our masks and fins and kicked straight out from the lifeguard stand toward the floating buoys marking the submerged trail. And then the hammerhead sharks came into view. Not real hammerheads, mind you, but three lifelike statues in situ on the sandy bottom. All around them, tropical fish swirled in the dappled sunlight. The shark statues are just one attraction along the trail, an easy to navigate circuit with sunken surprises like a series of 6 shopping carts just six to ten feet deep, depending on the tide.
 
As we finned along, we kept our eyes trained to the sand and marveled as weird and wonderful things appeared in the crystal clear water. Near the wreck of a small boat, an octopus peered from its hidey-hole. And a flying gurnard—a bottom-dwelling fish with fins that act like legs—walked across the sand. Sergeant majors, cowfish, angelfish, puffer fish and trumpet fish—the tropical creatures were too many to count. But the highlight came as a total surprise and literally out of the blue. I felt Astrid tapping my shoulder and followed her pointing finger to a giant spotted eagle ray, flapping its wings gracefully as it cruised within just a few feet of us.
 
A dive to remember


The next day, as we’re suiting up on a dive boat just offshore from the famed Breakers Palm Beach resort to scuba dive the stretch of coral reef aptly named the Breakers Reef (it stretches for about two miles from north to south, right in front of the hotel). The reefs here are part of the 3rd largest barrier reef system in the world. It’s hard to imagine today’s dive will beat yesterday’s snorkel.
 
But as we strode off the boat and dropped down into water about 55 feet deep over the reef, and a large loggerhead sea turtle instantly comes into view, I was open to the possibility.
 
The coastline of The Palm Beaches is one of the most important sea turtle nesting areas in the Western Hemisphere, attracting loggerheads, green sea turtles and hawksbills. You can even head out on guided night walks for the chance to see them laying their eggs.
 
Just as I’m basking in seeing a sea turtle in its native waters, my attention is drawn to a large nurse shark hiding under a ledge covered with barrel sponges. Astrid and I made wide eyes at each other through our scuba masks as we approached a goliath grouper lollygagging nearby. We got too close for the fish’s comfort, and it bellowed a loud warning boom (the sound comes from its swim bladder), and Astrid and I giggled through our regulators and spewed bubbles into the water at the startling sight.
 
When we surfaced and climbed the ladder back up onto the dive boat, the highlights were too many to count. The Palm Beaches have more than 150 artificial reefs to explore, including many purpose-sunk wrecks. We have barely scratched the surface, but are thrilled with all we’ve seen.
 
“You really have to come back for the goliath grouper aggregation,” the dive master told us, and we probed for more information.
 
Every summer, usually around the end of July, he told us, these enormous fish gather in congregations of up to 90 individuals on nearby wreck sites. Among the largest reef-dwelling fish in the Atlantic and Caribbean, they can grow to be up to 800 pounds. And they come to the warm, shallow waters off The Palm Beaches to spawn. Seeing just one of these enormous animals had been such a thrill—I try to imagine what it would be like to swim among so many of them in one spot.
 
I looked over at Astrid and she said what I was thinking.
 
“It’s a date, right?”
 
For sure, I told her, it’s a dive date.
 


Discover more unmissable underwater experiences in The Palm Beaches.