PLENTY TO EXPLORE IN SOUTHWEST FLORIDA'S SURPRISING DIVE SPOTS
On the 20-minute boat ride out of Wiggins Pass and into the Gulf of Mexico, student scuba divers show their nervousness in different ways. A few are chatty, while others are quiet and deep in thought. Their dive instructors assure them all will be OK. Their dive training has been thorough and they have passed all the tests. Today is their final open-water dive conducted over the past two days, the last remaining piece in earning an open-water dive certification. The winds are calm as the 26-foot Dusky dive boat pulls up on the anchoring spot where the divers will enter the water. “There’s an incredible amount of life out there,” explains T.J. Jett, the shop manager for Naples Marina & Excursions, which offers NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors) and PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) certifications. “Right off the coast is an entire world waiting to be explored, and our instructors can teach you how.”
Once certified, divers can travel around Florida and the world exploring the undersea realm. Dive tanks can be rented and charter boats arranged to take you to popular destinations. However, when you live in Southwest Florida, there are plenty of fabulous dives in our backyard.
Freshwater sources such as the Caloosahatchee and Cocohatchee rivers flow into the Gulf and bring in nutrients and sediments. Tarpon, snook, jacks, mackerel, turtles and scores of other types of animals and fish know where these freshwater flows are coming from, and hunt the smaller animals that are carried in on the flows. Shallow-water dives also offer a look at a variety of nudibranchs, a soft, seagoing slug that can be brilliant in color.
Collier and Lee counties have more than 35 wrecks and artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. They offer a wide variety of fish, including impressive goliath grouper that weigh up to 500 pounds, schools of fast-swimming amberjack, mean-looking barracuda, Southern rays with 4-foot-plus wingspans and even whale sharks.
A popular dive spot is the sunken USS Mohawk, a 165-foot Coast Guard cutter that is perfectly upright and located on Charlie’s Reef, 28 miles west of Red Fish Pass. The bow of the Mohawk faces due east, and the dive is 87 feet to the sand, and 32 feet to the ship’s crow’s nest. The Mohawk was involved in D-Day in World War II, and was sunk as an artificial reef in July of 2012.
“Goliath grouper are one of the big attractions around here,” says Brent Argabright, owner of Dean’s Dive Center in Fort Myers, which he founded 24 years ago. “The Mohawk is a very good place to see these grouper and it’s a fantastic site. In addition to grouper we see also amberjack on that wreck, along with a lot of different types of baitfish.”
Barracuda also float as silent sentinels near the wreck, drifting in and out of the shadows, following divers around. The sleek fish offer an extremely menacing appearance with their cigar-shaped bodies and jagged teeth, but attacks on divers are rare.
“The barracuda don’t mess with you, but it can be a little hairy going through a school of them to dive the Mohawk,” reports Capt. Steve Hernden, a dive master and owner of Island Coast Excursions, which takes up to four people on charter dive trips on a 24-foot Wellcraft Walkaround. “It’s the best wreck to dive because of the profile of it. You can get two dives off the wreck.”
The first Mohawk dive is a deep one of more than 80 feet, where divers can see the propellers and rudder of the ship, then travel along the length of the vessel and see the superstructure. The second dive is shallower, and can involve actually going into the ship.
“The superstructure is mostly open and there are usually three points of entry,” says Hernden, who charges $125 per diver for an all-day trip. He provides a cooler with ice and storage for lunches and snacks. The run to the Mohawk takes between an hour and a half to two hours from meeting areas such as the Pineland Marina or Punta Rassa Boat Ramp. “So it’s really bright and light, not like a penetration dive in the hull where there can be some really tight compartments,” Hernden adds.
Shipwrecks, artificial reefs and natural ledges are the three types of diving locations available in Collier and Lee counties. Dive sites that people may be familiar with include other wrecks such
as the Pegasus, Fantastico and Bayronto, and the rubble from the old Edison Bridge, which was sunk in 1993 and is located about 16 miles southwest of the Sanibel Lighthouse. Other types of structures include old cellphone towers that have been cut up and sunk.
“The majority of the shipwrecks that are off of our coast require an advanced open-water diving certification,” Argabright says. “Getting to that level takes some time and dedication, but it’s definitely something people can learn. Anyone can learn to dive unless they have a physical limitation, such as a history of heart attacks or asthma.”
In addition to all the artificial reefs and sunken ships, the local natural coral heads attract bait and are a smaller fish hideout, and that brings along the bigger fish that feed on them. Divers, too, are attracted to these structures because that’s where the fish are located.
“People dive in Southwest Florida for what they can see, not for the water clarity,” Jett notes. “Because of the rivers that flow into the Gulf, the water is not going to be as clear as it is on the East Coast of Florida or in the Florida Keys. Still, when the wind lays down you and the water is right you can see 40 to 60 feet.”
For about nine months out of the year the weather and water is warm in Southwest Florida, but during the winter months you are almost always going to want to wear a wetsuit. When the cold fronts come down from the north, it can be as cold or colder as it is on land, and often more dangerous because of the winds. “When it comes to diving the water temperature here is a factor, because there is a swing of 85 degrees in the summer to 60 degrees in the winter,” Argabright states.
More than 10 million people are certified divers in the United States, according to statistics from PADI, and learning how to dive has become easier over the years.
“The days of having to be a super human diver are over—we have 10-year-olds that have learned,” adds Argabright, a certified PADI instructor. “When I first got certified, you had to hold your breath and
COLLIER AND LEE COUNTIES HAVE MORE THAN 35 WRECKS AND ARTIFICIAL REEFS IN THE GULF OF MEXICO.
swim 100 yards. That has faded away, because one of the first rules in scuba diving is never hold your breath. The physical requirements are not the same as they used to be.
“If you are an educated person, and you trust your wits and are calm in situations, it’s a very safe sport,” Argabright continues. “And you are always diving with a buddy. That is crucial. In April and May when the water gets warmer, the diving in Southwest Florida only gets better.”
Becoming a certified diver consists of six lessons taught in the classroom and in the water over several weeks, and the cost is around $150 for the lessons. Beginning divers start out in the pool before going out in the ocean or in a lake. Divers are also responsible for paying a registration fee to NAUI or PADI, and buying their own mask, snorkel, fins, weight belt and other dive accessories.
Divers don’t need a boat to go diving, and some go right in the water off the beach.
“Venice is known as the shark tooth capital of the world,” says Jim Joseph, who founded Fantasea Scuba Dive Center in Port Charlotte 22 years ago. “People go in at the beach and look for fossilized shark teeth, and they find a bunch of them.”
Creating and capturing underwater memories, however, is what most divers are after. A shark tooth may make for a nice souvenir, but seeing big fish and other marine life is something most people will never forget.
“We can do a custom itinerary for divers,” explains Hernden, who founded his charter boat business two years ago with his wife, Diana. “For example, we’ll go to the Mohawk, and also the Captiva Blue Hole, which is about five miles away. That’s an all-day trip.”
The Captiva Blue Hole is an ancient sinkhole, with a lip that is about 90 feet in depth, and a center than drops to 150-feet deep or more.
“When you get out as far as the Mohawk and Blue Hole, the water clears up and visibility improves,” says Hernden. “When I first saw Blue Hole, and also the Mohawk just a few months after it was sunk, I was inspired to open my business. I really feel like people need to see these beautiful dive spots. It’s really that spectacular.”
“THE DAYS OF HAVING TO BE A SUPER HUMAN DIVER ARE OVER—WE HAVE 10-YEAROLDS THAT HAVE LEARNED.” —BRENT ARGABRIGHT, OWNER OF DEAN’S DIVE CENTER IN FORT MYERS
Dive boat (top left) on point for Naples Marina & Excursions. Ramiro Palma and Kent Bucciere (top right) hold spearguns on deck of the USS Mohawk, which was sunk as an artificial reef. Shipwrecks (bottom) are also popular dive spots.
An eel (top left) glides between coral. Ramiro Palma (bottom right) peers into the Mohawk.