Panama City Beach, Florida
June 28-29, 1997
Dive - Site..................Depth - Time
Well, it was summer and time for the annual Panama City Beach trip with the Atlanta Reef Dwellers. I was unable to get out of town on Friday, so I got up way too early on Saturday morning for the 5 hour drive to Panama City Beach.
A brief round of car trouble slowed me down and it was late in the morning before I pulled into town. I got to the hotel just in time to see my roommate throwing a smoking camera strobe out of the room. Apparently he had just had it serviced and when he plugged it in to charge it up it burst into flames. So much for the service. Between my transmission and his strobe, I hoped that all of our problems were done for the trip.
Saturday's plans were for a dolphin encounter. We met with a representative of the Human-Dolphin Research Institute who was to take us to the encounter. Unfortunately, no one had remembered to invite the dolphins. We did some snorkeling around Shell Island and saw a good number of fish but the dolphins were elusive.
The problem is that the dolphins in Panama City have become almost too used to humans. More specifically, they are too used to humans as a source of food. Whenever a boat pulls up the dolphins come to the boat long enough to see if there is food. If they are fed, they stay. If not, they leave. Since we weren't feeding them (which is actually illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act) they wouldn't stay.
Eventually we did see a few dolphins, such as the one here, but overall I considered it a bust, especially after my experience in Bimini. After we returned to the dock several people rented a pontoon boat to go out and look for the dolphins again. I went back to the room to sleep.
Sunday we headed out for some Gulf diving. There are no reefs in the Panama City area. However, the state of Florida has a very active artificial reef program. These "reefs" are, for the most part, either sunken ships or "trash piles" where debris has been dropped into the water. These items, sitting on the otherwise barren sandy bottom of the Gulf, attract fish from all around. In a few cases we almost had to push our way through a school of baitfish to get to the wrecks.
Our first dive was on the Black Bart . The Bart was a freighter which was sunk as an artificial reef. It sits upright in about 80 feet of water (the top of the wheelhouse is at 50 feet). Visibility was around 30 feet. Dense schools of fish crowded the wreck. There were many angelfish and a surprising number of toadfish.
One interesting thing on the Bart is that about a third of the fish in the wheelhouse were swimming upside down. The divemaster had told us to look out for this but it was still strange to see. I didn't get any pictures because I had lost my Aquashot during the dive and had last seen it 20 feet above me headed for the surface.
Back on the boat I recovered my camera (another dive boat had picked it up off the surface) and we headed for the LOSS Pontoon . The Pontoon was a device used by the Navy for underwater salvage work. This particular one had washed off the back of a tender during a storm and is now part of an artificial reef. Several segments of an old bridge span are nearby as well. (When Panama City Beach built a new bridge the old one was cut into sections and dropped offshore as part of the artificial reef program.) The site is in about 50 feet of water.
For what is essentially a hollow tube, the Pontoon turned out to be a very good dive. The pontoon is completely covered in growth and home to a surprising number of fish. There were a good number of cubbyu juveniles and adults but the most unusual thing we found was an Atlantic Guitarfish lying on the bottom near one of the bridge span sections.
After the pontoon, it was a short boat ride back to shore then a long car ride back to Atlanta. While it certainly can't compare to the Caribbean, Panama City remains the closest decent diving to Atlanta and for that reason remains a place to visit.
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