Off South Florida's Coast: Sunken Ships, Limestone Statues And More

by Kristen Desmond LeFevre Nov 2017 Also on Digital Edition

South Florida’s waters are full of mysterious artifacts: sunken and wrecked ships; hunks of steel; leftover drainage culverts; limestone statues; ruins from demolished buildings, bridges and highways; even specially engineered sinkable concrete modules. Once they’re underwater—used statewide as part Florida’s more than 3,000 artificial reefs—the sea takes over, transforming these man-made objects into reef structures full of corals, sponges, crustaceans, bait fish, tropical fish, sport fish, sharks and sea turtles. South Florida boasts more than 370 of these artificial reefs. Whether you’re a boater, fisherman, snorkeler or scuba diver, here’s your guide to what’s right offshore.

Reefs in shallow waters are accessible at Pepper Park Beach and north into Indian River County.

St. Lucie County:

The Urca De Lima

reef type: single wreck

dive type: SCUBA, free diving or snorkeling

average depth: 15 feet

Coordinates: 27° 30.317’ N / 80° 17.95’ W Easily accessed via Pepper Park Beach, the Urca de Lima’s wooden hull is all that remains of a Spanish fleet sunk by a hurricane off Fort Pierce in 1715. Five replica cannons have been placed near the wreck to enhance the area. Resting just 200 yards off the beach, the wreck was named Florida’s first Underwater Archaeological Preserve.

Pro tip: Visit during summer when seas are calm and visibility peaks at 50 feet.

Civic Center Reef

reef type: single wreck and concrete

dive type: SCUBA, free diving

average depth: 55 feet

Coordinates: 27° 26.743’ N / 80° 10.214’ W After sustaining significant damage during the 2004 hurricane season, the St. Lucie Civic Center was demolished. One thousand tons of the resulting rubble was placed atop a 140-foot sunken barge, creating a spectacular reef with 19 feet of profile—all from materials that otherwise would’ve taken up space in landfills. It’s a personal favorite of the county’s Coastal Resources Supervisor Jim Oppenborn. “Divers will see a lot of bait fish, goliath grouper, snook, snapper, things like that,” he says. “It’s a real pretty reef.”

Fish America Foundation Reef

reef type: single wreck and concrete

dive type: SCUBA

average depth: 60 feet

Coordinates: 27° 31.213’ N / 80°11.169’ W

Made possible by a 2009 grant of $10,000 from the Fish America Foundation along with 500 tons of donated materials from Florida Power & Light, this reef was constructed from a barge, concrete utility poles and culverts. Snook, porkfish, jacks, spadefish, surgeonfish, goliath grouper, nurse sharks, stingrays and even lionfish can be seen here.

If You Sink It, They Will Come

Between 70 and 100 artificial reefs are deployed each year in Florida, using a combination of state, federal, local and private money, including taxes on fishing licenses, fishing gear and boat fuel through the Sport Fish Restoration Program.

A recent economic analysis funded by Florida Sea Grant and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shows that fishing and diving activity on artificial reefs annually:

• Provides 39,118 jobs for Floridians

• Generates $3.1 billion of economic activity

• Accrues $1.3 billion in income to Floridians

• Produces $250 million in state revenues

“The return on our investment with artificial reefs is priceless,” says Keith Mille, who oversees the FWC’s Artificial Reef Program. “Both for the fishing and diving community and for the fisheries.” Mille says that studies conducted by tourist interest group Visit Florida show that people will fly and drive to places known to be good destinations for fishing and diving.

Martin County:

Wickstrom Corridor

reef type: multi-wreck site and reef modules

dive type: SCUBA

average depth: 188 feet

Coordinates: 27° 13.492’ N / 80° 00.318’ W Named for Florida Sportsman magazine founder Karl Wickstrom who donated $13,500 of the $17,500 purchase price, this 168-foot steel coastal freighter was sunk in 2003. Today, this deep-water site hosts hogfish, snapper, amberjack spadefish and grouper. In 2005, several Reefmaker modules were added to enhance the corridor between the Wickstrom and the other wrecks at this site, including the Tree Barge, the High Queen and the Zeppo.

Nearshore Reefs A, B and C

reef type: concrete and steel

dive type: SCUBA, free diving or snorkeling

average depth: 20 feet

Coordinates: 27° 13.533’ N /  80° 10.647’ W (Tiger Shores) Built to offset the impact of beach renourishment projects, this trio of reefs was constructed using small pieces from the demolished Evans-Crary Bridge. (Larger pieces were used to create the Evans-Crary Bridge Pile Reef.) Nearshore Reef C boasts the heaviest population of marine life—teeming with a variety of juvenile tropical fish plus spadefish, porkfish, snook, goliath grouper, stingrays and more.

Evans-Crary Reef Bridge Pile Reef

reef type: concrete, steel, aluminum and PVC

dive type: SCUBA, free diving or snorkeling

average depth: 20 feet

Coordinates: 27° 09.346’ N / 80° 03.368’ W Located just five miles offshore from the St. Lucie Inlet is one of Martin County’s most successful artificial reefs. The complex surfaces of the former bridge’s deck spans provide an ideal habitat for barracuda, spotted eagle rays, yellowtail snapper and grouper.

Pro tip: Keep a lookout for feeding frenzies, which are often spotted at this site.

Although artificial reefs have been deployed off of Florida’s coasts since the 1940s, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has run the program since 1982, cooperating with local county governments to permit, develop and deploy between 70 and 100 artificial reefs each year in Florida.

Palm Beach County:

Mizpah Corridor

reef type: multi-wreck site

dive type: SCUBA

average depth: 75 feet

Coordinates: 26° 47.18’ N / 80° 0.96’ W In 1968, the 185-foot Greek luxury liner Mizpah was sunk about a mile northeast of the Palm Beach Inlet. The wreck’s three distinct levels are especially attractive to goliath grouper, along with moray eels, fish, eagle rays, spiny oysters, tarpon and soft corals. Just 300 yards to the northeast lies the 441-foot banana freighter Amaryllis, which washed ashore on Singer Island during a 1965 hurricane. The ship’s lower deck and helm shelter divers from the Gulfstream, making it easy to drift the length of the wreck. The newest addition to the corridor is the Ana Cecilia—a 170-foot freighter that once carried humanitarian goods to Cuba (and later cocaine from Haiti). From August through October, the Ana Cecilia is a spawning site for goliath groupers, but you can find large barracuda, blue runner, African pompano, sailfish and sea turtles year-round.

Pro Tip: The Mizpah Corridor is a protected fish sanctuary. Spearfishing, shell collecting and lobstering are prohibited.

Zion Train Corridor

reef type: multi-wreck site and concrete

dive type: SCUBA

average depth: 75 feet

Coordinates: 26° 57.782’ N / 80° 00.44’ W Just a mile north of the Jupiter Inlet lies the 164-foot long cargo ship Zion Train. Sunk in 2003, its bow was torn away by a hurricane, giving divers views of the goliath groupers that congregate there. North of Zion Train you’ll find Miss Jenny, an upside-down barge that is home to gag groupers and black groupers. Follow the rebar trail leading to the Esso Bonaire, where you’ll spot eagle rays and cobia.

Pro tip: Don’t miss the pile of concrete beams due east of the Zion Train, especially in January and February when dozens of large lemon sharks congregate.

Phil Foster Park Snorkeling Trail

reef type: rock, statues and reef modules

dive type: SCUBA, free diving, or snorkeling

average depth: 8 feet

Coordinates: 26° 46.95’ N / 80° 02.053’ W This 800-foot-long reef trail skirts the shore in the shadow of the Blue Heron Bridge, mimicking a barrier reef. Ideal for beginners and experienced divers alike, this reef trail is easy to access and the diversity of marine life is impressive, including squid, seahorses, octopus, rays, eels, starfish, angelfish, parrotfish, snapper, grunts, grouper, damsels, blennies, wrasses and more than 300 other species.

Pro tip: Check out the three hammerhead shark statues at the western end of the trail (and keep an eye out for several species of real-life juvenile sharks).

Phil Foster Park Snorkeling Trail
Mike Scott Photography

Broward County:

Lady Luck Tanker Wreck & Underwater Art Gallery

reef type: single wreck

dive type: SCUBA

average depth: 120 feet

Coordinates: 26° 13.807’N / 80° 3.807’ W Welcome to the world’s first underwater casino, where divers are greeted by an octopus craps dealer, a mermaid cocktail waitress and a trio of card sharks, all sculpted by local artist Dennis MacDonald. Swim down and have a seat at the poker table or one of the slot machines (and be sure to snap a photo while you’re at it), or take in one of the underwater art exhibits. Before being deployed as an artificial reef in 2016, the 324-foot Lady Luck transported New York City’s sewage for 50 years. Now she’s retired to Florida, thanks to a partnership between Shipwreck Park and Isle Casino Racing Pompano Park. Today, divers can explore 16 staterooms, the captain’s deck, galley, engine room and the tanker holding bays.

The SS Copenhagen and Nursery Reef

reef type: single wreck

dive type: SCUBA, free diving or snorkeling

average depth: 18 feet

Coordinates: 26° 12.349’ N / 80° 5.108’ W The 325-foot SS Copenhagen ran aground off Lauderdale-By-The-Sea in 1900 while carrying coal from Philadelphia to Havana, and the wreck remained visible above the water for decades until WWII naval fighter pilots used her for target practice. According to Broward County Natural Resources Manager Ken Banks, the Copenhagen is twice as popular as any of Florida’s other Archaeological Preserves with more than 10,000 visitors each year. Along this same reef line is the Nursery, named for the large population of nurse sharks that are so accustomed to the presence of humans they school around and under divers and boats.

Pro tip: Be on the lookout for the impressive and rare staghorn coral outcroppings at this site.

Tenneco Towers

reef type: oil production platform

dive type: SCUBA

average depth: 80 feet

Coordinates: 25° 58.952’ N / 80° 5.100’ W The largest artificial reef in southeast Florida was created when the Tenneco Oil Company sank five large sections of oil production platforms in 1985, three of which are within recreational diving limits. The tides and currents that flow freely through the site feed an astonishing abundance of soft corals that cover the entire wreck, attracting sailfish, dolphin, kingfish, wahoo, blackfin, skipjack, several species of grouper and snapper, along with queen angels, Spanish hogfish and the occasional turtle.

Reef-Trail Therapy

Fishy fashions and maritime must-haves for casual snorkelers to open water dive masters.

Shine On

Aqualite-S 20º by Underwater Kinetics

With a battery life of nine hours and a rugged hand mount, light your way underwater with the flick of your wrist. ($159.99, scubastore.com)

Watch Out

Cressi Newton Dive Computer

Designed for water lovers, this stylishly compact dive watch is perfect for everyday use to your most advanced open water dives. ($399.95; diversdirect.com)

Hold the Housing

GoPro Hero5 Black

Snap 12MP shots or shoot 4K videos beneath the waves with this first-ever waterproof GoPro camera. ($399.99, bhphotovideo.com)

Scoot and Snap

Sea Doo RS1 Underwater Seascooter with GoPro Mount

Give your fins a break and grab this underwater scooter that can handle depths of up to 130 feet and last 90 minutes per charge. ($1,449, divers-supply.com)

Breathe Easy

Tribord EasyBreath Full Face Snorkeling Mask

This mask and snorkel system allows you to breathe underwater the way you do on land—through your nose and mouth. ($50-$100, amazon.com)

Screen the Sun

Stream2Sea Reef-Friendly Sunscreen

These biodegradable and aquatic-toxicity tested products mean you don’t have to sacrifice your health for the safety of undersea inhabitants. ($6.95-$16.95, puravidadivers.com)

Suit Up

NaturalPrene Wetsuit by Picture Organic Clothing

Go eco-friendly in the first-of-its-kind sustainable and responsible alternative to traditional wetsuits. ($250-$350, evo.com)


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