Water Sports

New guidebook highlights Northwest Florida’s underwater gems for divers and snorkelers

  | Northwest Florida Daily News

Like other publications in the Reef Smart Guides Dive, Snorkel and Surf travel series, the forthcoming  Northwest Florida/Gulf of Mexico guidebook will give locals and visitors insight into shipwrecks and other artificial reef sites, as well as other marine-environment gems worth exploring.

Many other publications do a great job of telling you where you can go and what you can do on land, said Ian Popple, managing director of Montreal-based Reef Smart.

However, “So much of what people like to do when they visit warm places is get into the water and explore the marine environment,” Popple said. “We felt the only way to do that would be to create a system by which we can map out and three-dimensionally model what the environment looks like, almost like by peeling the water back, showing what the relief looks like and introducing people to some of the species that exist there.”

With the guidebook, adventurers will be better prepared to safely enjoy and understand marine environments, he said.

Popple and Peter McDougall, president and CEO of Reef Smart USA, helped author the Northwest Florida/Gulf of Mexico guidebook. It’s being published by Mango Publishing Group of Coral Gables and could be available for purchase in late May.

The book describes 137 sites, including dozens of offshore and shore-accessible sites, for scuba divers, snorkelers and surfers. Fishermen also will likely find the publication useful.

Alex Fogg, Okaloosa County’s coastal resource manager, said he has been working with Reef Smart for the past couple of years “to get some pretty killer imagery (3D renderings) of our reefs. This endeavor has blown up into a diving and snorkeling guidebook that truly is a must-have.”

Packed with information such as access points, depths, currents, waves, suggested routes, notable features and potential hazards, the guidebook includes four sites in Alabama that are described in detail and frequently accessed by operators out of Pensacola.

The book also describes 27 sites (12 in detail) in Escambia County, five sites (three in detail) in Santa Rosa County, 39 sites (21 in detail) in Okaloosa County, 17 sites (five in detail) in Walton County and 43 sites (12 in detail) in Bay County.

The sites in Okaloosa County include reefs near beach accesses No. 2, 4 and 6 on Okaloosa Island as well as Norriego Point, the Destin Jetties, White Hill Ledge and Mac’s Reef.

Those in Walton County include its famous Underwater Museum of Art. Escambia County sites highlighted include the Perdido Key Reef and the Park East Snorkel Reef. Entries for Santa Rosa County include the Navarre Sound-side West Reef and East Reef, and those for Bay County include Black Bart, El Dorado and the St. Andrews Jetty.

“I think there are so many people who visit Northwest Florida and they stand there on the beach and look out at that ocean, and they don’t realize what is beneath the surface there,” Popple said. “There are so many wrecks. There are so many snorkeling sites just yards from the beach, and not enough people realize that that exists there. So this is a guide that basically gives them everything that they need to know in order to be able to explore that environment.”

More of our galleries:

McDougall said Northwest Florida has great potential to be one of the Sunshine State’s better-known dive destinations.

“When people talk about diving in Florida, everyone assumes the Keys, and beyond the Keys they tend to focus on the Fort Lauderdale area,” McDougall said. “But there is some incredible diving off of the Northwest Florida coastline. That’s one of the things we try to do with our guidebooks, in the sense of really featuring and showcasing the diving that’s available in a region, both to help divers and to help people understand what they have out in their own backyard, even for non-divers.”

He noted that the exploration sites highlighted in the new guidebook include 31 offshore sites, 26 shore-accessible sites and two freshwater springs, Vortex Spring in Holmes County and Morrison Springs in Walton County.

Overall, “People are really interested in getting this information (found in the guidebook) that will allow them to go and dive on their own terms and their own schedules,” McDougall said.

The guidebook will be available to purchase for $34.99 from local dive shops, snorkel operators and chain and independent bookstores, as well as from Amazon.

Copies of the book will be provided as prizes to winners of the Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament set for May 14-16 in Destin.

In addition to the guidebook, Reef Smart has created individual cards highlighting each of the reefs it has modeled, Fogg said.

The waterproof cards “are really great to have on the boat to reference before, during and after your dive and are also great ‘badges’ to show off once you have dived a site,” Fogg said.

To learn more, visit reefsmartguides.com.

Did you know?: Okaloosa working to remove massive amounts of underwater debris


The water has always been a favorite place for outdoor recreation. Paddling a canoe along a rambling creek, jumping the wake behind a fast boat, or snorkeling among coral reefs, are just a few of the many ways you can have fun in the water. The one thing that these and every other form of water recreation have in common is that they can all be made more enjoyable with our water sports equipment. We have all types of inflatables from balls to boats, every kind of towable equipment from tubes to water skis, canoes and kayaks and the carriers and racks to get them to the water, snorkeling gear, pools, waterproof action cameras to record your aquatic adventures.