Scuba Diving in Panama City Beach Florida
Going out to see my friends in Huntsville Alabama, we decided to take a weekend road trip from Huntsville to Panama City Beach to do some Scuba Diving. Now, Scuba Diving in Panama City Beach in Florida is unique because it does not have any coral and is mainly shipwrecks.
Quick Facts About Panama City Beach
Location: Panama City Beach is located on the panhandle of Florida on the Gulf of Mexico. If you look at the shape of Florida it looks like a Pan, so the small thin portion at the top is often referred to as a panhandle.
Transportation: The Bay Town Trolley provides public bus transportation that makes stops at all the major shopping centers, hospitals, and beaches. The Southern Greyhound provides intercity transportation. Uber and Lyft and both available as well.
When To Visit: Really you can visit Panama City Beach at any time as there are 320 days of sunshine every year. The main hurricane season here is from June through November, with the heaviest rainfall occurring July and August. While we were there the clouds seemed to move in mostly in the afternoons where the diving visibility went to shit.
Best Things To Do in Panama City Beach: RELAX! No, really that is the best thing to do besides Scuba Diving. They also have spearfishing, and as I said some insanely good restaurants which I will share a few classics later in the article.
Insider Tips: There are no alligators in Panama City Beach, but they do have a lot of dolphins (more on that later). This area was hit really hard by Hurricane Michael in 2018 so they are still making repairs, but are slowly but surely recovering to its former glory.
Alcohol Consumption: Previously known for being a party city, the vibe of the city has significantly changed and reminds me a lot of the cute Southern Africa beach towns. You can still consume alcohol every month of the year, except for March on the beaches.
The best time for Surfing in Panama City Beach is during the hurricane season (June to November). The best wind for surf comes from the Northside, which is likely your best bet since the wind swells are a lot more common than the ground swells. If you go surfing just realize the best wave angle is going to be from the south southeast so plan accordingly.
Money Recommendations: All major credit cards and cash accepted.
Average Water Temperature: Because of the year-round sunshine in Panama City Beach water temperatures can range from 59 F (15 C) in January to 84 F (29 C) in July & August - so really you can dive year-round.
Average Water Visibility in Panama City Beach Diving can vary but usually ranges from 50 to 100 feet. The best visibility is going to be in August through October.
History of Panama City beach
This area was settled by loyalists during the Revolutionary War (around 1775), it wasn’t officially founded until 1909.
Before being named Panama City Beach it went through several names like Floriopolis (similar to Florianopolis in Brazil), Park Resort, and Harrison. People were drawn to the area because of the beaches, as well as the Panama Canal that led from Chicago to Panama City with Panama City Beach being right in the middle of it.
Some of the main historical attractions you can see here are St. Andrews Park, with a self-guided audio tour, there is also the Panama City Publishing Museum (free), Bay County Historical Museum (free), and the house of the first Mayor Robert Lee McKenzie House.
Things To Do In Panama City beach
Most everything is centered around the water here obviously, but there are a few things that are quite unique to Panama City Beach including the highest concentration of bottlenose dolphins in the world. There are a plethora of small fish, squid, and crustaceans in the Gulf of Mexico they love to nibble on here so don’t be surprised if you see some wild baby dolphins frolicking in the waters here. You can take a sustainable and eco-friendly glass bottom Kayak tour to see them at sunset. There is also the Gulf World Marine Park where you can see the research happening there and with the endangered species at Zoo World.
There is also SUP at St. Andrews Bay, Sailing, Sunset Catamarans, and the 1,300-mile sea kayaking journey that lets you pass through Panama City Beach on the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail.
There is also Biking at Gayle’s Trails from Frank Brown Park that offers a 19.5-mile paved trail that runs parallel to the beach and passes through Conservation Park. The dome of Cypress trees along this trail offers good shade on the hotter days. Dogs are allowed here but must be kept on leashes.
Recommended Scuba Diving Camera Gear
SeaLife 2000 with CRI 95 or above for lights and extended adjustable arms to help minimize the particulate from the sand that tends to get rustled up. place your lights at a wide position and angle it so that the light does not reflect off the particulate back into your lens. If you have shorter arms for your lights, position the light close to the lens but pointing away from it.
I would also make sure you have both a macro lens for the blemies here and a wide angle lens to capture the entire hovercraft.
Check out my low budget dive gear and moderate budget dive gear for more options, tips and tricks on how to get the best photos and video while Scuba Diving.
Scuba Diving The Hovercraft
The Hovercraft is a boat that traditionally uses a tube or ‘skirt’ underneath the boat to keep it above water. It provides a rudderless system with air fans above to help propel it over water that may be shallow.
This Navy Hovercraft measuring out 100 feet (30.48 m) was sunk in 1993 after it had been used as a supply boat then a processing platform. It also has a 48-foot beam across it that makes it easy to navigate around the boat. The boat itself is made of aluminum, weights 165 tons, and has very little growth on it at the moment. It is a good (average rate of 3.8/5) dive site for both spear fisherman and advanced scuba divers.
The max depth here is 71-80 feet (22-24m) with a sandy bottom, there are plenty of small fishes to see here that surround you, are friendly and quite curious.
When we approached I am so directionless it seemed like we were out in the middle of nowhere in the ocean, but in fact, the majority of the dives in Florida are inshore dives. This means that there is a sandy bottom to all these boats that have been sunk here, but going past your deco limit can be pretty easy, so make sure you brush up on this before diving.
The divemaster takes the first plunge and ties off a line to the boat that you can follow down to the dive. The dive briefing typically involves which direction to take around the boat, any features or structures that could be interesting to see on each particular boat, and things to be aware of like fishing lines, sharp edges, or any unique wildlife hanging out at each boat.
If you bring a diving light or have good Scuba Diving Cameras with Lights then take a peek under the flat portion of the boat where the skirt would have been and that is where you will find the best sea life.
This was my first shipwreck dive since I got my certification so I was a bit nervous to swim on top of the boat and ended up staying on the sides. For those who were unseasoned wreck divers like me, make sure you swim over the tops of the boat and peak underneath because I was told this is where the best sea life tends to live on shipwrecks.
Coordinates for the Hovercraft: coordinates: 14038.6, 46976.8, located 6 nautical miles from the pass.
The dive interval isn't too exciting, but most of the ships in Panama City Beach allow you to bring your own drinks and snacks to put in the cooler. Make sure to re-apply your reef safe sunscreen after each dive and get under your chin, as well as under your nose. The reflection of the sun off the water can burn you just as easily as the sun from above. I also like to ask the Dive Master about some of their favorite dives in the area and/or new dive sites coming up or changes to diving in the area.
It had been awhile since I had been diving because of the pandemic so I didn't get a chance to ask our Dive Master, Carlos, about this as I was fidgeting with my gear.
Scuba Diving at the Black Bart Shipwreck
Black Bart Wreck is the most dived and frequently visited wreck in Panama City Beach and for good reason. It is a 185-foot (56.39 m) oil field supply ship. The cargo holds on it are open to let divers explore, as well as a head that still has toilets (great for a photo op) and a galley with several appliances still inside. The bridge of the ship is located at a 40 foot (12.19 m)depth, and the main deck at 66 feet (20.12 m), if you go to the bottom of the ship you will be at a 75-foot depth (22.86 m).
This ship was sunk in 1993 in memory of Navy Supervisor of Salvage Captain Charles “Black Bart” Bartholomew.
This was a much more exciting ship for me than the hovercraft because of the different structures on the ship itself. It was a lot easier to imagine men walking around in the bridge, people going about their daily life, except we were underwater.
I think most dive companies in the area take their dive boats to this ship because of the photography opportunities here, so expect it to be a bit crowded, but honestly, the ship is big enough there are plenty of places to explore on this ship.
There as some invisible fishing line when we went through the cargo hold, but luckily someone had their knife. So make sure to go slow when your diving in this area, and that you have your dive knife with you. I also would venture to say having at the very least, some full-length skins would be in your best benefit. I had some bottom skins on, and bumped into an edge of the wreck accidentally when trying to turn around, and came up top and it was bleeding.
If it hadn't of been 89 F (31.7 C) on the surface, I would have worn a 3mm wetsuit - but I get too claustrophobic in wetsuits when it is that hot out. I got heatstroke when I was a teenager and ever since then I have to be careful about overheating, but wanted to give you a heads up about making sure your skin is covered.
The sea life here was a bit more diverse than the hovercraft but you do have to look for it. On the descent, we saw a large Amber Jackfish, and at the sandy bottom, we saw a Bat Fish. It was the first time I had seen a Bat Fish and was so scared of it, even though it is harmless because the thing looks like it has TEETH! Apparently, if you are gentle, you can stick your hand underneath it and hold it. A lot of people get the Bat Fish, Toad Fish, and Frog Fish confused and you wouldn’t want to do that with a Toad or Frog Fish (aka its dangerous) sooooooo I suggest just leaving the wildlife alone if I were you.
Coordinates: 30 ° 03.648' N and 085° 49.433' W
Best Beach Access In Panama City beach
After a great dive in the morning with Divers Den (with Divemaster Carlos), my friends and I headed to some of the best beaches. I would say the best beach access is probably Beach Access 51. It is right by the Wydham Hotel and there aren't a lot of other beach access places around.
If you go down the beach a 0.5 to 1 mile then you will run into multi-access points with hotels that you can buy some adult beverages at your leisure - but for something a bit more secluded go to Beach Access 51.
For other points for beach access visit the Panama City Beach Map.
Camp Helen State Park
Address: 23937 Panama City Beach Parkway Panama City Beach FL 32413
Camp Helen State Park is one of the largest coastal dune lakes in Florida. It costs $4 to get in with a vehicle and $2 for all other pedestrians and cyclists. There is plenty of parking and a pathway to get to the former Avondale Textile Mill (1898-2006) that once operated in this area. It has since been abandoned and several of the houses have been restored and are available to peek into.
The walk to the beach is quite grueling, so I would suggest taking your kayak and kayaking to the beach. Otherwise, you are trudging through (what feels like) 8 miles of soft white sand that you just sink into with each step.
There are also trails for hiking, and biking you can wander through with the classic prickly pine, saw palmetto, scrub oak, and sand and slash pine trees. This is the best place to do a little bird watch for some tufted titmouse and Bald eagles.
Before Hurricane Michael hit this area in 2018, there was once a pier that jutted out into the ocean to allow for the viewing of the ocean floor with the gorgeous green-blue color of the water. Now the remnants make a fabulous place to take a few Christmas Card envy-worthy photos with the dark wood and contrasting white sand beaches with the backdrop of the ocean.
I personally didn't know what I was getting into when going to explore this area so I hiked the sand in a skirt in July......not my greatest decision in the world. I think if I was to do it over again I would have rented a kayak, brought a chair and a picnic with a cold beverage, and sunglasses. Hiked the trails, made sand castles, and played in the water for the whole day. The sunsets in this area are UNREAL folks....
St. Andrews State Park
This is one of the most visited state parks in Florida, and also has a very unique backstory. Theodore Tollofson shipwrecked in this area in 1929 during a hurricane and loved the area so much he ended up just living out of the wrecked boat here for the next 25 years.
After Hurricane Michael hit this State Park it is taking a while to recover from the strong storm surge that hit this area in particular. There is loads of outdoor adventures to be had here including surfing, snorkeling, swimming, fishing, geocaching, Scuba Diving, primitive camping, and nature trails.
There is a boat ramp, kayak launch, restrooms, campfire circles at the campgrounds, plenty of parking, RV parking, a concession stand and restaurant, and a shower station.
It does cost about $4 per vehicle and $2 per person to get into the park and closes at sunset. I suggest bringing exact change because as far as I could tell they only allow for cash.
Always review the flag warning system before entering any shore as the flag system often indicates the level of riptide in the area.
Bring your hammock and string it up between the pier beams and fall asleep to the lapping of the water while you watch the sunset --- I mean if I had a boyfriend I would be bringing my honey-buns along with me for this one!
Day Two Of Diving
The next day we were diving with divers den as well and had the same divemaster, Carlos. We were socially distancing on the boat, and the captain had us sit in groups. There were four groups on the boat, and we were loaded, did our leaps, and unloaded in those respective groups.
Because there were so few people on the boat, the captain let us all pick which ships we wanted to dive. NONE of us knew the area well enough to pick, so our group just asked to not dive the same wrecks we did on day one of diving.
He was very accomodating and we decided to dive the strength and span one wrecks.
Scuba Diving the Strength
This ex-Navy Mine Sweeper, the USS Strength was 184 feet (56.08 m) long with a 33-foot (10.06 m) beam. This was a World War II minesweeper, that survived Iwo Jima and Okinawa midget submarine attack and a kamikaze raid. It was decommissioned, sunk in 1987, and used for several years as a Navy dive salvage training site, where the Navy basically comes and tries to recover a downed ship.
As I followed the line down to the wreck, I nearly lost the regulator out of my mouth because of how many small fish were just surrounding me on all sides. They were swarmings so close to my face, and nearly tickling my head, that I have never felt like a real mermaid in my whole life. I was grinning (well as much as my reg would let me) from ear to ear and by the time I got to the actual wreck, my cheeks hurt (in a good way).
If you are looking down the wreck you're going to see that the bow is broken and is laid on the port side (left-hand side) of the ship. The back quarter of the ship is intact still and at its tallest height, the ship reaches 55 feet.
I think this was my top wreck to dive for sea life, but the Black Bart is my favorite as far as structure goes.
Coordinates: 14076.8, 46943.9
Bridge Span 1
This dive was likely my least favorite dive because I made the fatal mistake of not asking questions and relying on the more experienced dive buddies I was with to take charge. For the record, I'm not proud of this, and I should have not felt stupid asking to be reminded about what my 'no stop dive time' was so I didn't get so close to needing decompression (more on that later).
This is the Dupont Bridge Span and was sunk on October 30, 2008.
The current on this dive was quite strong and I had to grasp onto the line down to the dive with both hands so I wasn't swept away on the descent. It kicked up my anxiety a little, and by the time I got to the bottom, I could feel I was a little fatigued. So we hung out near the bottom of the Span, following the lines of the ship out of the current. The sealife was a bit less sparse on this one than on the Strength, but it was still fun to explore it.
I have a problem with getting distracted trying to find cool sea life. The Angelfish on the Span were MASSIVE and were doing so well at posing for us (but my shutter was a bit on the slow side) so I kept trying to get the 'perfect photo'. I gave up, but then spotted a batfish again and it was on the bottom near the sand.
I always remind my dive buddy about getting distracted with fish easily, so we can check each other when diving for our air. I think we were all distracted on this one, and to be honest I wasn't very careful when I should have been.
Basically, with this being our 4th dive, with deep-dive depths of 75-80 feet (22.86 m - 24.28 m) or more, we were skimming the edge of our no stop dive times. Our divemaster was good and said, 'don't go below 8 minutes' on your no stop dive times. I wasn't familiar with the gauge readings and was trying to rely on my watch, but my watch malfunctioned while I was underwater.
Long story short, I got down to 8 minutes and my friends luckily were paying more attention than I was and I escaped having to have a mandatory light flight helicopter ride to Fort Lauderdale because apparently, Panama City Beach doesn't have a Hyperbaric Chamber to treat Decompression sickness. If you go past your no stop dive time, and your divemaster finds out, they are legally liable and responsible to call life flight and have you transported. So pay VERY CLOSE ATTENTION.
Coordinates: 29'58.902°N 85'51.128°W
Recovering From A Near-Death Miss
After my friends carefully, and kindly schooled me on the risk I had just put myself in - I was really really shaken up mentally. I kept apologizing, and I think it is safe to say that most divers go through something like this or other situations that teach them things.
While decompression sickness seems like a nebulous thing, it is important to ensure you are responsible for your own safety. If you aren't then you not only put yourself at risk but those around you.
It is tough for me to write about this, to be honest, I like to think I'm perfect at everything and don't make mistakes. Yet if my mistake of being distracted and not asking enough questions to clarify will help save someone else's life, then it is worth it to put my pride out on the line.
I was sulking a bit and mentally lashing myself with a cat o'nine tails (a type of brutal whip), when our captain changed directions and cut the engine suddenly. He pointed to the front of the boat and we saw a small school of baby dolphins playing near the shoreline! He said he didn't usually stop for these things, but since they were so close, he let us have about 15-20 minutes of just watching one of my favorite baby animals in the wild. It really cheered me up honestly and I was so grateful to him for that.
So, after a near-death miss, I did what I usually do when I'm really upset at myself or want to emotionally recover -- I seek out GREAT comfort food!
Where To Eat In Panama City Beach
While most ocean towns have some sort of fresh seafood scene, I have come to realize not all of them produce good seafood dishes - Panama City Beach is definitely a city that knows how to cook good seafood.
My friends, I traveled with kept raving about 'She Crab Soup', a crab soup that they said they have been craving and dreaming about for months. I had no idea what they were talking about, but when someone is that passionate about a bowl of soup, I want to know why. So I joined them at a Google rated 4.5/5 star restaurant called Firefly.
When you enter, Firefly, the restaurant it almost looks like you are entering a 1920's bougie lounge with posh well dressed people. Turn the corner and a massive tree with lights that almost look like Firefly's takes up a massive portion of the dining room.The staff are all dressed in black and the seating area is luxurious leather chairs that you just sink into and let your troubles seep into the floor.
They were prompt to seat us, took our order quickly, and had a wide selection of posh adult beverages to choose from that were potent and delicious.
We all quickly order the She Crab Soup and I also ordered Gulf Grilled Grouper (which was also set inside what tasted like She Crab Soup). After we got our orders, our table sounded like it was getting a deep tissue massage with pleasurable mmm's and ahhh's rotating around the table. Our soups were gone in a blink, the savory, rich, but also at the same time, light soup filled our bellies and made all my worries from the day disappear. I shared my Grouper with my friends, which had the texture of Halibut with a little more flakiness and a bit less bitter taste to the fish.
Finishing off with a Bourbon Peach Ice Cream and Creme Brulee, we rolled ourselves out the door and were so satisfied with the meal we couldn't even complain about how uncomfortably full we all were.
For Breakfast? Go to Thomas Donut & Snack Shop
The next morning you have to stop at a local classic called Thomas Donut and Snack Shop. It is a breakfast food hot spot with their signature doughnut the red velvet doughnut. They also have Southern Poutine, which is fries, sausage, gravy and pimento cheese a true southern classic.
For an Affordable Lunch? Go to Finn's Grub
Finn's grub, is an island-style grill is known for their Fish Tacos and artisan barista bar with coffee, smoothies, and bowls. There are also Vegan options here, and often a traveler that sits down and serenades the hungry customers with a Reggae inspired song or two.
Boiled Peanuts - A Southern Classic
I couldn't actually bring myself to eat these, it smelled like soggy peanuts in pickle juice....not too appetizing and I couldn't stomach eating them. If you are in the South and stop at a local gas station, boiled peanuts are a Southern Classic - so for those who are brave with strong stomachs, here is your test for true cultural immersion.
Is Scuba Diving In Panama City Beach Worth It?
Is scuba diving in Panama City Beach really worth the effort? I would say a resounding yes! Especially for those who are new to the Advanced Scuba Diver certification like I was, it teaches to you a lot about what you need to look for with dive times (more so than open water). It is easy to get to the wrecks with the line the divemasters drop for you. The wrecks are full of sea life, and a lot more active than I thought a shipwreck could be in this area.
To be completely honest, I really cannot wait to go back and explore all the ships and artificial reefs that have been created in this area. It is fun, it is safe, it isn't ridiculously crowded and the State Parks here make you feel like you have a beach in its truest form all to yourself.
Where To Stay In Panama City Beach
Google Map Of Locations
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Travel Insurance I recommend
World Nomads is the travel insurance I highly recommend because of their customizability for not just flights, luggage, emergencies, but also for high risk activities. High risk activities like Scuba Diving, Rock climbing, mountain biking etc... No matter what insurance you decide to purchase, always always always make sure to read it carefully and thoroughly to ensure you can get back to your HOME, not just the nearest airport. This is imperative for situations where medical transport may be required, which can be close to $10,000+ just to get from one end of the country to another.
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Welcome to Culture Trekking!
My name is Janiel, a medical professional, and solo adventurer. I have over 23 years of international travel experience and have a sincere passion for celebrating humanity, connecting with cultures, finding unique art and adventure. I’m an advocate for animals and sustainable travel and want to invite you to join the Culture Trekking community.