“I pulled out my phone and showed the Australian dive guide pictures of our Goliath groupers.” The diver had just returned from a live-aboard vacation to the Great Barrier Reef. Travel weary after exhausting flights back to Boynton Beach, Florida, he was convinced diving a mile offshore in Palm Beach County has more to offer. The diver laughed when he finished his story telling how the famous Cod Hole groupers of Australia were half the size of Goliaths that inhabit the wreck of the Castor off Gulfstream.
Article and photos by John Christopher Fine
Reef structure from north Boca Raton to the Palm Beach Inlet is rather consistent. About three-quarters- to a mile off the beaches reefs are from sixty-feet deep on the western edge to eighty on the eastern edge. Divers can enjoy diving on top of the reefs in about 45- to 55 feet deep. Underwater life abounds. The Gulf Stream meanders close to shore along this coast. A predominantly northward flowing current, there are eddies in the Stream causing it to flow south on occasion. At times there are strong currents that whisk divers along as a fast pace, there are days when there is no current at all.
The Gulf Stream makes diving exciting. Captain Jim Hill, owner of the dive boat Loggerhead, based at the Boynton Beach Municipal Marina, has been diving local reefs and taking divers out aboard Loggerhead for many years. His experience is shared as he takes divers where the best sites are considering ocean conditions.
“The Boynton inlet is tricky,” Captain Hill admits. In truth the Boynton Inlet, officially called the South Lake Worth Inlet, is not an “inlet” at all rather a cut made to enable flushing of the Intracoastal Waterway of materials from the huge canal that dumps into it and sewage outlets from various sources.
Boats that can make it under the bridge that crosses A1A use the cut. Mariners are warned that it takes an experienced skipper with local knowledge to navigate it safely. Conditions must be studied before hand to ensure safe passage when the ocean is not calm.
Captain Hill took Loggerhead north of the Lake Worth Pier to a site called Paul’s Reef. The ocean was flat calm. Water temperature was 76 F, current was nil. Divers could see from top to bottom the water was so clear. This was an exceptional diving day with unlimited visibility below. A green moray eel poked out of its niche on the inside of the reef, curious about divers swimming past.
Those with fishing licenses bearing crawfish stamps sought delectable Florida lobsters for dinner. Underwater photographers paused to take pictures of butterfly fish swimming in matched pairs around a large basket sponge.
Local reefs had been plagued with algae proliferation in past years. Algae blooms in the presence of nitrogen. The phenomenon is akin to what one sees in lakes and ponds. A green covering over the water. Algae are plants and produce oxygen until they die, settle on the bottom where they decay and smother coral to death. This year dawned with a clean sweep, the reefs are algae free.
Captain Hill chose Horseshoe Reef for a second dive. Depth is sixty feet to the sand. The reef bends around in a hook, thus its name. Ledges around the reef are home to tropical fish. A small resident bull shark often greets divers. On this dive an aged male loggerhead turtle rested under a ledge. Turtles come to these reefs every year to mate. Females lay their eggs on the beaches, return to the ocean, mate again in a life cycle that has repeated itself over generations.
The venerable loggerhead seemed to enjoy posing for photographs as it turned its large head to the camera. Before his ship leaves the dock Captain Hill briefs divers about marine turtles warning not to touch or harass them. All species of marine turtles are on the endangered list and are protected by law. Captain Hill’s admonition bears repeating since the area gets many tourist divers that may not be aware of turtle protection rules and could be tempted to grab hold of a turtle’s shell to ride it underwater.
Nurse sharks are territorial and can be found on the reefs resting under ledges. Some grow to be quite large. As with any wild creature it is best to look and not touch. Some nurse sharks seem tame enough and remain to have their pictures taken, others swim away.
There are many surprises diving in the Gulf Stream. Large denizens of the deep venture in seeking prey on the reefs. Barracudas, hammerhead sharks, dolphins and every so often leatherback turtles and whale sharks come our way.
“Even though I travel all over the world I always come back to Boynton Beach, my home for reef diving. Drift Diving here is Florida’s best kept secret,” Rachel Taub, Manager of the Boynton Beach Dive Center, said.
We are fortunate to have this amazing ocean resource so close by. It offers a grand opportunity to view nature’s harmony and beauty just off our shores.