Article by Selene Muldowney & John Tapley;
Photos by Michael Kovach & Bill Cole – Sea Experience
When most people walk out their front door, it’s usually only as far as their driveway. Maybe they’ll walk to the mailbox on the corner, or to a neighbor to borrow a cup of milk. But for the folks in Lauderdale-by- the Sea (LBTS), a short walk takes you underwater—into the vibrant and dynamic world of South Florida’s beautiful coral reefs.
It’s not uncommon for visitors to this charming town to see divers fully clad in scuba gear taking a stroll down the sand and into the water for a “beach dive”. What those visitors may not realize is that LBTS has a living coral reef just 100 yards off its shoreline. In fact, the reef is so close to the beach it is even accessible to snorkelers.
Sea Experience has been open since 2002 and includes a full retail dive shop with two charter boats. The company is located on a marine resort, the Bahia Mar Yachting Center, in nearby Fort Lauderdale.
Says Sea Experience owner Bill Cole: “LBTS is a shallow beach dive but we have a lot of guests that come from all over the place – from around the country and Europe, especially – who go on boat dives in the morning. They look for something to do besides a boat dive, and a beach dive is perfect for them. LBTS is really catering to divers: nice showers and washout areas next to the shore; plenty of parking and beach access.
“It’s strictly beach diving. There’s a reef that runs parallel to shore right underneath the fishing pier: halfway out of the pier you’re on the shoreward edge of the west side of the north-south running reef line.
You have to stay away from the pier – I think at least 50 yards – because of the fishing but other than that, it’s all within the 10 to 15-foot depth range. For any beach diving in south Florida, you have to go in the water with a buddy and have a diver down flag to float along with you.
“Water temperatures get up to 86 degrees, and it’s usually hotter in the summertime, especially in the mornings – it’s really nice and calm, which is the perfect time for a beach dive. LBTS does a whole bunch of parties and dives – beach dives and cleaning up the pier.”
Seasoned scuba diver and hotelier Michael Kovach opened his scuba instruction business, Cordova Diving, in 2006, and has enjoyed LBTS’ shallowness for its benefits in training new students. He says:
“When I first came here, people told me there was no shore or beach diving in Ft. Lauderdale: that everything was off a boat. There’s three reef lines that run from West Palm Beach to Miami: the first just 100 yards off the beach. We can swim and dive off a reef line that’s just 600 yards wide: it’s filled with life: adolescent turtles from the Caymans come here to age before heading off.”
“LBTS has a really nice coral reef but it’s fairly shallow: most of it in 12 feet of water. When you dive at LBTS, you park at a place called Datura Boulevard – there aren’t many spots so you want to do your diving early. It’s a much more relaxed area.
“The city put in a scuba trail, which is an old anchor off a ship, a cannon, and other things that are laid on the sand before you get into the coral reef area. A lot of people dive there and it’s a great place to learn: you’re [close] to the pier and you see a lot of life: it’s not unusual to see moray eels and Southern Atlantic stingrays.”
LBTS is a small area and there are fewer officially recognized dive sites compared to other Floridian regions. Scuba practitioners who strive to get the most out of a south Florida dive adventure will often venture to Ft. Lauderdale, about five miles down the road, where more complex sites lie in wait.
Ft. Lauderdale Beach Jacks (Yankee Clipper Jacks) Also known as the erojacks or aerojacks, this dive site is located off Ft. Lauderdale Beach Park across from the B Ocean Ft. Lauderdale Hotel (formerly known as the Yankee Clipper). As one of Ft. Lauderdale’s shallower sites, the jacks are ideal for beginner divers, snorkelers, and adventurers who prefer a more relaxed experience.
“We identity spots on the beach by the closest lifeguard tower, and off of lifeguard tower two, at the very start of the beach, are the Yankee Clipper Jacks. These things are big concrete, six-legged jacks, piled about 15 feet high, running about three-quarters of a mile. There’s a lot of life there: I’ve seen manatees, eagle rays, octopus, parrotfish, and the usual grunts. It’s a wide path of life that’s rather diverse; and fixed right at the jacks. It’s easy dive to make and you’re going to see a lot of things: t’s a great place for underwater photography and one of my favorites.”
According to some local legends, the jack structures were installed during the Second World War as a barrier against Axis submarines. They were installed in the ‘60s as a means to prevent soil erosion.
“They were designed to protect the harbor that used to be there and to prevent the sand from being removed from the basin,” Kovach explains. “It’s in a trough that usually has a current that sweeps the sand along. With the jacks, the sand stays.”
“[Jacks] are difficult to find; there’s several sets of them,” says Kovach. “Some on Dania Beach are clearly marked so you have landmarks to go by while swimming toward them; the ones on the Yankee Clipper aren’t so marked but you can see them – a little line – on Google Maps.”
Located off Sunset Boulevard, between LBTS and Ft. Lauderdale, is a collection of artificial reefs called Hog Heaven. Accessible by boat, this underwater playground dips to about 65 feet in depth and includes a plethora of structures such as a radio tower, concrete pipes, an airplane wing, railcars, and other artificial reefing materials. Two barges, which have been displaced over time, stand out for wreck enthusiasts.
“Starting with [Hurricane] Wilma, hurricanes have actually made better dive sites because they twist things and open them up,” says Cole. “A barge is pretty boring because it’s a big shoebox but now there’s easy penetration and lots of swim- throughs.”
“Coral has grown pretty quickly on it and we always see something big there: barracuda, goliath grouper, manta rays, tarpon, turtles, and all kinds of schooling fish,” Cole continues. “Hog Heaven’s one of my favorite big sites, and it’s only a 10-minute ride once we get out to the ocean.”
So, the next time you’re walking your children to school or taking your dog to the park, think of where you could be walking: down the shores of LBTS and right into the blue. And when you set your sights on more engaging diving, nearby Ft.Lauderdale is just down the block. Let your own feet transport you to the magnificent realm of South Florida’s coral reefs.