It’s the dream of adventurers everywhere to go where no man has gone before, find new life, and take amazing pictures. Panama City Beach has a new reef – El Dorado, and we were the first group Diver’s Den took to see this fantastic wreck. What would this 3-story tall, a 157 foot-long, 300-ton former luxury cruise liner look like less than two weeks after Florida Fish and Wildlife sank her? Is there any life on the El Dorado? Did the El Dorado land upright? You never really know until you go down and check it out for yourself.
Hurricane Michael, Panama City Beach, and El Dorado
When Hurricane Michael ripped through the Florida Panhandle, the devastation was everywhere. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the resiliency of this community more than the El Dorado. The storm ripped her from her moorings and deposited her on her side in the bay just beyond Gulf Coast College. Every car that passed over the Hathaway Bridge saw this derelict sitting in the water.
The first questions were – where did she come from? El Dorado never operated in PCB. The owners had grand visions of restoring her to be a floating entertainment boat, but Hurricane Michael had other plans. One night around Christmas, somebody spray painted “Happy Holidays” on her deck in clear view of the bridge. It was good for a chuckle as you crossed the bridge, but hardly a suitable use for this asset.
The Sinking of El Dorado
The hurricane recovery continued in Panama City Beach, and soon it was time to address El Dorado. She was too severely damaged for restoration, but there was another option. She could join the 185-foot Black Bart, the 184-foot Navy Mind Sweeper-USS Strength, the 441-foot World War II Liberty Ship, the 465-foot Empire Mica, and over fifty more artificial reefs off the coast of Panama City Beach.
Micheal took its best shot, but Panama City Beach was determined to rebuild better than before. They invested over $30,000 cleaning the ship from contaminants and sharp edges and cutting penetration holes. By spring 2019, she was ready for her next stage of service as an artificial reef. On the afternoon of May 3, she reached her final resting spot 12 miles off the shore, and 90′ beneath the surface of the ocean.
Diving El Dorado
El Dorado is an offshore dive. Due to the depths, advanced certification is required. We took the additional step of diving with 32% nitrox mix for a little extra bottom time. Carlos, our dive master from Diver’s Den, saw the wreck for the first time when he tied off the anchor. He was grinning from ear to ear as he gave us the predive briefing, and we could hear the excitement in his voice. He had a new shiny toy to show off. It was like watching a kid at Christmas. Happy Holidays. When we descended the anchor line, we knew why he was so happy.
Even before we reached El Dorado, we were swarmed by minnows. Huge schools of jacks floated around her hull, and an enormous goliath grouper lurked inside the vessel. Carlos reasoned that the El Dorado has so much life because she rested near an existing reef system. A bronze Mark V emblem, fabricated by Harman Metal Art, greeted us at the bottom of the anchor line as a silent welcome to the El Dorado site.
Floating bow to stern, we saw the wheelhouse in clean, perfect condition with stairwells running up and down the to all three levels creating easy swim-throughs. Penetration holes led into the interior of the ship for certified wreck divers or Carlos’ students. He was very excited about the opportunity to conduct training classes here. We avoided these and continued across the sun deck adorned with a peculiar piece of Christmas Tree graffiti. When we reached the stern, we saw the ubiquitous “Happy Holidays”, now greeting us at 90′ down. I wonder how long these marking will remain visible until the reef claims them.
Second Tank Dive – DuPont Bridge Span
The Old DuPont Bridge was a steel trestle bridge built in 1929. In 1967, it retired from bridge operations, and the city turned it into a fishing pier. For twenty years, fishermen caught an untold number of fishes from the span, but time took its toll, and the bridge was condemned in 2006. By 2009 it began a new life off the shores of Panama City Beach as a fish habitat and a dive site.
Now, ten years later, it’s fully encrusted in barnacles and teeming with life. We spent most of our time at the top of the span 60′ down. There was no need to dive to the sand because there was so much good stuff at the top. Huge Angel Fish pecked at the anchor chain, and Jenn loved photographing the blennies tucked away in the nooks and crannies. We floated through the trestles followed by swarms of jacks. The El Dorado and DuPont Bridge Span made a terrific two tank dive destination.
Deep Thoughts About El Dorado Dive Site
Michael blow da boat ashore (and the scuba divers of PCB said hallelujah). Panama City Beach getting a new underwater playground and classroom. We saw this pattern of hurricane recovery repeated time and time again during our visit to Panama City Beach. Almost all of the hotels were open, and the few that remained closed were getting a face lift. We can say with certainty that Panama City Beach is back and ready your next Florida vacation.
With a large number of dive sites available, Panama City Beach makes for a fabulous drive and dive destination, but we particularly loved getting on the brand new El Dorado wreck. When we were not diving, we took advantage of PCB’s romantic getaways, beautiful eco-tours, and adrenaline-filled adventures. PCB dive trips are just good clean fun through and through.
Photo credit- All photos taken by Jenn Coleman except:
El Dorado on the surface(x2) : Patti Blake / The News Harold
Jenn and Ed at DuPont Bridge Span: Barry Guimbellot
Disclosure: A big thank you to Panama City Beach for hosting us and setting up a fantastic itinerary and Divers Den for the awesome diving! For more PCB inspiration check out their Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. Be sure take a dive into Divers Dens’ Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Youtube for some underwater inspo!
As always, the views and opinions expressed are entirely our own, and we only recommend brands and destinations that we 100% stand behind.
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