Are you looking for a dive trip that your family will enjoy as much as you do? Since Panama City Beach is less than a 6-hour drive from Jackson MS, Atlanta GA, or Birmingham AL, you can pack up the roadster and combine your next dive trip with a weekend roadie. You can bring the family and all your gear without paying extra to the airlines. What’s more, you don’t have to worry about no-fly scuba limits heading home.
That’s right, you can dive on Sunday morning and still make it back to sleep in your own bed on Sunday night. With plenty of tropical fish, over 50 wreck sites, and hundreds of natural dive sites in Panama City Beach, you’ll never run out of places to blow bubbles. Keep reading to discover the perfect Panama City Beach drive and dive weekend getaway itinerary for yourself.
Drive and Dive Logistics
First of all, let us say that we visited in May 2019 and Panama City Beach is back! Almost all the hotels and attractions have re-opened after Hurricane Michael. The beaches are still beautiful, and the dive sites are in excellent condition. There are still a few trees down at St Andrew’s Park, but it’s open for day use and limited camping. We could hardly tell the storm came through last year.
We’ll start our dive and drive description with some reasonable assumptions. You arrive after dinner Friday night based on a midday departure. That night you check into a beach hotel and rest up for your first day of diving Saturday morning. You have a free afternoon Saturday and return to take a second dive on Sunday. You leave midday Sunday to return home with plenty of pictures and a car full of happy campers. The devil is in the details.
Where to Stay at Panama City Beach
PCB is known for its beachfront condos where families can share a room that often includes its own kitchenette. The properties include beach access, pools, and hot tubs. Your family might never want to leave the hotel. During our dive weekend, we stayed at the Tidewater, which is on the west end of the beach a short walk from Pier Place. During a previous romantic weekend in Panama City Beach, we stayed at the Edgewater which had easy access to Shipwreck Island. We’d recommend picking a condo that your family will enjoy, especially if you end up driving the family car to the dive shop. We’ll include some pictures of each so you can see each of the places we stayed.
What’s it Like Diving at Panama City Beach?
Panama City Beach is a solid dive destination. Florida Wildlife Commission has been diligently creating artificial reefs by sinking ships. You should check out our Panama City Beach Scuba Guide for all the dive sites. We went with Diver’s Den, which has a composite 5-star ranking on TripAdvisor with 261 reviews (247 individual 5-star reviews). The shop was well stocked, and Carlos was a kick-ass dive master. We can’t wait to try their new boat that’s coming online mid-summer 2019. They also offer nitrox fills, which isn’t a bad idea if you are diving deep in the Panhandle since the nearest hyperbaric chamber in Florida is Fort Myers. Stay safe and mind your margins.
Underwater you can expect visibility between 30′-50′ with water temperatures on the surface ranging from the 60s in winter and 80s in summer. We dove with the shop’s full 5-mil suits in May and felt very comfortable. It’s a good idea to bring gloves for the sharp edges on the wrecks, a dive knife in case you run into fishing line, and a safety sausage since you’re on a boat trip. The seas around Panama City can get choppy, more because of the wave interval than the size. Long interval waves create rollers while short interval waves make the boat rock up and down and divers hard to see in the water.
Top Panama City dive sites include:
- El Dorado – a 157 foot-long, 300-ton luxury cruise liner sunk May 2019 (We were the first Diver’s Den trip to El Dorado!)
- Black Bart – This 185′ barge is PCB’s most famous dive.
- USS Strength – A 184-foot Navy Minesweeper-USS Strength
- Empire Mica – A freighter sunk by a German U-boat in World War II
- S.S. Tarpon – A 130′ steamer built in 1887 that’s now an Underwater Archaeological Preserve
Inshore Diving at Panama City Beach
Most trips in Panama City Beach are two-tank inshore dives. They leave out of the shop at 8:00 in the morning, and you’re back around lunchtime. For our inshore dive, we went to the Hovercraft and the Black Bart. Both of these wrecks sit in about 75′ of water and are accessible with an Open Water certification level.
The Hovercraft was a straight forward dive site with two pontoons running parallel about 20′ apart with strakes and supports in between them. We loved floating through the open structure of the pontoons.
Black Bart was a beautiful encrusted wreck with plenty of life on it. The last round of hurricanes has removed the wheelhouse and deposited it in the sand beside the hull, but otherwise, the wreck is in ship shape. Some of the highlights of the dive were a goliath grouper hanging down with us, a frogfish in the engine exhaust ports, and a toilet in the sand with a skull in it for no apparent reason. All in all, I would say Black Bart lived up to its reputation as a fantastic inshore dive.
How to Schedule Offshore Diving at Panama City Beach
Offshore diving in Panama City Beach opens up new sites that aren’t visited as frequently. You have to have an Advanced Certification and have a Nitrox Specialty Class. If you can find three other qualified divers to go with you, Diver’s Den would reschedule an inshore dive boat with at least a week’s notice and four divers minimum going. They’ll put it up on their Facebook page too and see if anybody else is interested in joining in. We did our offshore dive on day two of the trip to make sure our group was on point for the dive. It doesn’t hurt to be careful. Definitely give them a call if you have a dive group going down and don’t just wait for an offshore trip to come up.
Our Offshore Dive Trip
For our offshore dive, we started at the DuPont Bridge Spans and did our second dive on the brand new El Dorado site. I would imagine that standard protocol would be starting at the El Dorado at 90′ down and the finishing on the Bridge Spans, which are most interesting at the 60′ level. We made the modification to work around another dive group that was already on the wreck. We were just careful to not go down to the sand, so we didn’t introduce too much nitrogen loading.
The sea life on the bridge spans was unbelievable. It seemed like there was a blenny in every cranny and massive angel fish around every corner. We really enjoyed that dive.
Diving the El Dorado was neat because it was just sunk earlier that month. Huge swarms of jacks and minnows darted around the hull, enjoying their new home. The boat was a 3-story party liner in a previous life, and there were plenty of penetration holes cut for well-trained and equipped divers. The El Dorado has an interesting association with Panama City Beach since it was washed ashore during Hurricane Michael. You can read all about both of these dives and their history in our El Dorado dive post.
What Can You Do in Panama City Beach When You’re Not Diving?
PCB is a fun, family-friendly beach town famous for its snow-white silica sand, aka sugar sand that extends along the entire coast. All you need to do is step out of your condo and onto the beach. Most resorts offer chairs and umbrellas to rent for their patrons as well. All along the beach, you can find water toy rentals like jet skis, or banana boat rides.
Here are some options if you’re looking to get off the beach:
- Pier Park: a beachfront shopping and entertainment district that offers a sky wheel, pier access, and an assortment of restaurants.
- Shipwreck Island: A fun water park that features water slides, lazy rivers, splash park, and wave pool.
- Ripley’s Believe it or Not: The Panama City Beach instantiation of this popular tourist trope.
- WonderWorks: A kid-friendly attraction that has 100+ hands-on science exhibits plus laser tag, a ropes course & a 6D motion ride.
- St Andrews State Park: Beautiful beaches, nature trails, sand dunes, and a wooden pier accent the natural beauty of this place. You can also shore dive or snorkel at the jetty here if you can’t get enough bottom time. The best time to dive is during high slack tide, so you have good visibility and minimal currents. Make sure you bring your dive flag because there is a lot of boat traffic entering and exiting the bay here.
- Dolphin Tours: Saint Andrew’s Bay has the largest population of bottlenose dolphins in the world. Panama City Beach is a perfect destination for dolphin tours, which often include a stop at Shell Island.
- Shell Island: The continuation of St Andrews Park on the other side of the bay inlet. This is home to the most beautiful beaches, tallest dunes, and a pretty good place to find shells too. It’s only accessible by boat. The park service runs a regular shuttle service, or you can book a shuttle from Captain Anderson’s Marina where Diver’s Den leaves from. If your family are early risers, they can explore Shell Island while you’re out diving.
- Wild Thang Airboat Tours: Just a good old fashion airboat tour where you run around West Bay looking for cool stuff. You might see osprey, manatees, sugar rays, alligators, and maybe even dolphins. They are conveniently located on 79, which makes it a perfect +1 activity on the way home.
- Take an inspirational photo tour to capture some of the gulf coast’s most photographic spots.
Where Do You Eat in Panama City Beach?
- Firefly: The best sushi in PCB and amazing she-crab soup. Plus, the indoor dining room with a faux tree is tres chic.
Runaway Island: Seafood and see the ocean at the same time with patio dining right on the beach.
- Saltwater Grill: A huge saltwater aquarium provides the perfect backdrop for steak and seafood for ocean lovers everywhere.
- The Grand Marlin: Order off the buffet or enjoy an entree. Conveniently located right next to the dive boat wharf.
- Finns: Fish tacos and plenty of surf town ambiance. Pop over to Mr. Surf next door and check out the photos of the big waves in Panama City Beach (they do exist!)
- Schooners: A local favorite for fish and beer in a relaxed, beachside setting.
- Andy’s Flour Power Cafe-Bakery: Looking for a Sunday brunch that will tide you over. Andy’s offers generous portions and even breakfast cocktails for when you’re done diving. Famous for their French toast.
- Host a beach bonfire: Endless Beach Rentals handles all the setup and permits for you. All you need to do is pick your package. A perfect way to end the day when you bring your dive buddies down for an offshore trip.
- Thomas Donut and Snack Shop – A real local shop just west of town where the dunes are still wild. Famous for their red velvet donuts, but I loved the Southern Poutine-French fries smothered in sausage gravy and pimento cheese. (it’s a thing ya’ll!)
- Runaway Island – A true beachfront restaurant where you can watch the sunset for the patio while you listen to live music.
Blowing Our Last Bubbles
Nobody’s ever going to confuse diving Panama City Beach with a liveaboard in the Maldives, but you can only drive to one of these destinations. Once you arrive, you’ll have plenty of things to do for the non-divers and during your surface intervals. Plus, you get to dive on Saturday and not sweat the flight home. Combine all that with world-class seafood and southern hospitality, and you’ll have plenty of reasons to come on down, and keep coming back!
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