Diving the clear, warm waters of West Palm Beach gives you an excellent opportunity to swim with wild sea turtles. Over 60,000 of these magnificent animals come ashore during the summer months in Palm Beach County, South Florida. On land, sea turtles are awkward and heavy, but in the ocean, their grace and beauty exceed all expectations. Jenn and I took my daughter out to celebrate Father’s Day and World Sea Turtle Day with an underwater turtle trek. The experience we shared reunited our bond, even though she lives a thousand miles away.
Warm-up Dive on Blue Heron Bridge
Shore diving at Blue Heron Bridge is a photographer’s and animal lover’s dream. We selected Pura Vida Divers based on their high ratings and proximity to Blue Heron Bridge. The dive shop is less than a mile away from Phil Foster Park, where you put in for BHB. They also rent gear for 24-hours so we picked up our equipment for the boat next day’s boat dive and BHB only cost us the price of an air fill.
There weren’t sea turtles at Blue Heron Bridge, but there were lots of frogfish. My daughter, Dreya, also wasn’t there. She was too stressed from finals and her flight to Florida to join us. You can lead a kid to water, but you can’t make them sink, or something like that. I would highly recommend diving Blue Heron Bridge if the time and tides permit it. It’s beautiful in its own right, great practice for the drift dive of Palm Beach, and one of the best dive values you’ll find.
Scuba Gear Rental at Pura Vida Divers
Pura Vida Divers gear rental process was intense. I’ve never seen a shop so thoroughly explain each piece of safety equipment and ensure a 100% proper fit before leaving. Janiel from @Culture Trekking created a cool video of the day, including the gear rental process. I could see Dreya listening, but I wasn’t sure how much information she was taking in. You know kids. They have a thousand things on their mind and never seem to be focusing on the present.
I understood the intensity of the fit check as we left for the boat. Most dive shops are located near the boat ramps. Pura Vida’s location is ideal for Blue Heron Bridge. It’s absolutely the closest dive shop to Phil Foster Park where you put in. It’s about two miles from the marina, so there’s a premium to make sure everything works at the store. One cool thing about the whole setup, there’s ample free parking at the store and the marina, which is a real feature in South Florida. The logistics are super easy, as long as the gear fits when you leave the store.
Palm Beach Drift Dive #1 – The Trench – Dive Plan
Our first dive site was a short, twenty-minute boat ride out to the Florida Reef Tract. Our divemaster explained the dive plan as we went. We were making a drift dive floating south to north in about a 3-knot current. The divers will quickly enter the water with a giant stride and descend to the bottom in buddy pairs. Once down, they will rendezvous with the in-water DM on the bottom at about the 60’ mark.
The first stop is a man-made trench, the namesake of this site. We would drop into the trench to get out of the current but make sure that we don’t kick up the fine silt that has settled there. We’ll have about 20 minutes to explore the trench, and then we would start our drift dive. Just float with the current and stay on the ledge. When you reach 1000 PSI head to the surface, 3-minute safety stop, deploy your safety sausage, and the boat will come to get you. If you end up on the wrong boat, don’t worry. All the captains are in radio communication with each other.
Like most Florida dive charters, there was a strong emphasis on dive teams being self-reliant. We were in charge of getting down ourselves, staying with the group, and returning to the surface. The DM carried the dive flag. The also made sure to point out that sea turtles are protected marine animals and we were never to touch or disturb them. They will need all of their energy for laying eggs and mating.
Diving the Trench Site
I could hear the excitement in our DM’s voice when it was time to enter. “Everybody Up” he bellowed. Then we shuffled to the back of the boat. It reminded me of WWII paratroopers jumping onto the drop zone. The longer it took us to get off the boat, the more spread out we would be, and we might miss the trench DZ altogether.
We saw our first turtle swimming in the open on the way down. We found our second turtle resting under a rock in the trench. Jenn and Janiel stayed behind to photograph him, and we didn’t see them again until the surface. The reef tract featured a few more turtle sightings and beautiful coral. We got about an extra 10 minutes of bottom time because we were drift diving, but all good things come to an end. It was time to surface, so Dreya and I started heading up.
Parenting Lessons I Learned While Diving
It’s time to get real. Turtles are bad parents. They crawl up on the shore, lay their eggs, and leave. The little dudes have to hatch and swim out to the middle of the ocean all on their own. I’m looking to do better than that.
I was super worried about the dive with Dreya due to her forgetting her prescription mask, bailing on the warm-up dive, and being generally grumpy all trip following finals. It turns out I made the biggest mistake on our first dive.
First off, I learned the wrong lesson about weights at BHB. Jenn was a little light, and I was able to offer her a little extra weight I was carrying. I figured I could lighten my load for the next dive. I think a better lesson to have learned was to have an extra pound to lend in case somebody needs it. I was under weighted at the end of my dive and had a hard time maintaining neutral buoyancy above 40’. Plus, it’s been a while since I used my safety sausage, so it took me a while to get it all straightened out which was compounded by being too light. I got it deployed at depth, but I couldn’t hold my safety stop. The longest 3-minutes of a parent’s life are waiting for your kid to rejoin you at the surface.
Post Dive Debrief And Reflections
Once we were topside, we talked about what went right and what went wrong. We talked about how to enter the water and descend together with closer spacing on the way down. Dreya asked me to maintain position on her left so she could see me with her good eye. I made sure my line was rolled cleanly, and the sausage was appropriately attached and ready for use. I also added a couple of pounds to my trim pouches.
This exchange was the first time in Dreya’s two day visit that we fully focused on each other and what we needed. One could (and should) argue that it should have happened before our first dive, but without the construct of the dive trip, I’m not sure it would have ever happened. We were rewarded with a magnificent second dive without any technical glitches. We also seemed to communicate better for the remainder of the trip. Sometimes, you just need a little nudge to get the communication ball rolling. We noticed the same pattern of improved communication with Dreya following our Playa Del Carmen bull shark dive and Tulum Cenote dive too. I think there’s something to the adage, families that dive together, stay together.
Second Dive – The Fourth Window
We spend our surface interval parked offshore the magnificent Breaker Hotel. They have several reefs close to the shore that we could snorkel on, but our crew advised us not to dive down because it would affect the interval timing. Afterward, we lined up on the 4th window of the hotel. Our captain serenaded us was a round of Baby Shark because the radio reports were coming in about sharks on the reef less than an hour ago.
The reef section of 4th Window featured a spur-and-groove topology where large coral spurs get separated by sandy channels. These formations provided excellent habitats where animals, like giant schools of grunts or divers, could escape the current and rest. In addition to the tropical fish, we saw two sharks and six turtles.
Dreya and I managed 45 minutes of bottom time at 60’ and surfaced perfectly. Our DM told us about a cave swim-through at the end of the reef, but nobody on the boat that day reached it. We bobbed by my perfectly inflated safety sausage waiting for the boat to come to get us with huge smiles on our faces.
Making it a Turtle Tourism Weekend
Why go on just a turtle dive when you can make a weekend out of it? We visited two nearby turtle hospitals, Loggerhead Marinelife Center, and Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, to see front line conservation efforts in action. They each had tanks where rescued turtles healed up before returning to the sea. The monitored hatches and nests, saved stragglers, conduct turtle releases, and provided a voice to remind us that turtles need clean oceans and dark beaches to survive.
Perhaps my favorite kind of turtle tourism is turtle walks, where you get an opportunity to watch a clutch of eggs hatch and the baby sea turtles make a run to the ocean. Like any animal encounter, you’re never guaranteed success. Janiel and Dreya’s group sat by a nest for hours that didn’t end up hatching. Instead of feeling disappointed, she felt connected with the sea turtle hatch cycle and awed by the special kind of crazy it takes to be a sea turtle volunteer who spends every summer evening monitoring and protecting young hatchlings. Word to the wise, these tours book up months in advance so make sure you get a reservation early!
Between underwater turtle trekking, turtle hospitals, turtle walks, and all of the ways to enjoy turtles in South Florida, it makes for a turtlerific vacation. Kind of like snorkeling with turtles at Akumal Beach Mexico, but you can make an entire weekend out of it and it’s a lot closer to home.
What Makes Diving in Palm Beach Special?
First off, huge thanks to Pura Vida Divers. They were consummate professionals, fun to dive with, and offered first-rate rental gear. A good dive shop can make and dive destination special, but Palm Beach goes beyond that. Palm Beach is the start of the South Atlantic Bight, a missive recess in the coastline that runs all the way to Cape Hatteras North Carolina. It’s the easternmost point in Florida, the northern terminus of the Florida Reef Tract, and the other side of a 45-mile-wide straight opposite of Freeport Bahamas. All of this means a strong current and diverse ecology.
Turtles love Palm Beach because it’s so easy for their young to enter the Gulf Stream Current. Large schools of groupers aggregate here as well taking advantage of that underwater river. I can’t wait to return to Palm Beach to try night diving at Blue Heron Bridge, grouper diving, wreck diving, or even a shore dive from Breakers Hotel. With so many dive options, I am sure that we’ll be coming back again and again. Palm Beach County sits directly north of Broward County, home to many great Fort Lauderdale dive sites as well. So many great dive, so little time.
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