Martin County isn’t known as a dive destination, but it has some real gems, especially the Pecks Lake Reef, located immediately south of the St. Lucie Inlet and mostly within the state park off the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge.
The reef rises from about 32 feet to about 5 feet at its crest, which runs for nearly nine miles without much interruption. The shallow side of the crest is about 11 feet, and great for snorkeling. The reef is covered in stony corals and diverse sponges. The ledges are steep, and full of caverns, holes and crevices that attract myriad wildlife, including sea turtles, three species of lobster, and hundreds of species of reef fish.
Peck’s Lake Reef is arguably the best place to see green and leatherback turtles, especially April through August, since the adjacent beach is one of North America’s most important nesting beaches. You are just about guaranteed to see at least one turtle on any given dive, no matter the time of year and during the nesting season you will probably see three or four or more.
Diving outside the crest carries you along steep limestone ledges with high relief. Typically, you’ll see larger animals on the outside, including turtles, sharks and goliath groupers. It’s a relatively easy dive in terms of depth, but strong currents can be an issue.
Spearfishing is not allowed in the waters of any state park, but this reef is a popular and productive lobster area. The lobsters are not as numerous but typically gigantic, compared to those caught in the Keys or farther south on the mainland.
You need to plan your dive carefully. The water generally isn’t as clear as it is from Jupiter southward, owing to several factors including the large river systems, the Loxahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, which flow into the Atlantic through the Jupiter and St. Lucie inlets respectively, and because the continental shelf broadens here and the clear water of the Gulf Stream isn’t always right on the beach. Calm seas are essential, and the water is clearest after a few days of sea breezes coaxing the Gulf Stream inshore. Incoming tides are also best as they usher in clear ocean water. If you dive on the falling tide, you will want to go to the south end of the reef, as far away from the inlet’s influence as possible.
Current can be an issue. When I have a third party aboard to drive, we follow the divers from a respectful distance. If we are diving while anchored or on the mooring buoy, we swim into the current, keeping track of our heading with our compasses, and basically make a loop back to the boat. The dive is shallow enough that surfacing to find your vessel won’t give you the bends unless you’ve short-changed your surface interval from a previous deep dive on one of the offshore wrecks or reefs.
Contact Scuba Stuart for dive charters. If you’re going in a private vessel, it’s best to tie up to the buoys deployed so that folks won’t be tempted to anchor on the reef. There are sensitive corals all over the reef, so if you do anchor, but sure to anchor in the sand and check that the anchor is secure before swimming off.
Don’t forget your camera, or your tickle stick