Why You Should Go Diving in Dixie County, Fla.

    By Terry Tomalin

    I stood on the ferry dock in Key West and watched as the captain strapped my rental kayak to the roof of the "fast cat." It is a two-hour boat ride to my final destination, Dry Tortugas National Park, some 70 miles to the west.

    My plan was to load my tent, sleeping bag and camp stove into the kayak's covered hatches, pack a cooler full of food and water, then spend the night in the small campground on Garden Key.

    The National Park Service allows a limited number of visitors to camp in a small clearing just outside the massive walls of Fort Jefferson, a 19th-century military base that once served as a prison. Campers must be totally self-sufficient. The Park Service provides a charcoal grill and dry land, but campers must bring their own food, water and anything else they may need during their one- to three-day stay at $3 a night.

    We motored out of Key West Harbor and set a course due west. Even on this overcast November afternoon the ferry was packed with tourists from across the United States.

    Unlike other areas in the Florida Keys, the corals here are in shallow water, sometimes just three or four feet of water. A variety of tropical fish, as well as barracuda, moray eels and one of the largest concentrations of nurse sharks in Florida, can be found within the park's boundaries. But as in any open-ocean environment, the currents in the Tortugas can be swift and at times treacherous.

    The low-lying islands of the Marquesas and the Tortugas, with their coral reefs and sandy shoals, have claimed more than 200 ships over the years. You'll find everything from Spanish galleons to World War II-era freighters sunk by marauding German U-boats in local waters.

    As we pulled into the dock at Fort Jefferson two hours later, I decided to head for the Bird Key or brick wreck, which is located about a mile off the fort in six feet of water.

    Authorities aren't sure when the ship, a 126-foot long steamer carrying bricks, plowed up onto Bird Key Bank, but the best guess is it was sometime immediately preceding the Civil War. On a clear day, you can still see the ship's large, six-foot, four-blade propeller just below the surface.

    As I paddled out toward the brick wreck, I saw Loggerhead Key about three miles west. It is one of the larger islands in the Tortugas chain and a popular destination for wildlife researchers who value its pristine habitat. Day use is permitted, but as everywhere else in the park, you can take nothing and leave only footprints.

    Just off Loggerhead's southwestern tip is another wreck, usually referred to as the Windjammer. You'd be hard pressed to find a better snorkeling wreck than this "greyhound of the sea" that sank during a winter storm in 1907. But as I paddled toward the distant island, I decided that it would be better not to be caught in the open ocean in such a small boat should the seas turn uncooperative.

    So I turned around and headed back toward the Long Key, which guards Fort Jefferson's southeastern approaches. A pelican diving on a school of fish pinpointed a small coral reef, teeming with life. I dropped my anchor in a spot of sand, hoisted my dive flag, and then set off to explore underwater.

    I swam through the sea fans and brain corals, then spotted a spiny lobster guarding its lair beneath the rock ledge. How bold, I thought, since these "bugs" usually flee at the first sight of man. Then I remembered where I was. In Dry Tortugas National Park, everything is protected, even the lobster.

    The saltwater seeping into my snorkel made me thirsty, so I kicked back to my kayak just in time to see a small green sea turtle pop its head above the reef. Ponce de Leon had named this place appropriately. Las Tortugas was indeed the land of The Turtles. In the days before steam engines, sailors always welcomed fresh meat. But fresh water was even more valuable, and I had left mine back on the ferry. I headed back across the anchorage area to the dock.

    By Jon O'Neill

    When most people think of offshore scuba diving, of twisting reefs, black tip sharks, grouper, dolphins and rays, they might think of Florida, but they might not think of Dixie County.

    And yet the Big Bend-area county that 15,000 people call home is trying to get visitors to see what they’ve been cultivating for more than 25 years:  a series of artificial reefs that gives scuba divers and underwater fisherman a playground in the sea like none other in northern Florida.

    The first set of reefs was built in the 1990s, after Mike McCaskill – the Dixie County High School principal – enlisted the help of his students to design concrete structures to sink off the coast in the Gulf of Mexico. Others became inspired, and soon a network of artificial reefs popped up, with one even spanning a full square mile.

    There are shipwrecks too, and snorkeling in estuaries right along the coastline. But it remains relatively unoccupied – only local divers can usually be found there.

    The reefs are a hidden gem, residents say, much like Dixie County itself.

    “It’s one of the few places – the hidden coast – you can go birding, biking, kayaking, diving,” said Jeff Cary, a local videographer and diver. “[Diving] is becoming a real draw. Divers now can dive reefs in Dixie County.”

    The reefs themselves range from 20 to 30 feet below the surface, and are made up of various materials designed and dropped by locals. Collected all together, it creates a new world full of aquatic life.

    As an added bonus, more experienced divers can explore natural reefs just a bit farther offshore that sit about 90 feet below the surface.

    The water temperature isn’t bad, either. Between April and October, coastal waters off Dixie County can be anywhere from the low 70s to the mid-80s, allowing most divers to go under without full wetsuits.

    Local boat captain and diver Brett Selph said people can take as much time as they want to check out the reefs. He recommends a four-hour trip with two stops at different sections of the reef.

    Many divers coming to Dixie County are exploring the various underwater caves in the area. Selph, who operates out of Horseshoe Beach, runs a fishing charter company called Up The Limit Fishing Adventures, said many cave divers don’t even realize they can do an open-water dive in Dixie County. He’s hoping to lure people who come for cave-diving trips to consider spending one day on the ocean with him exploring the reefs.

    “With the artificial reefs that have been put in close, it gives a big pull for somebody that maybe wants to cave-dive one day on the weekend and maybe they want to go offshore out salt water diving one day,” Selph said.

    Selph said he bought tanks and scuba gear to take others out on his boat when fishing season started to die down.

    That’s when he started seeing an increasing interest. Divers from Northern Florida who didn’t want to make the four-plus hour trip down south were coming to the reefs, and once they saw how expansive they were and how much sea life had started moving in, they kept coming back.

    Others in the area started seeing the trend, too. While Dixie County has no official dive shop yet, some charter captains like Selph have their own tanks available for any diver who is certified.

    Horseshoe Beach may be small, but the hospitality here is big. That’s a huge lure of the seaside town, Selph said. Anyone who comes to dive or fish is treated like a local, not a tourist, and the residents are so friendly he guarantees anyone who visits will want to return.

    For those looking to explore under the sea, to have an artificial reef practically all their own and experience the untouched beauty of old Florida, Dixie County is the place. 

    Places to Remember