You've Gotta Try This: Snorkeling at Blue Heron Bridge in Riviera Beach
By Terry Gibson
A day of diving at the Phil Foster Park Marine Protected Area is a ‘shore thing.’ Here’s why:
--Twice-daily high tides and shallow water permit hours and hours of tank time
--Underwater snorkeling trail
--Day- and night-dives offer uniquely different wildlife encounters
--Guided day- and night dives for viewers and photographers
--Many unique offshore dive sites nearby
--Daytime guarded beach.
--Great fishing at the park’s piers, and nearby
Here’s a planner for your adventure – including airports, accommodations, and equipment rental.
Winter and Spring, South Florida’s dry seasons, offer the best visibility, although conditions during the summer can be good if rains abate. Late spring and summer months offer calmer conditions if you plan on diving offshore as well.
Phil Foster Park is located about 15 minutes from the Palm Beach International Airport, about an hour from the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, and about two hours from the Miami International Airport. The greater Orlando area, including the airport and attractions, are about 2.5 hours north of the park.
A wide variety of hotels, restaurants and other accommodations are available close to the park.
WHAT TO BRING
A favorite mask, snorkel, and your own SCUBA gear if you don’t want to rent gear
A dive light, or two if you plan to dive at night
Camera gear with a macro lens
Change of cloths
Clothes for nights out on the town.
PHYSICAL DEMANDS AND CAUTIONS
Water entry and exit is an easy walk (for wearing flippers) down a gradual, sandy slope. However, SCUBA gear is heavy and requires the strength and mobility to carry it to the water’s edge, put it on, and walk a few more meters to where you can float.
Be alert; currents can carry divers into boat channels and/or near fishing piers and boat ramps.
A DIVE SITE LIKE NO OTHER
Few folks imagine that diving in one of Florida’s shallow estuaries can offer everyone from dive masters to the uninitiated a safe and unforgettable experience interacting with creatures great and small, gaudy and cryptic, common, and rare. Indeed, there’s no dive in the world like the marine protected area surrounding Palm Beach County’s Blue Heron Bridge, which crosses the Lake Worth Lagoon and connects Riviera Beach to Singer Island, located in north-central Palm Beach County.
The warm, azure Gulf Stream current - the world’s largest ocean “river” - runs tight to Florida’s southeastern coast, carrying the larvae of myriad fishes, as well as invertebrates such as lobsters, crabs, and corals, from distant spawning sites - sites as far away as the Dry Tortugas, Cuba, and even the Yucatan. During the incoming tide, which happens twice daily, Gulf Stream water rushes into southeastern inlets, carrying all that life into the brackish estuaries behind the barrier islands that serve as nurseries for the countless species.
What makes this spot so special is that the North Palm Beach Inlet divides Singer Island from Palm Beach. The inlet’s great width and depth, as well as uniquely configured channels inside the Lake Worth Lagoon, allow great volumes of that clear, blue, life-rich water to light up vital habitats inside a lagoon that would otherwise offer only murky dives in tannin-stained water. Seagrasses, natural hardbottom reefs, and artificial structures including the bridge itself provide the cover and the food. The deepest habitats lie in about 20 feet (six meters) of water.
Most dives average 45 minutes to two hours. You’ll encounter larger creatures, including several species of sharks and rays such as nurse sharks and spotted eagle rays. Several species of stingray and starfish burrow in the sand, waiting in ambush for prey. (Not you.) Juvenile goliath groupers – one of the world’s rarest and largest of groupers – are often seen near bridge pilings. Baitfish shimmer like sparks in the clear water. Eels seem to levitate over the reefs. Diverse tropical jacks, snappers, and colorful reef fish such as parrotfish, love to show their colors. But the main attractions are the smaller, cryptic species that camouflage themselves in the sand and rocks.
Photographers and divers looking to add species to their life lists of animals observed flock to this destination. These species include octopi, sea robins, flying gurnards, batfish, frogfish, stargazers, and over 100 different species of nudibranchs. Some species are more nocturnal than others, making this shore dive one of the best night dives in the world. Hiring a guide to help you locate and identify these critters is a good idea.
OFFSHORE AND OTHER DIVES
Several high-quality dive operations are located close to the park. Many diving visitors opt to head offshore to one of dozens of dive sites that include natural and artificial reefs, then return in time for the high tide around the Blue Heron Bridge, or vice versa. Because of a narrow continental shelf, the offshore dive sites are close to shore and for the most part, a short run by boat. Florida wisely protected several shark species as well as what is probably the world’s healthiest population of goliath groupers, which draw divers to the area from all over the world, especially during the summer months, when the fish return to these waters to spawn in massive aggregations. During their respective seasons, hunting for spiny lobsters and spearfishing for legal species is also very popular, and productive.
Snorkeling or beach-diving the unique nearshore hardbottom reefs, which boast a unique reef-building worm and incredible biodiversity, provide more options, surf-depending.
Boat taxis will take you to nearby Peanut Island, which offers excellent snorkeling in the lagoon, on the hardbottom, and over the seagrass meadows surrounding the island. It’s a great place to picnic and relax with the family.
ADMISSION, PARKING, RENTALS, RULES
The park is open daily. Palm Beach County offers excellent advice and information on visiting the park, including a map of the dive sites.
Pura Vida Divers is located nearby and caters to divers interested in the shore dive as well as offshore dives to see the rare and unique sharks, goliath groupers, and myriad other marine species.
Travelers with disabilities can access the Park beach via a ramp. There are ADA-compliant restrooms on site.The removal of marine life from the waters surrounding the park is prohibited unless you’re fishing from a designated fishing area.
FOOD AND DRINKS
You’ll need a cooler to carry drinks and keep them cold. There are several convenience stores on Singer Island just east of the bridge. The Rafiki Tiki Bar & Grill is legendary for Florida concoctions.
For some history and other information about Phil Foster Park, check out this article from Uncle Cal's Dive Club.