Florida's Northwest coast and Panama City diving offer glimpses of natural and artificial reefs.

At one end of our state, I'm walking along the perfect beach, finding it almost impossible not to exaggerate its beauty. At the water's edge, small crustaceans and tiny fish scatter into the surf before me. Long, low rays of sun glimmer across the water that swallows my footprints.

The beaches between Pensacola and Panama City are some of the prettiest in Florida. Miles of snowy white sand and rolling dunes overgrown with sea oats have made the Gulf coast of Florida's panhandle a favorite beach escape, but you may not know it's also a great dive destination.

From depths shallow enough for novice divers to reefs and wrecks that require advanced diving skills, the real adventure of diving in Northwest Florida begins just a few strokes out to sea. Shallow sand flats stretch under emerald seas for miles with only an occasional sand dollar or starfish found.

Summer is the "in" season, but I like to visit in the fall and winter months. Sure, the water may be a bit cooler, but the crowds are down and often the cooler water brings greater visibility.

Across the Florida Panhandle, the natural reefs come close to shore. These patches and ledges of ancient limestone stagger like giant stairways into the depths. Large basket and barrel sponges top sandy patches and schools of baitfish swarm in free-style unison with unending graceful flow.

Destin & Fort Walton Beach Diving

At Destin and Fort Walton Beach, the natural reefs come close to shore. Ancient limestone ledges stagger like giant stairways into the depths. Large basket and barrel sponges top sandy patches and schools of baitfish swarm in free-style unison with unending graceful flow.

Just a few years ago off this same beach, a few lucky divers and I experienced one of those perfect moments when all life forms come together in the sea. We had finished our second dive and prepared to run the boat back to shore for a quick bite to eat. With throttles pushed hard forward, we approached the shoreline, watching as the emerald green waters shallowed to a depth of ten feet. Beneath us, sand dollars the size of tea saucers passed under our keel.

A huge dark object moving parallel to the beach suddenly interrupted our daydreaming thoughts. Swimming in shallow water, a manta ray seemed undisturbed by our presence. From wing-tip to wing-tip, the behemoth stretched at least ten feet and probably more. From the curved "horns" at its gaping mouth to the base of its tail, the animal measured more than six feet.

The large ray swam cautiously around the boat, not letting us too close at first. Eventually it let us swim with it. After nearly 30 minutes of playing with the manta, it was time to go. I watched as the gentle giant banked to the left like a large bird in flight. Its right wing broke the sunlit surface, while its left wing dipped to the sand bottom as if to say goodbye.

I crossed my fingers and hoped for a similar encounter as we made our way 20 miles seaward of Destin to a dive site called Timberholes. The site features enormous staggered limestone ledges that look much like an undersea amphitheater. On this dive, I encountered large schools of horse-eye jacks that suddenly appeared like a silver drape hung over the theatrical show.

Between Timberholes and the bridge that connects Fort Walton and Destin there are several artificial reefs, including barges and a transport airplane. On the next dive, our group visited the twisted remains of the old Intracoastal Bridge. After a dozen or so years on the ocean floor, this labyrinth of twisted girders and beams had become a virtual condominium for small reef critters. All around us, clouds of baitfish drifted, with large populations of snapper eyeing us with curiosity.

For the underwater hunter, northwest Florida is best suited. With so many miles of open water, relatively little commercial fishing and a level bottom that descends gradually, it's an exceptional location for big game fish. Snapper, amberjack and grouper are the most plentiful fish. The Florida spiny lobster flourishes in these emerald waters as well.

There are plenty of places to explore the region's rich history. Just two miles off the rock jetties of Pensacola Bay, in 21 feet of water and only a mile off the beach, rests the 500-foot WWI battleship, U.S.S. Massachusetts. And further out, a Russian freighter called the San Pablo sunk by a German U-boat during the Second World War is another fascinating dive.

But the best of the Pensacola wrecks are the Deliverance and the Navarre, both ocean-going tugboats. The Deliverance is in 75 feet of water and the three deck high Navarre sits upright, intact in 100 feet of water.

In May 2006, the U.S. Navy chose Escambia County as the final resting place for the U.S.S. Oriskany, a 910-foot aircraft carrier. It is located 22 miles southeast of Pensacola Pass in 212 feet of water. The Oriskany is the first aircraft carrier of its size to be sunk and used as an artificial reef. Its former crew members include Sen. John McCain, who was taken prisoner in North Vietnam after taking off from the ship in 1967.

Panama City Diving

From Pensacola through Destin and on to Panama City, Highway 98 hugs the shoreline offering breathtaking vistas. It is one of my favorite Florida drives. At Panama City, or "PC" in local lingo, I enjoyed a lunch of peel-and-eat shrimp at a local oyster bar where a T-shirt nailed to the wall over my shoulder read, "We Shuck'um - You Suck'um!"

Panama City is definitely a beach town. But I prefer its lesser known title as "The Wreck Capital of the Gulf Coast." It's always been a premier location for diving in Northwest Florida. On a Panama City diving trip, you'll find plenty of historical wreck sites and artificial reefs that provide home to an abundance of marine life along with dozens of natural reefs just a few miles from shore in depths from 80 to 110 feet.

Along with some very pretty natural reef systems, there are excellent artificial reefs that have been created for sport divers. One of the best dives is on the old spans of the Hathaway Bridge. Scattered along the bottom in depths between 45 feet and around 100 feet, the spans provide excellent grounds for shell collecting, photography and spearfishing. The grid-like structure and large amount of relief on these steel spans makes them great for spotting fish that might otherwise be obstructed behind the wall of a shipwreck. Large Goliath Groupers which can reach up to 800 pounds and greater barracudas are common residents here that you may be able to spy with your camera.

Of all the northwest Florida wrecks, perhaps the most famous is the Empire Mica off Indian Pass. She was a British tanker on the return trip of her maiden voyage when attacked by a German U-boat on June 29, l942 twenty-one miles from Apalachicola. Two torpedoes ripped through her side and the ensuing explosion brought an eerie glow to the still of the night. Today the ship sits in 100 feet of water and is heavily encrusted. Its portholes and hatches are still recognizable. Another impressive Pensacola dive is the Pete Tide II, a 175-foot oil field supply boat that sits upright in 100 feet of water.

One of my favorite wreck dives is the 105-foot tugboat Grey Ghost. It was intentionally sunk as an artificial reef and now sits on its side in 100 feet of water. In past dives, I have enjoyed the opportunity to swim through the steel hull and superstructure. The wheelhouse is fun to explore and quite photogenic listing 45 degrees on its starboard side. This wreck attracts alot of marine life since it rests on a large limestone reef and sees less fishing pressure. Some other wrecks include the 100-foot Chickasaw, its open framework covered in baitfish; the 170-foot USS Strength, a retired mine sweeper; 190-foot Chippewa, a naval tug boat; the Twin Tugs, which are stacked on top of each other; and the Black Bart, an 180-foot Oilfield Supply Vessel. All of these wrecks are upright and largely intact with large easy swim throughs.

But on this visit, I was more interested in seeing the wreck of the Commander. After a quick briefing, I began the swim to the sea floor 100 feet below. The 65-foot tugboat is upright and intact, like an apparition of its past. It almost appears to be on its last voyage across a sea of sand. After exploring this site with its large schools of fish, it was time to go.

As I began the slow swim toward the surface, I thought just how lucky I am to live in a place like Florida. From its subtropical islands to its barrier islands, the waters are a classroom of historical and marine life encounters. It's a place we can call our Florida.

For more information on diving in Northwest Florida, including Panama City diving, contact Panama City Dive Center at 850-235-3390 or visit their website at pcdivecenter.com. Another good resource is Panama City Dive Charters, 850-624-2084 and panamacitydivecharters.com.