By Carol Cox
Mexico Beach is known best for its fantastic fishing and un-crowded beaches. But a few local divers know there are some fantastic dive sites off their shores. Dive sites include historic wreck sites, industrial junk, concrete rubble, and prefabricated concrete and limestone artificial reefs. Many of these reefs are thanks to the efforts of the Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association, a non-profit organization that has deployed over 150 reefs.
There are sites for both beginner and advanced divers. Two of the best sites for beginners are only three miles off shore. One is the historic wreck of the Vamar, known locally as the Lumber Ship. This wreck sank in 1942 in 25 feet of water and can be seen from the surface on a clear day. The wreckage is scattered over the bottom and is about 170 feet long by 50 feet wide. It is home to three Goliath Groupers, and is visited by other large marine animals to include loggerhead turtles, nurse sharks, and southern stingrays. It also has plenty of colorful residents. The -upper part of the wreckage is home to lots of Molly Miller and seaweed blennies. Cocoa damselfish can be found anywhere on the wreck, and along the bottom you can find young black and white striped cubbyus. If visiting late in the afternoon, you might see lookdown jacks displaying prismatic colors as they do a courtship dance.
The other shallow site excellent for beginner divers is the John Thompson Memorial Reef. This reef consists of 23 concrete structures imbedded with limestone. The first structures were put down in 2013 with additional material added in 2014. As you move from structure to structure you are likely to encounter large schools of tomtates and jacks along with small groupers and snappers. This site is a mecca for blenny lovers. MBARA research divers have documented six different kinds of blennies on this reef including the rare zebratail blenny.
Moving into deeper water, about 6 miles offshore, divers can find a concrete sailboat wreck in 55-feet of water. This 47-foot boat was sunk in 2011 as an artificial reef. It quickly matured providing spearfishermen with opportunities to hung gags, triggerfish, and flounder. Fishwatchers will enjoy the clouds of small fry, along with blue angelfish and bright red two-spot cardinalfish.
Another fun place for divers in 55-feet of water is the Mexico Beach 2001 Grant Reef. This dive site consists of 98 reef balls closely packed together. Sunk in 2002, the reef balls are host to colorful seawhips and tunicates. The lucky spearfisherman will find sheepsheads, triggerfish, flounder and groupers.
An advanced dive certification is recommended for the best wreck out of Mexico Beach. Seventeen miles from the Mexico Beach Canal, lays a site called the Progress Energy Reef. Lying on her side on a sandy bottom, divers find a 110-foot shrimp boat named the “Shady Lady”. The depth is 95 feet, and the highest point of the wreck is 75 feet from the surface, providing divers with a wall-like relief to explore, usually with 50- to 80-foot visibility. Research divers have recorded 78 species of fish on this wreck. Some of the most common are favorites with spearfishermen, including gray and red snappers, amberjacks, and scamp. More colorful residents include queen and blue angelfishes, spotfin butterflyfish, and yellowtail reeffish. Large schools of fish swim around the site, often blotting out the sun. Small fry, to include anchovies, round scad, and juvenile grunts and snappers, are pursued by amberjacks, bluerunners, and tunny. The frenzied feeding activity often attracts a shark or two. Half a dozen goliath groupers also make this wreck their home. And if you are really lucky, you will be joined by a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins.
How does a diver get to these reefs? A personal boat is one way; GPS coordinates can be found on MBARA’s website at www.mbara.org. Mexico Beach has a great boat ramp just east of town that will quickly put you in the Gulf of Mexico after a scenic ride through the canal. You can also contact the dive shop in Port Saint and some of the local charter boat captains. If you are a diver who frequents the reefs around Mexico Beach and would like to help with research, MBARA would love to hear from you. Contact Bob Cox at email@example.com to ask how you can help. MBARA meets on the first Thursday of each month at the Mexico Beach Civic Center at 5:30 pm central time.