Florida-Jupiter & Palm Beach, September 1-9, 2018
What a great trip and so glad all the prior planning paid off! Trips like this are not that easy to plan and execute because there is no travel agent or dive resort you can call to book everything like a regular warm water trip. Trips like this need to be done in pieces making things even more difficult but luckily with tide charts online several years out, excellent dive shops like Jupiter Dive Center (JDC) and managers like Lisa Carroll willing to help work everything out lots of the details it all turned out great. Lisa even contracted out Walkers Dive Charters for our 3 days of diving in the Palm Beach area and made sure we were supplied with floats & dive flags to dive the Blue Herron Bridge.
Some asked-Why go to Florida in the middle of storm season and shouldn’t you pick a better time. The answer was NO and for one GOOD reason. Mid-August to mid-September is the Goliath Grouper spawning season. That is when the Goliath groupers move into the Jupiter and Palm Beach area in very large numbers making it the only time to go to Florida if you wish to see lots of Goliath Groupers. If someone was worried about storms that is why they sell travel insurance! Of course, the groupers like wrecks as much as we did so that was a bonus. Being able to enjoy Goliath Groupers, wrecks, reefs, dives at the Blue Heron Bridge and some outstanding drift diving was a bucket list trip for many of us including myself. The Goliath groupers are more like our giant black sea bass except on steroids. They can easily be 6’-8’ ft in length and weight up to 800 lbs.
Dealing with Lisa and her crew at JDC was outstanding and made my job easy. They have an excellent full-service shop with two boats out their back door. They also have a rinse & drying area where we were able to leave our gear. When staying in a hotel, not having to take your gear to wash in a tub sure is nice and convenient. They supplied each of us with the tanks of our choice (most Steel HP 100 or HP 120) and the best fills I have ever seen making for some nice long relaxing dives.
Our stay at the Hampton Inn Juno was excellent as well and only about 15-minute drive in either direction for any days diving we were doing. The property was very clean and nicely kept as were the rooms were. The only small problem was not all of us had a fridge in our room but by the second day everything was taken care of. The staff was great, always helpful and in good spirits and the free breakfast had more choices then I we needed. The other thing I really liked about the location is it was only 8 minutes from my sister’s house which gave us plenty of time to visit. I would recommend the Hampton Inn Juno easily to anyone asking where to stay while in the area.
So, what did we do during our week. Naturally dived as much as possible! The weather situation wasn’t the best early in the week as a tropical depression moved through but as the time went by it was nicer everyday with us only losing out on diving on Monday, the second dive day of our trip because of 4-6 ft seas. The first day a few people were under the weather while out on the boat but they grew their sea legs rather quickly and didn’t waste anytime diving. The only real issue the first couple days was getting back on the boat because the ladder was much harder than our legs, shins, feet and knees.
On Sunday we went for a 3-tank dive. The first was the usual check out dive and was at Area 51 just a short distance out from JDC. It was a flatter shallow reef with a ledge leading down to a sandy bottom. Seen a Goliath grouper or two and a couple sharks but other then that not much going on here. Afterwards we made a change due to weather and did our next 2 dives at the wreck of the NG-111. The NG-111 is an old barge all busted up sitting in sand around a depth of about 60’ ft. There might not be much left but the Goliath groupers sure do like it. At one point the DM said he counted about 24. I never seen that many but I did see about 8-10 at one time along with a turtle. There was some big cement looking blocks with beams sticking up about 12’ ft. high and here is where you would find many of the groupers hanging out. Of course, there was current but you just stayed low or found a place to get out of it.
Monday was a no dive day due to weather so some of us took advantage of the free time to see some local points of interest. My sister had given us some suggestions that a friend gave her and we went with it going to the House of Refuge on Gilberts Bar. Basically, it was a house built in 1876 for shipwrecked sailors and run by an Inn keeper and his family. Back in the day this area was very REMOTE and not easy living, given that they did an amazingly good job. In 1915 the U.S. Life-Saving Service merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard, and then the House of Refuge became U.S. Coast Guard Station #207. In 1942, when German U-Boats torpedoed freighters along the Treasure Coast, the lookout tower and other buildings were added to the property. In 1945 the U.S. government decommissioned the House of Refuge operations with the house sitting empty until 1953, when Martin County purchased it and its 16-acre grounds for $168. In 1955 it was turned into a museum.
The best thing about our trip to the House of Refuge was we got an excellent history of it from the man working there and to top it off it was one of those days you would expect to see a shipwreck. Afterwards we all went to a local restaurant for lunch and some good times followed by a stop at the Loggerhead Maritime Center almost across the street from our hotel. The Loggerhead Maritime Center is a full-time rescue center for turtles that nest along the coastal waters and others that were found hurt along the coast. What an excellent day getting to know each other more!
Tuesday was another dive day and our last with JDC. It was still somewhat choppy out with 4’ ft swells and the ride out were a bit rough but the diving was great once under the surface. We started the day with our first dive at the Jupiter Wreck Trek. This was a few miles offshore and was a grouping of 3 wrecks, a freighter named the Zion Train, a small freighter listing on its port side with a bow broken off by a hurricane followed by the Miss Jenny, an upside-down barge, and finally, the best for last, the Esso Bonaire, which sits upright in 90 ft of water with her deck around 75 ft. These sights had plenty of Goliath Gropers to go around, some sharks that everyone but me seen, a sea turtle, and lots of fish. The visibility was excellent due to the ripping current along the wreck trek giving us the chance to get the whole experience in.
For our next 2 dives we used the current to our advantage and covered some ground. The first was at Captain Krill’s, a shallow reef with a series of deep ledges and lots of crevices making a nice home for fish, eels, sharks and lots of other critters. Our last dive was very similar at another reef named Lighthouse reef because you could see the lighthouse from where the boat was and we continued on to part of Loggerhead Reef.
Wednesday brought us to Walkers Dive Charters in Riviera Beach who we would dive with the next 3 days. They were an excellent outfit as well and one I have had quite a few friends use. The owner and Captain Bill had even certified my friend BJ Rogers, her son and grandson. How’s that for a small world!
This day we did a 2-tank dive and later we were going to the Blue Heron Bridge. The first dive was the Corridor Wrecks and was a series of 4 wrecks in a row, the Ana Cecilia, the Mizpah, The PC1174, an old patrol craft PC1174 and the Amaryllis, a 450 ft cargo ship. The wrecks were very cool to dive and had plenty more groupers to hang out with along the way as well as a couple sharks. For the second dive we Breakers Reef, another shallow dive with lots of life along some ledges with plenty of crevices. What surprised me was how much more life Breakers had then the ones we dived in Jupiter. Lots of fish and a good variety, LOTS of vase sponges and some small critters as well. After the boat dives I had enough time to get back to the hotel to pick up my wife, get something to eat and get to the Blue Herron Bridge. Diving the bridge is all about timing of the tides especially if you would like to make the most of it. The bridge goes across the Inter-coastal waterway which can get some strong currents. We had it timed to get there early, get suited up and get in the water at least 30 minutes before slack tide. This worked out great with my buddy Chantal and I coming up after a 1 hour 50-minute dive, never getting below 14’ ft. and then finding most everyone was done and gone.
There are actually two dives at the bridge and the plan was to do one on Wednesday and the other on Thursday but everyone opted out on the one for Thursday due to it would be later and I think we all need a rest. The bridge is known as a muck dive with lots to see around the bridge pilings as well as out in the sand.
Thursday, we did another 2-tank dive with Walkers doing all reefs on this day. This was the day we traveled the furthest south to Paul’s Reef and Bath & Tennis Reef. Both reefs were similar to the breakers but the current was not as strong making it two nice leisurely dives. It was nice because the weather was getting better everyday and of course it always works out like that.
Friday was our last day diving and we put in a request for all WRECKS and what fun we had. The part I really liked was now that we did some of the wrecks I would have a plan of attack for getting some better goliath grouper pictures. Our first dive was the wreck of the Danny McCauley Memorial Reef which was sunk in February 2013 as memorial to Danny McCauley who died in a tragic auto accident. It is a 110-foot World War II vintage tugboat, formerly called the Pocahontas that now sits on a sandy bottom at a depth of about 80’ ft. After the Danny, we swam with the current over remnants of an old stadium that now make for a cool dive leading us to an old barge. The barge had the sides rusting away showing all the support beams inside with sea fans and sponges growing on them creating an excellent home to lots of different fish.
Our second dive was the Corridor Wrecks that we did on Wednesday but with much less current making it easier to get up front and personnel with the goliath groupers. I spent most my dive here enjoying the time with my new friends the groupers. We followed this up with our third dive on the Governor’s River Walk Wrecks, a site that included the Shasah, the St Jacques, the Thorzina and the Gilbert Sea. All these wrecks are part of the Palm Beach County’s Artificial Reef Program. In February 2002 the Shasha, a 184-foot coastal freighter was the first of three former drug smuggling vessels seized and sunk off Palm Beach County. Following the Shasha was the St. Jacques (180-foot) and the Gilbert Sea (170-foot). In December 2002. The Gilbert Sea coastal freighter was donated to Palm Beach County’s Artificial Reef Program and sunk in December 2002. The wrecks are all in 85’-90’ ft. of water and make an excellent drift dive. To bad California can’t see things like Florida!
Friday evening, we had an excellent group dinner at Duffy’s talking about all the dive fun we had during the week. On Saturday some of us took a drive to see the Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce. What an excellent museum it was and at times it made me feel happy and sad. So much work and dedication to becoming a seal and to see some of the things they did over the years could make your head spin. It was time for lunch afterwards finding an excellent restaurant recommended to us by the guys working in the museum. Later that evening it was a sad time because it was time to pack. It really was a fantastic week and as AMY said “it’s one thing to have great weather, and perfect conditions – but when things turn less than ideal, its true friends that make the trip memorable!” So true!
By Ken Kollwitz