Pensacola, Fla.While the USS Oriskany, scuttled in May to become the world's largest artificial reef, has already become the dive world's latest "must dive," scuba enthusiasts coming to the Pensacola Bay Area are discovering a hidden treasure a wealth of other first-rate wreck dives in the waters of Northwest Florida. The main attraction is obviously the Oriskany, a retired 910-foot 7.5-inchlong aircraft carrier sitting upright on a soft sandy bottom in 212 feet of clear Gulf of Mexico water only 22.5 miles southeast of Pensacola Pass. As scuba divers from as far as Australia, Japan, Sweden and Russia have returned from the depths singing the praises of the "Mighty O," the wreck, dubbed by CNN "the great carrier reef," has already gained a reputation as one of the world's great dives. And while it has drawn the attention of divers from across the globe, the Oriskany has also focused the dive world's attention on the Pensacola Bay Area. "As people come to dive the Oriskany, they're also discovering one of Pensacola's best-kept secrets that diving is excellent off the shores of Northwest Florida for both recreational and technical divers," said Captain Ron Beermünder, Pensacola Dive Company. "We've got a variety of wrecks at all depths that are perfect for everything from photographing and observing marine life to spear fishing and beginning wreck penetration dives." Take for example the USS Massachusetts, sunk more than 50 years ago near Pensacola Pass. Dedicated as an underwater archaeological preserve in 1993 on the 100th anniversary of the ship's launching, the Massachusetts has been a favorite dive site of locals for decades. Sitting in just 25 feet of water, the wreck attracts bountiful marine life, including at least three Goliath groupers known to locals as the Kennedy's, an eight-foot long resident nurse shark, giant stingrays, sea turtles, king mackerels and a google variety of baitfish. With its shallow depth and hull partially exposed on a white sandy bottom, the Massachusetts makes a stunning night dive. Only one and a half miles from shore and with its close proximity to Pensacola Pass, the Massachusetts with her partially exposed gun turrets is something of a marine navigation hazard to boaters. And while surface currents can sometimes pose difficulties and rough conditions can affect visibility, a carefully planned dive with a local, experienced dive guide can result in the Massachusetts becoming a regular dive destination for tourists as well as the locals "in the know." The Antares, a 400-foot freighter, is 21 miles southeast of Pensacola Pass, just west of the Oriskany and in 130 feet of water. Populated with moray eels, red snapper, grouper, cobia and amberjack, the Antares is a favorite spear fishing spot. The massive freighter broke apart and was scattered by hurricane Opal in 1995, but because each large chunk of the wreck is worthy of a separate dive, a trip to the Antares can seem as if you are diving several wrecks at once. Another local favorite is the Pete Tide II, a 180-foot oil field supply boat that was reefed in 1993. Only 12 miles south of Pensacola Pass, the Pete Tide II is intact and upright and is an easy wreck to penetrate, even for properly trained beginning wreck divers. In 100 feet of water, the wreck is broad, long and easy to anchor on. After spending 13 years on the bottom, marine attractions of the Pete Tide II can include sea turtles, triggerfish, schools of red snapper and amberjack, and even the occasional mahi mahi, wahoo and blackfin tuna. But until further notice, the "Mighty O" remains the shining underwater star of the Pensacola Bay Area. As awe-inspiring as a dive on the "Mighty O" is, one of its charms is its accessibility by divers at every skill level. Her "crown" or island can be approached at 67 feet in emerald-clear water where visibility has been holding steady at 150-plus feet. From the island divers can scan the seemingly endless flight deck sitting at 137 feet, a depth considered a technical dive. And with water temperatures ranging from the mid 80s in summer to the upper 60s in winter, when visibility is generally at its best, the Oriskany is an outstanding dive throughout the year. In addition, the Oriskany has been added to the list of Pensacola wedding venues. Couples wanting to make a big splash can tie the knot "scuba style" with a ceremony conducted on the navigation tower at 70 feet deep by Captain Ron Beermünder, an ordained minister, notary public and owner of Pensacola Dive Company. For scuba families or groups with a few surface-dwellers along, Pensacola offers a variety of activities to keep everyone happy. As America's first European settlement, visitors can explore 450 years of history at premier museums and attractions including Historic Pensacola Village, the National Museum of Naval Aviation, one of the world's largest aviation museums, and Fort Barrancas and Fort Pickens, massive pre-Civil War brick fortresses. Combined with pristine beaches with sugar-white sand and clear emerald waters, year-round festivals, PGA-rated golf courses, a thriving arts community and the freshest seafood you can get, the Pensacola Bay Area is the perfect seaside getaway. To request a free Visitors Guide, view a complete calendar of events as well as travel packages and hot deals currently offered in the area, log on to www.VisitPensacola.com, or for more information on the Pensacola Bay Area, call the Pensacola Bay Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 874-1234 or (850) 434-1234.
Pensacola Offers a Wealth of Wrecks and Family Fun
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