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“I pulled out my phone and showed the Australian dive guide pictures of our Goliath groupers.” The diver had just returned from a live-aboard vacation to the Great Barrier Reef. Travel weary after exhausting flights back to Boynton Beach, he was convinced diving a mile offshore in Palm Beach County has more to offer. The diver laughed when he finished his storytelling how the famous Cod Hole groupers of Australia were half the size of goliaths that inhabit the wreck of the Castor off Gulf Stream.
Reef structure from north Boca Raton to the Palm Beach Inlet is rather consistent. About three-quarters to a mile off the beaches reefs are from 60-feet deep on the western edge to 80 on the eastern edge. Divers can enjoy diving on top of the reefs about 45- to 55-feet deep. Underwater life abounds. The Gulf Stream meanders close to shore along this coast. A predominantly northward-flowing current, there are eddies in the Gulf Stream causing it to flow south on occasion. At times there are strong currents that whisk divers along at a fast pace and there are days when there is no current at all.
Capt. Jim Hill, the owner of the dive boat Loggerhead based at the Boynton Harbor Marina, has been diving local reefs and taking divers out for many years. His experience is shared as he takes divers where the best sites are considering ocean conditions.
“The Boynton inlet is tricky,” Hill admits. In truth, the Boynton inlet, which is officially called the South Lake Worth Inlet, is not an inlet at all rather a cut made to enable flushing of the Intracoastal Waterway of materials from the huge canal that dumps into it and sewage outlets from various sources.
Boats that can make it under the bridge that crosses A1A use the cut. Mariners are warned that it takes an experienced skipper with local knowledge to navigate it safely. Conditions must be studied beforehand to ensure safe passage when the ocean is not calm.
Hill took Loggerhead north of the Lake Worth Pier to a site called Paul’s Reef. The ocean was flat calm. The water temperature was 76 degrees and the current was nil. Divers could see from top to bottom the water was so clear. This was an exceptional diving day with unlimited visibility below. A green moray eel poked out of its niche on the inside of the reef, curious about divers swimming past.
Local reefs had been plagued with algae proliferation in past years. Algae blooms in the presence of nitrogen. The phenomenon is akin to what one sees in lakes and ponds — a green covering over the water. Algae are plants and produce oxygen until they die, settle on the bottom where they decay, and smother coral to death.
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Hill chose Horseshoe Reef for a second dive. The depth is 60 feet to the sand. The reef bends around in a hook, thus its name. Ledges around the reef are home to tropical fish. A small resident bull shark often greets divers. On this dive, an aged male loggerhead turtle rested under a ledge. Turtles come to these reefs every year to mate. Females lay their eggs on the beaches, return to the ocean, mate again in a life cycle that has repeated itself over generations.
The venerable loggerhead seemed to enjoy posing for photographs as it turned its large head to the camera. Before his ship leaves the dock, Hill briefs divers about marine turtles, warning them not to touch or harass them. All species of marine turtles are on the endangered list and are protected by law. Hill’s admonition bears repeating since the area gets many tourist divers that may not be aware of turtle protection rules and could be tempted to grab hold of a turtle’s shell to ride it underwater.
There are many surprises diving in the Gulf Stream. Large denizens of the deep venture in seeking prey on the reefs. Barracudas, hammerhead sharks, dolphins, and every so often leatherback turtles and whale sharks come our way.
“Even though I travel all over the world I always come back to Boynton Beach, my home for reef diving. Drift Diving here is Florida’s best-kept secret,” said Rachel Taub, Boynton Beach Dive Center manager.
We are fortunate to have this amazing ocean resource so close by. It offers a grand opportunity to view nature’s harmony and beauty just off our shores.
John Christopher Fine is an author and marine biologist who lives in Boynton Beach.