Sea Life on the Reef
The waters of Pensacola Beach are home to multiple manmade reefs. These artificial reefs are primarily composed of prefabricated concrete structures and decommissioned ships that have been lowered to the ocean floor. Gulf waters near the shore are virtually devoid of reef habitat, so marine life is attracted to these reefs almost immediately. The quantity and types of marine life vary greatly over daily and seasonal cycles and are also affected by Gulf wave conditions.
Reef surfaces are completely covered by algae, barnacles, hydorzoans, and other sessile species. Crabs, shrimp, octopus, and other invertebrates find food and shelter on the reefs and surrounding sand seafloor. Fish and other marine life abound, ranging from small colorful fishes to snappers, mackerels, sharks, sea turtles, and dolphins. These reefs provide excellent areas for fishing, scuba diving, and snorkeling. Strong tidal currents can reduce visibility and diving safety, so careful planning is necessary to enjoy a safe reef dive.
Fish Illustrations © Mike Ceglady; Octopus © Harry Purcell;
Redfish, Blenny, Reef Balls, Flounder, Triggerfish and Moray Eel © Carol Cox
Reefs of the Intracoastal
Both man's activities and natural disasters have led to reductions in our natural reef systems. Long-lasting artificial reefs are useful tools for restoring our reef systems to a natural and productive balance.
A variety of artificial reef modules have been deployed in many different sites in and around Pensacola Beach. Many of these artificial reef structures are made of concrete and steel. All of the sites generally attract snapper, grouper, and triggerfish, but there are some species that you may see in the Intracoastal waters that you probably would not see in the Gulf.
Starfish, hermit crabs, baby flounder, and seahorses can be found in and around the Intracoastal artificial reefs. Keep an eye out for octopus in these areas, though you may have difficulty seeing them due to their ability to camouflage themselves.
Sheepshead fish, often called convict fish, also call these reefs their home. Many consider the sheepshead fish one of the scariest looking fish due to its strangely human looking teeth.
Park West Snorkeling Reef
Park West Snorkeling Reef on the Sound side is constructed of reef ball modules, sea-rest modules that have limestone attached to them, and faux ballast rock, which provides additional habitat for marine life within the snorkeling reef. The faux ballast rock is instrumental in the ongoing project of recreating the remains of a centuries-old shipwreck in this location.
Reefs of the Gulf
Pensacola is the final resting place for the former USS Oriskany, which resides on the Gulf seafloor about 26 miles off Pensacola Beach. At 911 feet long, 150 feet wide, and over 150 feet tall, she is the largest vessel ever sunk as an artificial reef. Divers from as far as Australia, Japan, Sweden, and Russia have returned from the depths singing the praises of the “Mighty O,” and CNN dubbed the wreck “the great carrier reef.” The USS Oriskany is accessible by divers at every skill level. Her “crown” or island can be approached at 84 feet in emerald-clear water where visibility averages 70 to 150-plus feet. From the island, divers can scan the flight deck sitting at 145 feet, a depth considered a technical dive. Couples wanting to make a big splash can have their wedding ceremony conducted on top of the reef.
The USS Massachusetts has been a favorite dive site for more than 50 years. The wreck was dedicated as an underwater archaeological preserve in 1993 on the 100th anniversary of the ship’s launching. Sitting in just 25 feet of water 1.5 miles from shore, the wreck attracts bountiful marine life, including goliath grouper, an eight-foot resident nurse shark, giant stingrays, sea turtles, king mackerel, and a variety of baitfish. The USS Massachusetts also makes a stunning night dive.
The Antares, a 400-foot freighter, is 21 miles southeast of Pensacola Pass in 130 feet of water just west of the Oriskany. 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, which makes a trip to the Antares seem as if divers are exploring several wrecks at once.
The Pete Tide II
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. In 100 feet of water, the wreck is broad, long, and easy to anchor on. After spending 15 years on the bottom, the boat has attracted sea turtles, triggerfish, schools of red snapper and amberjack, and even the occasional mahi mahi, wahoo, and blackfin tuna.