Pensacola Pass

Wrecks mark the spot: Diving trail puts Panhandle's sunken treasures on the map

By Kimberly Blair - PNJ

Pensacola has become a scuba diver's mecca, thanks to the Oriskany.

Divers travel here from all over the world to dive the aircraft carrier of the Korean and Vietnam war-era, sunk in 2006. As an artificial reef, it offers a challenging, deep-water dive 22 miles southeast of Pensacola Pass.

In fact, the sandy bottom of the Gulf of Mexico between Pensacola and Panama City is a watery grave for dozens of other ships-turned-reefs, with equally storied pasts and diving thrills.

A state Division of Historical Resources project is in the works to create a Panhandle Shipwreck Trail featuring the most interesting of these wrecks. Fifteen are under consideration.

"Our goal is to showcase the Panhandle as the diverse and exciting dive destination that it is," said underwater archaeologist Roger Smith, who is part of that division and is spearheading the project. "Pensacola has one of the earliest battleships, the Massachusetts. It's one of my favorite shipwrecks. It participated in the Spanish American War in the Gulf."

Smith was awarded a $60,000 National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration grant through Florida Department of Environmental Protection's coastal management program to pay for the project.

Expected to be launched by spring, the project calls for posting the history and diving details of each ship on an interactive website so people may "virtually dive" without ever getting their flippers wet.

Divers who come here will be able to sign up for a "trail passport" that challenges them to return to get their passport stamped with each completed dive.

Pensacola diver Bryan Clark believes the passport idea is clever.

"Most divers love a challenge," he said. "The shipwreck trail provides us with a goal that we can strive for while having fun diving and exploring Northwest Florida."