There's a lot to be said for being able to walk into the ocean with your dive gear, swim out a few hundred feet and then explore coral reefs or a shipwreck while seeing a variety of fish, lobsters and maybe even a sea turtle.
That's something the town of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea promotes and prides itself on. South Florida is one of the few places in the world where divers can access coral reefs from shore, and the town goes out of its way to be beach diving-friendly.
In a resolution by the Florida Legislature, the town was "recognized for its outstanding diving opportunities and sincerely thanked for its commitment to enhancing and preserving diving opportunities for future generations."
"This is probably the most popular beach diving spot in Florida because the reef is so close to the shore," said Dave Hoffert, noting that the corals are about 100 yards from the beach.
One of the owners of Gold Coast Scuba, Hoffert regularly conducts beach dives that are posted at meetup.com/goldcoastscuba. There is no cost for the dives, although the shop on Commercial Boulevard can provide a rental air tank for $10 or air tank fills for $5 or $6.
Since divers rarely are in water deeper than 20 feet, a full tank lasts a long time.
"You can stay out there forever with your air," Hoffert said, "and the variety of corals is amazing."
I recently met up with Hoffert, newly certified diver Michelle Touchstone and Steve d'Oliveira, the Public Information Officer for Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, at the Datura Avenue beach portal. That's where the town installed a bench with straps to hold air tanks as divers prepare, and later remove, their gear. There is also a hose to rinse themselves and their equipment.
The town, which has its fourth annual Bugfest-by-the-Sea July 25-Aug. 1 in celebration of lobster miniseason, also has a limited number of special scuba diver parking permits. They cost $30, are good from May 1 to Oct. 31 and allow parking from 6 to 10 a.m. Sunday through Friday and 7 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday on three streets with easy beach access. Call the town at 954-640-4200.
After putting on our buoyancy compensator devices, we walked down to the water, which had just a slight ripple in the light southeast wind. When we were about chest deep, we put on our flippers, pulled down our dive masks and followed Hoffert out to the town's Shipwreck Snorkel Trail south of Anglin's Pier
The trail consists of several cannons and a large anchor that were placed in the water in 2003. An actual shipwreck, the SS Copenhagen, is north of the fishing pier. The British steamship left Philadelphia with 5,000 tons of coal and was bound for Cuba when it hit a reef in 1900.
It was almost freed from the reef when salvage crews suddenly departed to help with a maritime disaster in New Jersey. The ship remained on the reef, where it was used for target practice by U.S. Navy pilots during World War II.
Now scattered over a 300-foot area in 15-30 feet of water, the Copenhagen is on the National Register of Historic Places and is also a Florida Underwater Archaeological Preserve. It's a longer swim off the beach to get to, but a very popular site for those diving from boats, especially tourists and new divers. According to d'Oliveira, with more than 10,000 visitors every year, the Copenhagen is twice as popular as any of the state's other Archaeological Preserve.
After completing the Snorkel Trail, we headed southeast, past an isolated head of staghorn coral, to the Biorock Reef Project. There, corals are attached to a wire frame and electricity from solar panels on the water's surface is used to speed up the growth of the corals. The town, along with Nova Southeastern University, also has planted 1,000 staghorn corals off the beach and will plant another 1,000 next year.
From there, we checked out a variety of other corals, some of which held immense schools of baitfish and others some angelfish or puffer fish. Hoffert pointed out a lone spiny lobster hiding under a coral ledge. As we made our way back to shore, where only a handful of people were on the beach, it wasn't yet 10 a.m. and it seemed like we'd already had a great day.
"I love it," said Touchstone of her second beach dive. "There's no stress and you get used to using all your equipment."
She also liked not having to get on, and pay for, a dive boat. Plus, after she loaded her dive gear in her car, she could head straight to work at Me & a Tree Skincare, where she crafts hand-made soaps.
Hoffert said Gold Coast beach dives are open to everybody, but there are plenty of others who dive off the beach on their own. He suggested that before heading over, divers check the online beach cam at windjammerresort.com for an idea of the surf conditions at the Windjammer Resort and Beach Club, which is at El Mar Drive and Datura Avenue.
"The fewer the waves and the less current, the better," said Hoffert, who judges the current by looking at the swim buoys to see if they are leaning north or south. If they are upright, that means there is very little current.