The sun is shining. The ocean is calm. The water is clear.
It’s the perfect day to explore one of the best snorkeling spots on the Treasure Coast.
The aquatic activity is more popular than ever this summer for two reasons: good visibility and the coronavirus pandemic.
For Dive Odyssea in Fort Pierce, which opened in 1997, business has been booming with both new customers and existing snorkelers, said owner Scott Shaler.
“We’ve been really busy the last two months,” Shaler said. “It’s crazy; we can’t keep up.”
COVID-19 has made this the dive shop’s best year since 2008, he said.
“People aren’t traveling,” Shaler said. “They’re doing stuff locally.”
Deep Six Dive and Watersports has seen an increased interest in all watersports because people are tired of staying home, said co-owner Chris Hammett.
“Everything’s busy when it comes to the outside right now,” Hammett said. “If people can get out and do it, that’s what they’re wanting to do.”
Clear water this year is the other reason more people have been flocking to dive shops such as Deep Six, which opened in Vero Beach in 1979 and in Stuart a few years later.
“It’s not what it used to be, which is a really tough thing for snorkeling,” Hammett said. “Our visibility used to be 300 days a year when we opened. We’re down now to probably 90 days is a good year.
“But it has been one of the better years.”
Where to snorkel
The Treasure Coast has great snorkeling spots to see sea life and to learn history, especially about the sunken ships from the 1715 treasure fleet that gave the region its name.
The reefs are less crowded and less trampled than elsewhere in the state, Shaler said. Snorkelers can see natural and artificial structures in water up to 25 feet depth, no boats or water vessels required.
“It’s different, but it’s really nice,” Shaler said. “It’s not going to be the colorful coral and sponges like down south, but it is still real pretty.”
Indian River County
The reefs stretch between the Sebastian Inlet and the Fort Pierce Inlet, for the most part, and are within 50-75 feet from shore, Hammett said. The only exception is South Beach Park in Vero Beach, where the reef is a half-mile to a mile offshore.
If a reef line disappears, he said, swim 30 feet east or west to come across another reef line.
“The beauty of Indian River County is it probably has the best beach diving and snorkeling on the whole East Coast,” Hammett said. “All the reefs are close enough that you can swim out to them.”
Snorkelers can find bathrooms, showers and lifeguards at Humiston Beach Park and Round Island Oceanside Park, but the reef at the latter location is farther out from the beach, he said. It’s closer the farther north you go, within 30 feet at Golden Sands Beach Park and within 10 feet at the north end of Wabasso Beach Park.
“Our nicest reef that starts right on the beach is Riomar,” Hammett said. “As soon as you put your foot in the water, you’re on the reef.”
The downside to the beach access at the end of Riomar Drive is limited parking and no amenities, he said.
Another top spot accessible via Sexton Plaza Beach is the historic S.S. Breconshire shipwreck about 300 yards off the coast.
The “Boiler Wreck” was a 300-foot ship that was traveling from New York to Tampa when it wrecked in 1894 because of faulty navigational charts, according to Visit Indian River County. Snorkelers can see the bow and the boilers that powered the steam engines.
“It’s an amazing little wreck, but that’s a long way to swim out,” Hammett said. “It’s really deceptive.”
St. Lucie County
A local favorite in St. Lucie County is Pepper Park Beach, which is considered to have three reefs, Shaler said. The middle reef has 2- to 3-foot ledges where lobsters and other fish hide.
About 1,000 yards north of Pepper Park, parts of the historic Urca de Lima shipwreck can be found about 200 yards offshore in 10-15 feet of water, according to the National Park Service. It sank in 1715 during a hurricane and is all that remains of the treasure fleet.
The rest of the ships were blown apart over the years, Shaler said. Cannons from the ship were salvaged and moved to U.S. 1 and Sunrise Boulevard.
North of the Fort Pierce Inlet is typically clearer than south of it, he said, but the state park is strict about snorkelers getting too close to the artificial jetty for safety reasons; the current could push people into the rocks.
Snorkelers can expect to see the same creatures at both locations: lobsters, sea turtles, nurse sharks, tropical fish, jacks and the occasional hogfish.
“The closer you look,” Shaler said, “the more interesting it gets.”
The reefs start again south of the Fort Pierce Inlet toward Martin County for about a mile before snorkeling opportunities from the beach become spotty, Hammett said. The next best spot is House of Refuge in Stuart with the wreck of Georges Valentine about 100 feet from shore, as well as nearby Bathtub Reef Beach.
The area is the eastern-most point of the Caribbean, he said, and it also gets fish from the north. Snorkelers are likely to see anything they would spot in the Florida Keys, such as octopus, sheepshead, snook, turtles, snapper and even goliath grouper.
“That’s the beauty of snorkeling and diving; it’s the last frontier,” Hammett said. “The only place that really comes close to it is space.
“You just don’t know what you’ll see.”
How to snorkel
To get started snorkeling, beginners need to buy a mask, snorkel, fins and a diver-down flag, Shaler said. The red-and-white flag alerts boaters to snorkelers, who still need to be cautious and aware of their surroundings.
The most basic equipment costs about $80 altogether, he said. It typically lasts a decade, and rinsing with fresh water after use and keeping IT cool indoors helps with longevity.
It’s imperative to go to a local dive shop and get fitted for a snorkel-grade mask, he said. Snorkelers with long hair might like a strap for the back of the mask.
“A terrible mask experience can drive you right out of the water,” Shaler said.
It’s easier to float in salt water, he said. Stay still and flat to float, keeping your head pointed toward the bottom and breathing through the snorkel. If you start to go deeper, take a boogie board or inflatable raft to rest.
“Baby steps,” Shaler said. “Go somewhere shallow where you can touch the bottom with your fingers so that you can get comfortable.”
Hammett suggested wearing a snorkeling vest, which has less drag and can be deflated to dive down for a closer look. He also advised wearing sunscreen or protective clothing.
When to snorkel
The summertime typically is the best for snorkeling, specifically May through August, Hammett said. Four to 10 days per month of clear water is considered good because snorkelers lose visibility inshore with the slightest wave action.
Check with lifeguards to make sure you’re snorkeling in a public area where it’s permitted, he said, and ask them about current conditions.
Snorkelers can call Dive Odyssea or check its website for swell height from a real-time buoy off Fort Pierce, the National Weather Service forecast and an inlet webcam, Shaler said.
Waves should be no higher than 1-2 feet, he said. Snorkeling is best on an incoming tide when the water is smoother and more relaxed. He suggested going before 10 a.m., while the sandy bottom still is silky.
Sharks can be a concern for beginners, but they shouldn’t be a problem when snorkeling in clear water, he said. Just don’t touch them — or anything else for that matter.
“When you’re in murky water, sharks can sense there’s something alive, but they can’t see it,” Shaler said, “so on a nice snorkel day, that’s not the issue.
“We’re really not on the menu.”
Laurie K. Blandford is TCPalm’s entertainment reporter and columnist dedicated to finding the best things to do on the Treasure Coast. Follow her on Twitter at @TCPalmLaurie or Facebook at faceboook.com/TCPalmLaurie.
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