The best diving locations right here in the U.S.A.
As a place more unexplored and more mysterious than space, the ocean is naturally a source of wonder, a vast expanse filled with creatures whose habits astound us, whose existence baffles us. Every corner of the deep is alive with spectacles, some so remarkable and so bizarre that they seem the stuff of myths; and if you’re intrepid enough to suit up and strap on the gear to dive into those depths, you’ll have the opportunity to behold them for yourself.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take a passport and a plane ticket and to some far corner of the globe to channel your inner Jacques Cousteau. Quite the contrary, in fact, as the US offers unforgettable exploration that’ll leave you wide-eyed in amazement. And while not all of them offer ocean exploration, there are a great many not-to-miss dive spots within driving distance of Clarksville throughout the Southeast, so set your GPS, load up your wetsuit, and pack your sense of adventure.
Pennyroyal SCUBA Center
While it may not be offering ocean exploration, diving the freshwaters at Blue Springs Park Resort is still filled with plenty of interesting sights under the surface. Diving in the quarry, you’ll find everything you wouldn’t expect, so be prepared to be amazed and make sure you’ve got a waterproof camera. “There are artificial reefs formed by dropping land-based attractions in the water for the freshwater life such as catfish and blue gill to congregate,” says dive expert and co-owner of Waterdogs SCUBA & Safety in Clarksville Rich Holladay, whose military career took him all over the globe and granted him a great deal of opportunity to dive some of the most remarkable spots in the world. “With areas of varying depths, divers of any experience level can enjoy the fire truck, yachts, sailboats, motorcycles, and various other vehicles found well within safe limits. There are even dinosaurs and an underwater basketball court, which uses a bowling ball for shooting hoops!”
Another recommendation that tops Holladay’s list of fresh water faves, Mermet Springs offers exploration of artificial reefs that are really wild—specifically a petting zoo of stone animal statues, guarded by the menacing presence of an 11-foot shark statue. They’ve also got an airplane suspended in mid-water, along with sunken boats, another small private plane, and their greatest claim to fame: the fuselage of the Boeing jet liner that crashed in the movie US Marshals.
Bonne Terre Mine
Bonne Terre, Missouri
Originally a fully functional mine, the strange phenomenon of what is now called Billion Gallon Lake offers underwater exploration of everything you would expect to find in an abandoned mine and more. As you float along in the wondrous caverns and caves, you’ll see the mammoth natural architecture created by calcium falls as well as oar carts, scaffolding, grating, staircases, pillars, slurry pipes, and even an elevator shaft. “The underwater mine remnants make the site absolutely amazing and unique,” says Holladay.
If you’re a lover of Naval history, the sunken remains of the USS Massachusetts in Pensacola, Florida, will really get you charged up. Located just offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, the battleship saw action during the Spanish-American War in 1898 as well as other notable sea battles and saw its final mission in 1919. Scuttled in 1921 in the shallow waters just off of Pensacola in the Gulf of Mexico, the battleship was used as a target for experimental artillery throughout the course of the next few decades. Having never been scrapped, the wreck was declared the property of the State of Florida in 1956 an now serves as an artificial reef and diving spot.
Underwater Museum of Art
Grayton Beach, Florida
Even non-art lovers can’t help but appreciate the beauty and creativity of the Underwater Museum of Art, the first permanent underwater sculpture garden in the United States. Located in the beautiful waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the museum features sculptural pieces created by artists from all over the world that are chosen through a juried selection and added each year to the underwater garden, which provides a habitat for local marine life and fisheries. Adding to its beneficial aspects, the museum offers marine scientists, wildlife management professionals, ecologists, and students the opportunity to study the impact of artificial reef systems on the Gulf ecosystem as well as the chance to learn more about marine life.
Just 18 miles east of Savannah, Tybee Island is a popular dive site whose waters flow up from the Caribbean. Filled with every type of marine life imaginable like the Portuguese man-of-war, blue crabs, and loggerhead sea turtles, the waters surrounding Tybee are also home to the wreckage of Union ships from the Civil War as well as a World War II Liberty ship and a British schooner. With so much to explore, these are waters you’ll want to put at the top of your list.
The Whiskey Wreck
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Located roughly 150 yards due south of the beaches of Gulf Shores, the Whiskey Wreck is just what you’d expect: the wreckage of a 200-foot rum runner boat. A popular site for night dives, the Whiskey Wreck is a shallow dive that lies just beyond a sandbar offshore, making it great for snorkelers as well as SCUBA divers. If you appreciate a good bottle of spirits, this is one dive that’s sure to call your name.
The Pelham Keys
A 26-acre quarry-based dive site located about 20 miles south of Birmingham, the waters of the Pelham Keys reach a depth of 140 feet, offering divers the exploration of quarry remains filled with the odd and unusual. The final resting place of a pair of fire trucks from the 1940s, several old sewer pipes, various boats, and even an old bus as well as various other vehicles and objects that now offer shelter to marine life, the quarry has become home to a multitude of sea creatures and fish including bass, brim, bluegill, Japanese coy, carp, catfish, rainbow trout, sunfish, and turtles.
Located along the famous Emerald Coast, Destin is ideal for beach lovers who love walking its sugar white sands as well as those who really love to dive in deep. Offering a natural reef teeming with marine life as well as an artificial reef comprised of old ship wrecks including four Navy vessels, an old tug boat, airplanes, and even parts of the original Destin Bridge, these wrecks and ruins provide the perfect setting for mysterious, magnificent underwater scenery. Dive in these crystal clear emerald waters, and you’ll see some of what makes it “the luckiest fishing village in the world.” Home to such game fish as amberjack, cobia, flounder, grouper, and snapper, these reefs make it not only a lucky place to fish, but also to dive.
Ponce de Leon, Florida
Featuring a natural spring that pours out 28,000,000 gallons of crystal clear water each day, the water at Vortex Springs reaches depths of up to sixty feet with a clear view to the bottom before cascading down limestone edges to the entrance of a cavern. Offering about 100 yards of underwater exploration, the inside of the cavern reaches up to 115 feet in depth, teeming with a vast array of freshwater fish—many of which are record-breaking in size—including the rare “Shadow Bass.” As bubbles spiral up from the clear, sandy bottom where the spring begins to the surface of the water, they make an ethereal, tinkling, piano-like sound, giving this dive site an even eerier feel that’s sure to be a thrill.
Whether you’ve got just a day or two to go exploring or an entire week, the Southeast is filled with great spots to get your dive on, so let your sense of adventure guide you and take a deep breath—it’s time to take the plunge!
Rich, alongside partner Cecil Stout, owns WATERDOGS SCUBA and SAFETY LLC. PADI Course Director, Public Safety and Handicapped SCUBA Trainer with years of Instructor and Divemaster experience in various diving disciplines. Manages Waterdogs’ dive programs with agencies, organizations, and academic institutions. Instructs Emergency First Response and related specialties. Fun and safety are paramount in everything they do. Visit www.waterdogs-scuba.com for more information.