Dive (can you believe it?) Palm Beach. [HD]Scuba divers: tired of reefs with more people than fish?

`DIVE Palm Beach'' sounds something akin to ``Ski Wichita.'' So why do thousands of scuba divers hang out in Palm Beach and other cities on Florida's East Coast from Juno to Miami? Because it is the second most popular place for diving in the continental United States. And, among non-divers at least, it's one of Florida's best-kept secrets.

Judy Lamb, a native Floridian, learned of the diving bonanza just offshore from her home in Jupiter, Fla., through a friend. ``Greyhound racing, jai alai, golf, tennis - hey, Palm Beach has it all. So I'm not surprised to learn that spectacular diving is nearby,'' she says.

In the most recent subscriber survey (1987) by Skin Diver Magazine, considered by many to be an authoritative periodical on diving, 75.4 percent of readers who responded said they had been on at least one diving trip within the continental US in the past year; of those, 37.5 percent went to the Florida Keys and 29.3 percent went to Florida's lesser-known east coast.

Situated just half a mile offshore from Juno to Palm Beach are coral reefs teeming with marine life. These 10 miles of reefs extend, intermittently, from Palm Beach to Miami. There are 11 Atlantic wrecks to dive within 30 minutes of the Intracoastal Waterway outlet between Singer Island and Palm Beach. Furthermore, the reefs vary in depth from 25 feet to 100 feet, offering something of interest to both the novice and the expert.

According to Eric Crawford, captain of the dive boat Gulf Stream Diver II, the average underwater visibility is about 60 feet, but it can fluctuate wildly. You can get 25 feet for a morning dive, and 150 feet in the afternoon, for instance. ``Some cold water can well up and give us crystal-clear visibility,'' he says. ``Everything depends on what the Gulf Stream current brings us.''

Our first dive to the 195-foot freighter Owens and neighboring Eidsbag barge happened on a morning with 100-foot visibility. We could see the wreck of the Owens sitting on the ocean floor 80 feet below the dive boat. Yes, the Gulf Stream gave us great visibility that day - plus cold water and a screaming current that could rip your mask off your face if you were not careful.

This current presents a real challenge to divers. If you want to inspect a wreck, you drop off the dive boat into the Gulf Stream current south of the wreck and float north with the current, as you descend the 80 feet and grab onto the ship. Once you reach the wreck, you must pull yourself along, hand over hand, to keep from being swept away. But after you're inside the wreck, you move as effortlessly as in the Caribbean, where there is no strong current.

Phil Shuff, an owner of the Gulf Stream Diver, one of the 20 or more diving charter companies here, likens the drop down from the dive boat to competitive sky diving.

``Landing on the mark takes a skilled boat captain and divers who are comfortable the moment they hit the water,'' says Mr. Shuff. ``This is not a lazy descent, like in the Caribbean. You need all the air out of your buoyancy control device and head straight for the bottom. If you can't find your dive buddy or the wreck within a minute, the current will move you quickly past the wreck, so you have to surface for the dive boat to pick you up and start the process all over again.''

Divers offer the following reasons for selecting Florida's east coast over the better-known Florida Keys:

The reefs off Palm Beach are within half a mile of land (compared with the shallow reef sites of the Keys, which can be a 10-mile boat ride.)

The 100-plus dive shops in the Keys tend to dive the same spots, crowding the reefs with divers, while the 20 or so dive shops in the Palm Beach area can choose from dozens of reef sites.

The fish and other marine life off Palm Beach are mostly large species (like loggerhead turtles, grouper, giant moray eels, and lobsters), which makes the area exceptionally good for underwater photography and spear fishing. (Mostly smaller species are found in the Keys.)

There are several things you need to consider in selecting a diving charter service. First, you want a charter boat that is Coast Guard-certified and has a licensed captain. Second, you want to be with a group that provides a guide who will actually dive with you. This is important, because the guide will carry a rope with an inflated balloon attached to it so you can ``drift''-dive over the reefs. Third, you want a dive-boat captain who can drop you on top of the wreck sites accurately. It takes a fair amount of air to dive 80 feet, miss the target, surface 80 feet, then dive 80 feet once more. A good captain extends your dive time.

If you go

Your local dive shop may arrange diving trips; they may be able to help you if your travel agent can't.

Information on diving near Palm Beach can be hard to get if you are not on the scene. I have found a dive shop called Force-E very helpful. They have information on hotels and dive packages, as well as dive boats. The phone number at the North Palm Beach shop is (407) 845-2333.

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