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call the friendly folks at MBT Divers in Pensacola - they should be able to hook you up with a local dive spot that fits your skill levels. If you're going further into FL, the nice folks at Scuba Tech in Destin have hooked me up in the past (although the vis isn't really as clear in Destin). A little further down the road in Panama City Beach is Panama City Dive Center - they'll treat you right too. If you're after fresh water, Vortex Springs is not far and is an interesting dive.
I don't understand your statement about the vis. being less in Destin. I think the general consensus is the vis. in Destin is at least as good, if not better, than in Pensacola. Certainly the inshore vis. is usually better in Destin.
I dive in Pensacola several times a year and have dived in Destin a few times as well. As mentioned, I've found the vis in Destin to be as good or better than in Pensacola. There are a lot of factors involved, but generally the farther offshore you go, the better the vis.
Scubatech out of Destin in my opinion is better suited for beginners than Pensacola. Also, in Pensacola, the boat ride out is usually longer and the dive sites a little deeper.
Unless you dive both sites frequently I don't think you can make general comparisons on the viz. And if you don't take into account all the factors such comparisons have little meaning.
Maybe the sites in one place weren't as far offshore as those in the other. Distance form shore is a key factor. Maybe you dived one site at a different time of year than the other. Season is another a key factor.
Maybe the viz in general just wasn't as good the day you dived one place or was unusually clear the day you dived in the other. I've been to Seattle three times and all three times it was warm and sunny. They tell me it rains there a lot and has gray skies most of the time. So my experience hasn't been representative of typical weather there. Same principle applies to dive sites.
My personal experience has been the viz is about the same offshore with better viz by the shore the further east you go.
These shops work with charter boat ops or have their own boats. Most use dive masters - and I would recommend you go with one. Look for an inshore trip. Make sure they are aware of your experience level and comfort zone.
Shore dives here are - IMHO - a gamble. Jellyfish, low viz, tidal currents, long hot lug with gear, not much to look at - all are possible. You would need to hook up with a knowledgeable local to have a chance at a good dive.
My mistake - my brain was thinking of vis in panama city beach, which is better than Destin (in my own personal experience), but you're all correct - the vis gets worse as you move closer to the Alabama border.
so for vis... Panama City Beach > Destin > Pensacola
at least in my experience.
Regardless, none of these spots offer the clear blue 100'+ vis of the caribbean or yucatan, so just expect 20-40' vis and you'll be happy with what you get.
I've had consistantly better visibility in Destin than in P'Cola or Panama City Beach. Deep water is closer to Destin than any of the surrounding areas, the shelf makes a bit of a nipple towards the Destin coast usually bringing in better visibility.
All the northern Gulf Coast can have EXCELLENT visibility at times though.
If you'd like to get into salt water. Then the question is Shore or Boat. If you want to dive the Shore then St. Andrews State park is by far the best site in the area and only about 1 1/2 hours form P'Cola, I'd rank Destin up there as well but the walk to the Jetties are a KILLER (About 1/4 Mile through sand. If you are interested in some Near shore boat diving I would agree with some other posters that you can't beat Destin and Scuba Tech. My father came down recently and had not dove in several years and even though I have my own boat and live in Pensacola I chose to take him to Destin and Dive off of Scuba Tech's boat (Sea Cobra). The depths are a bit less so you'll get more bottom time and you don't have to travel near as far. I love Pensacolas diving and the selection much more than Destin (IMO), but I think for beginners you'd have a much better time in Destin.
Viz is currently terrible from Destin to Dauphin Island and probably further on each side. This is personal experience over the last month in 0-75 feet of water I'm talking about.
I'm sure there are some clear sopts out there, but luck, and distance from shore/distance from the Mississippi river are the best bets. Personally, I would hook up with Gary's Gulf Divers (Orange Beach), MBT (Pensacola) or Scubatech (Destin). They are all good operations, reasonably priced, and generally will get you the best dives possible in their areas.