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I have put this article together to answer the many questions I get, and misconceptions I hear. I hope it will be helpful to any/all who plan to dive in our area.
Diving in Venice (South West Florida)
By Capt. Dan Sansiveri
Many divers traveling to South West Florida are not aware of the varied conditions and type of diving in the area. Many who have not made dives in here in the past, assume that conditions will be the same as in the Keys or on the East coast of the state. While we are blessed with a rich marine environment, unique cultural history, and quiet social scene, we are very different from from other parts of Florida.
Water Temperature and Weather
Before discussing the great types of diving locally, the issue of water temperature must be addressed. The temperature of the Gulf of Mexico is controlled by the prevailing weather conditions, in short by the temperature of the air. The Gulf is very warm in the summer, reaching almost 90F. The converse is also true as in winter the water temperature can get into the low to mid 50's F. Diving is GREAT all year long, but divers need to be prepared for some cold water in winter. Local year round divers have a full range of exposure suits from 1mm through 8mm semi-dry and/or dry suits. Local Dive Shops (Florida West Scuba and Charters) rent wet suits up to and including 7mm suits as well as hoods, vests, and gloves.
There are three major weather patterns that prevail over South West Florida. First is the “Winter Pattern” which is usually in effect from late December through March. This period is categorized by cold fronts that pass through on a frequent basis, causing the weather to be cool and driving the water temperature into the 50's-60's. The next pattern is the “Spring Pattern” which is usually in effect from April trough June, and again from October through December. Here the weather is mild and water warms or cools gradually, a perfect time for all diving in the area. Last is the “Summer Pattern” from July through September. Here the air temperature is near 90F, and the water often in the high 80' s F. Summer days start off calm with ideal conditions, and weather builds resulting in evening thunderstorms. Typical of summer in Florida all over the state.
The area around Venice is well known for fossil diving, and Venice is know as “The Sharks Tooth Capital of the World”. Over millions of years the level of the seas has experienced rises and falls, and the coast line of the Gulf has changed. Hundreds of millions of years of both marine and land animal fossils have collected in beds off Venice, and are continually being exposed by nature. Typical fossils found include Megalodon shark teeth, and the fossilized remains of whales, dolphins, wooly mammoths, ancient horses, sloths, saber tooth tigers, bison, and other extinct species. Most fossil diving is conducted in shallow water, often less that 30 ft (10m). Visibility over the fossil beds can be as little as 2 ft or as much as 30 ft depending on conditions, with 3-5 feet being average visibility. Divers travel from all over the country and all over the world to fossil dive off Venice, and great fossils are found on almost every trip. The only USCG Certified vessel in the area and the only one that conducts daily fossil dives is operated by Florida West Scuba and Charters. There are a number of operators of non-certified vessels, and a few that operate within USCG regulations and dive safely. Do your research and choose wisely before booking a trip with anyone, remember safety should be your primary concern as a diver.
The Gulf waters off South West Florida out to the Continental Shelf are a desert, as we do not have the coral reefs typical of the Keys. What South West Florida does have is a unique diving environment made up of limestone ledges, artificial reefs, and ship wrecks. Limestone ledges are all over the area in depths from 20 feet to well over 150 feet. The relief on these ledges can be as much as 15 feet in places, providing a home to all manner of marine life. Typical inhabitants of the ledges are Goliath Grouper, Sea Turtles, Rays, tropical fish, and game fish including a Grouper, Snapper,Tarpon, Sharks, Barracuda, Amber jack, Cobia, Snook, Hogfish, and many others.
Sarasota County and neighboring counties have over the years have developed a extensive network of man made reefs for diving and fishing. These reefs are made up of bridge rubble, large concrete culvert, reef balls, intentionally sunk vessels, and even old Army Tanks (M60 and M48). These sites are all unique, and hold the same marine life as the limestone ledges. These sites are arranged in bands along the coast at different distances off shore, proving divers with opportunity to dive on sites from 20 ft to well over 100 ft. There are also a number of well known ship wrecks in the area, and divers have the opportunity to dive on these as well. Two well known wrecks are the Bayronto and the Fantastico. These are two freighters that went down in storms, both are located well off shore and are at depths of well over 100 ft. These are advanced type dives, but both are within recreational limits.. Only certain operators will run these dives, and special arrangements must be made.
Spearfishing and Secret Spots
Local Dive Captains have over the years have developed their own lists of “Secret” dive sites. These are often long forgotten shipwrecks or ledges that they have found over the course of their travels and exploration. These are often the best sights fore spearfishing in the area. South West Florida waters are an amazing fishery for species such as Grouper, Snapper, Amber jack, Cobia, and Hogfish. Only a few charter operators run spearfishing charters, and ofter these are booked as limited/private trips. If you have never spearfished before Florida West Scuba and Charters can arrange a spearfishing clinic and dives to get you started in the sport. These secret spots also provide recreational divers to experience a type of diving that is quite rare, a place where few have been before.
I often hear from divers, even some local divers that “there is no good diving in the Gulf. It seems clear to me that these folks have not done much diving in Gulf or the local area. Personally I never tire of diving here, and while I do travel to dive, I am always happy to dive in my home waters. Again South West Florida is different, and our diving conditions are different as well. If you know what to expect, are prepared, and dive with local professionals you will have an experience you will never forget. Dive Safely.