Boasting one-and-a-half miles of rippling water and toasty sand, St. Andrews State Park provides the perfect relaxation destination for locals and tourists alike. What originally served as a harbor defense installation during World War II became a sandy oasis for the community in 1951. Today, the park has jetties, two fishing piers, boat ramp, nature trails, campground, and even a shuttle service to nearby Shell Island. So whether you enjoy soaking up the rays on the park’s beaches or fishing off the piers, St. Andrews State Park has what you’re looking for.
If you’re seeking adventure on your next park outing, but don’t want to deal with the gear needed for surfing and scuba diving, grab a mask and flippers and give snorkeling a try instead. The park’s jetties serve as an underwater wildlife refuge and harbor an incredible variety of species. Think of the jetties as the area’s first artificial reef. The Gulf’s excellent water clarity, which gets even better during the fall months, allows for plentiful encounters with starfish, crabs and other crustaceans, and dozens of varieties of fish. Snorkelers may choose to slip over the rocks into the pass of St. Andrews Bay and inspect fish that prefer to operate in waters with a swift current. They are likely to include schools of mullet that nibble on the grasses that cling to the rocks; or sheepshead, sometimes called convict fish given their white-and-black striped appearance, that have human-like teeth capable of crushing barnacles and other hard stuff. Juvenile grouper spend time on the rocks before they venture offshore. Hold your breath and head for the bottom and you may spy a flounder covered with a dusting of sand or the improbable batfish with pectoral fins that serve as feet. Peering out from crevices in the rocks, you’ll see tiny blennies whose cylindrical shape and antennae make them look like aquatic caterpillars.
Snorkelers should be sure to observe regulations pertaining to the activity, including the requirement for dive flags and the prohibition on any spearfishing at the park. The more cautious snorkeler may opt to stay on the landward side of the jetties in an area known appropriately as the Kiddie Pool. Removed from currents and waves and perfect for wading, the Kiddie Pool is a great place to introduce children to the marine environment. Too, countless children have learned to swim there over the years. The water deepens as you approach the jetties from the Kiddie Pool’s shallows. On this sheltered side, snorkelers can count on seeing brightly colored tropical fishes including damselfish, butterfly fish and sergeant majors — another name derived from a fish’s striped coloration. Perhaps the largest fish related to the rocks are big, bull redfish, which are fond of hanging out in the pass and dining on juvenile blue crabs as they are swept out toward the Gulf by an outgoing tide. Anglers like to fish from the jetties, meaning that snorkelers need to be alert to the possibility of sharing the water with sharp, shiny objects. Snorkelers who are also fishermen may find themselves harvesting tackle lost to the rocks by unlucky anglers.
Recently, evidence of a developing coral reef has been discovered at the jetties in about 15 feet of water. Four species of coral have been identified: tube coral, robust ivory tree coral, cup coral and sea whips. The appearance of the coral has coincided with the discovery of a certain type of algae that supports the slow-growing animals. Snorkeling is easily mastered. The novice will soon learn how to clear his snorkel upon surfacing and to remove, while below the surface, any water that may intrude upon his mask.
For those who long for a thrilling snorkeling adventure but don’t own any snorkeling equipment, The Pier Store (open seasonally), The Jetties Store and The Camp Store (both open March–October) offer snorkeling packages that include a round-trip boat ride to Shell Island and all the snorkeling equipment a person needs. The stores also sell snacks and sundries and rent out beach chairs, kayaks, camping equipment, and fishing gear. Once you’ve purchased your snorkeling package, the Shell Island Shuttle will escort you to the west end of the island, which is also a part of St. Andrews State Park. If you’re lucky, on the way there you’ll get the chance to meet some of Shell Island’s special visitors: bottle-nosed dolphins.
So whether you’re a tourist or a local, a regular or a first-timer, St. Andrews State Park is your destination for snorkeling! For more information on St. Andrews and scuba diving, click here.