Divers are flocking to Florida to visit the 12 submerged wonders along the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail, and you can find five of the best right off the coast of Panama City Beach! The trail is a collection of sunken tugs and warships the Florida Department of State highlighted to create opportunities to explore below the surface, where adventure awaits! You can pick up a Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail Passport from a local dive shop, then get stamps for each of the dive sites you visit.
Off Panama City Beach, you’ll find the twin FAMI tugs, USS Strength, USS Chippewa, USS Accokeek, and the Black Bart. For those not quite ready to take the plunge, there’s an interactive website featuring videos of each wreck at floridapanhandledivetrail.com
The FAMI Tugs
The “Twin Tugs,” as they’re often known, are a pair of tugboats that were sunk by the Florida Aquatic Marine & Institute, Inc., (FAMI) in 2003. The tugs were surplus Navy ships and part of a fleet of four vessels abandoned by a defunct corporation in a Panama City-area bayou. The vessels – 85 and 95 feet long – rest at a depth of about 100 feet, and are 11 miles from the St. Andrew Bay pass. The tugs originally came to rest nose-to-nose but a storm lifted one on top of the other, creating an interesting conjoined wreck that shows the power of nature.
The Black Bart
Originally christened as the Vulcano del Golfo in the 1970s, the Black Bart was an offshore oilfield supply ship that was one of the first vessels to be sunk in 1993 as part of the local artificial reef program. It was renamed the Black Bart in honor of Charles “Black Bart” Bartholomew, a Navy salvage captain and sport diver who championed the cause of artificial reefs in Panama City Beach. The ship is 185 feet long and rests upright in about 80 feet of water. The top of the ship rises to a depth of about 45 feet, which makes it a prime location for open water certification of student divers. The biggest highlight for divers on the Black Bart is seeing a goliath grouper, which can grow up to eight feet in length and weigh as much as 800 pounds.
The 184-foot Strength was built in a Seattle shipyard in 1943 and commissioned in 1944. After serving her country well in the Pacific during World War II, she returned home in 1946 and was placed in reserve status. She was decommissioned in the late 1960s but still was useful to the Navy, which sank and refloated her many times as a training hulk for salvage divers in Panama City Beach. She was sent to the bottom for the last time in 1987 during an explosive test performed by the Navy Diving and Salvage Training Center. She settled on her side in 76 feet of water but was later righted by Hurricane Opal in 1995. Her average depth is 65 feet; time and saltwater worked to separate her bow from the rest of the ship, now allowing divers to easily swim between the two sections. And, like many other artificial reefs that have spent sufficient time underwater, a wide variety of marine life populates both sections.
This powerful, 143-foot tug began its service life in 1944 in Orange, Texas, and roamed the planet as a fleet tug hauling damaged ships in for maintenance. She served in the Pacific, crossed the Panama Canal, worked in Lake Michigan and in places as geographically diverse as Newfoundland and the South Atlantic. In 1987, she, too, was given over to the Navy’s diving school in Panama City Beach for salvage and ordinance training. After being repeatedly sunk and refloated, the Accokeek was stuffed with explosives and sunk for the last time in 2000 at a depth of 100 feet.
Built in South Carolina and launched in 1942, the 205-foot U.S. Navy tugboat USS Chippewa was once the fastest vessel of its kind. She performed towing and salvage duty from the Caribbean to Newfoundland and laid mooring buoys in Casablanca. She was retired in 1961 and handed off to the Navy’s Experimental Dive Unit for explosive tests in 1989. In 1990, the Chippewa was sunk using 37 explosive charges and today sits upright on the bottom in 100 feet of water.