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FLORIDA'S TOP WRECK SITES

(ran PINELLAS / HILLSBOROUGH edition)

Gulf Coast

1) Baja California

Built in 1914, the 214-foot steamship was carrying a general cargo that included tobacco when it was torpedoed just forward of midships by the German submarine U-84 on July 19, 1942. Three crew members were killed. The main wreckage now sits in 114 feet of water off Key West.

2) BayRonto

The 400-foot freighter sank in 1919 during a storm and now rests upside down in 110 feet of water. The hull has been breached in several places, making it a good dive for experienced wreck explorers. The wreck is located 30 miles off Venice, and as a result, usually has good visibility. Look for amberjack, barracuda and jewfish.

3) U.S.S. Chippewa

The 205-foot tug was built in 1942 and served the U.S. Navy in a variety of roles until it was sunk in 1990 as part of the Panama City Artificial Reef Program. The Chippewa now sits upright with a slight list to port in 105 feet of water, 10 miles offshore. Its tower comes within 50 feet of the surface. Divers will reach its main deck at 70 feet.

4) Empire Mica

The 479-foot British tanker was built in 1941 and sunk a year later by the German submarine U-67 as it transported a cargo of 12,000 tons of oil from Texas to England. Thirty-three men died; 14 were rescued. The ship now lies 64 miles off Panama City in 115 feet of water. With its history and impressive array of marine life, the Empire Mica is considered one of the best wreck dives in the state.

5) Gunsmoke

In 1977, the 65-foot shrimpboat was scuttled by its crew while the Coast Guard was in hot pursuit. Lots of local lore, including tales of murder, smuggling and modern-day piracy, make this an interesting wreck dive. The Gunsmoke lies in 80 feet of water, with a slight starboard list, about 24 miles from John's Pass.

6) Mexican Pride

The 200-foot wreck sits upright in 130 feet of water about 25 miles due west of St. Petersburg. It attracts many pelagic species, including amberjack, barracuda and sharks. Keep an eye out for resident jewfish.

7) Sheridan

The wreck of the 180-foot ocean-going tug rests perfectly intact in 80 feet of water. Its large superstructure often attracts barracuda. The moderate depth makes this an excellent wreck dive for beginners.

East Coast

8) Captain Dan

The 175-foot Coast Guard tender was sunk in 1990 as part of Broward County's artificial reef program. The ship was originally named the Hollyhock, but was renamed The Captain Dan in honor of Dan Garnsey, a local charter boat captain.

9) Rodeo 25

The 215-foot, twin-masted Dutch freighter was built in 1956 and sailed under several names until it became a derelict on the Miami River. When it was sunk in 1990 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Pompano Beach Fishing Rodeo, it carried the name Windward Trader. The wreck lies in 122 feet of water. Divers can reach its wheelhouse at 90 feet.

10) Jim Atria

In September 1987, the Broward County Artificial Reef program sank the 240-foot Dutch freighter, originally named the Poincaina, in 110 feet of water. Hurricane Andrew, however, moved the ship offshore to the 135-foot depth.

11) Mercedes

The 194-foot freighter beached during a storm in 1984 on the doorstep of Palm Beach socialite Mollie Wilmot. It took three months to free the freighter and it was eventually purchased by the county and turned into an artificial reef. It now rests a mile offshore in 97 feet of water where visibility can reach 100 feet.

12) Mizpah

The 185-foot-long banana trader built in 1926 ended up a derelict and was scuttled off Palm Beach in 1968. Its hatches were removed prior to sinking, making it safe for divers. It sits upright in 95 feet of water. Visibility is usually excellent.

The Keys

13) The Duane and the Bibb

These two 327-foot Coast Guard cutters were scuttled in 1987 to become artificial reefs. Because of their depth (100-feet-plus), close proximity to the Gulf Stream and imposing size of the ships' hulls, which make it easy for a diver to get lost, great care should be taken when attempting these dives.

14) The Wilkes-Barre

The 610-foot, Cleveland class light cruiser, complete with 12 6-inch guns, saw action in the Pacific during World War II. In 1972, ite was used for underwater explosive tests and its hull broke in two. The bow and stern sections now sit intact in 220 feet of water. The ship only should be attempted by divers with technical training.

Sources: Jeff Reid of Mac's Sports Inc. in Clearwater; Florida Shipwrecks by Daniel & Denise Berg; Diving Guide to Underwater Florida by Ned DeLoach.

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