Easy access to turtles, stingrays and more: 8 snorkeling reefs near the beach in Okaloosa
Okaloosa County has created more than 300 artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico, ranging in size from large sunken boats down to single concrete structures. And while the majority of them are miles offshore in deep water, a handful are easily accessible to swimmers from local beaches.
Designated the Robert Bonezzi Snorkel Reef Network by the Okaloosa County Commission this spring, eight artificial reef systems lie near the beach on Okaloosa Island and in Destin. The first four were installed in 2019 and the other four were completed this spring.
All were paid for with grant money earmarked for ecological restoration in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
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Each of the eight snorkeling reefs contain a field of cylindrical cement structures embedded with limestone rock to encourage the growth of marine life. Although relatively new, the reefs are already attracting sea life.
“You never now what you’re going to find down there,” said Alex Fogg, coastal resource manager with Okaloosa County’s Tourist Development Department, who oversaw the installation of the reefs.
“Turtles are frequent visitors and there’s an awful lot of bait fish,” Fogg said of his experience diving on the reefs. “I’ve seen cobia, flounder, stingrays; all kinds of cool stuff.”
Fog said the best time to visit the reefs is in the summer when the water is warm and there is more marine activity.
“You want to make sure it’s a green flag day, it makes it easier to get out there,” said Fogg. He also recommended bringing a flotation device like boogie board or kayak so divers have something to hold on to if they need to catch their breath.
The Okaloosa Island reefs are located in front of Beach Access Nos. 2, 4 and 6, and at Beasley Park.
The Destin reef locations include one each at the east and west ends of Henderson Beach State Park, one in front of the Pompano Street Beach Access and one in front of James Lee Park, a little south and east of the Crab Trap Restaurant.
Henderson Beach State Park is the only location which requires an entry fee.
All the reefs are in 15-20 feet of water and range from 600 to 1,200 feet from shore. Fogg said most of the parks currently or soon will have signs explaining to visitors the reef systems and how to locate them.
For more information on the snorkeling reefs, as well as the county’s offshore reefs, search Destin-Fort Walton Beach Artificial Reefs online.