Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trial


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Shipwreck trail aims to lure divers to the Panhandle | trail, panhandle, divers - The Star

[h=1]Shipwreck trail aims to lure divers to the Panhandle[/h]
May 10, 2012 9:24 AM
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Wetsuit, check.
Air tank, check.
Mask, check.
Area divers will soon be adding "passport" to their equipment checklists as they dive the new Panhandle Shipwreck Trail, set to launch in late May.
Through the development of the trail, divers will be able to track their underwater journeys in Northwest Florida by passport in an effort by the Florida Division of Historical Resources to bring divers to the Panhandle again and again. It will feature 12 shipwrecks, starting in Pensacola and ending with the wreck of the Vamar in Port St. Joe.
Lindsay Smith, an underwater archaeologist with the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research, is part of a small team developing the trail through a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
"The shipwrecks are amazing, there's just a wonderful variety (in the Panhandle)," said Smith, who noted it was difficult to pinpoint only 12 wrecks. "They're all very close together and there's just so many to choose from. There are tons of wrecks in the Panhandle, and we're only highlighting 12 of them."
Smith said the ultimate goal in the development of the trail is to help boost the dive economy throughout the region.
"The Panhandle has a very strong diving community," Smith said. "As far as Scuba shops, there's probably about 20."
The idea for the Panhandle Shipwreck Trail came from State Underwater Archaeologist Roger Smith.
"He thought it would be a great thing for the Panhandle because tourism kind of lagged after the oil spill," Smith said. "We're really hoping to get some return tourism and invigorate the local dive communities."
Smith and the team of underwater archaeologists also developing a website, which will be complete with underwater photography and video footage of the Panhandle wrecks featured and links to the dive shops on each leg of the trail.
Due to the enthusiastic response the team has received for the Shipwreck Trail, the team assembled some 25 to 30 hours of underwater video footage for all of the Trail candidates, as well as historic photographs. The site will feature 13 short videos, the first introducing the trail and passport and one highlighting each wreck.
The passports are in the final stages of development, and Smith said they are hoping distribute the passports to area dive shops and launch the new website and distribute the passports before Memorial Day at the end of this month.
The passport will serve as a marketing tool, dive log and souvenir and will hopefully encourage return visitation to the Panhandle area, said Smith.
Divers will log visibility, water temperature and weather conditions, pressure and dive time, and record their dive buddy and charter boat from each dive.
Dive shops and charter boats will have the opportunity to offer the passport to divers for a small registration fee to participate in the trail, with a registration form to provide information about each passport holder.
The shops and boats will each carry an official stamp to verify each dive completed on the trail to be paired with the signature of the captain on the passport.
Before the project came to fruition, Smith said the group of underwater archaeologists first needed to speak with area dive shop owners in order to see what type of project would be most beneficial.
"After the NOAA grant was received, we decided to go into the different communities and gauge interest," Smith said. "We went and talked to local dive shop owners about what their customers look for in dive trips."
Smith said the response from local shop owners about the development of a shipwreck trail was phenomenal.
The team collected 22 shipwreck nominations from the owners and narrowed it down to 12, making sure there were dives for every skill level.
The Florida Keys has a similar "Wreck Trek," but Smith said the Panhandle Shipwreck Trail will operate a bit differently.
"They have a much larger number of dive shops," Smith said about the Keys. "The visibility (in the Panhandle) isn't the same as the Keys, but the wrecks are close enough to shore to still allow for great underwater visibility,"
"We're looking at it a little bit differently, because we want to track how the sites are being used and who is diving them."
Smith said the team plans on utilizing social networking sites like Facebook to allow divers to share their experiences and get in touch with other people who dive the trail. The website will also play an integral part in the development and promotion of the trail.
The Panhandle Shipwreck Trail will feature five Pensacola wrecks: USS Oriskany, San Pablo (Russian Freighter), Pete Tide II, YDT 14 and 15 (Navy tenders), and Three Barges; five off the coast of Panama City: Black Bart, USS Strength, FAMI Twin Tugs, USS Accokeek and USS Cheppewa; the Miss Louise in Destin and Port St. Joe's wreck of the Vamar will serve as the easternmost stop on the dive trail.
The Vamar is one of Florida's 11 designated underwater archaeological preserves. The ship wrecked under mysterious circumstances in World War II-era Port St. Joe in 1942, and now rests on the ocean floor near the tip of St. Joseph Peninsula.
Resting in only 25 feet of water, the Vamar is often considered one of the best shallow water dives on the Emerald Coast. As noted by the Bureau of Archaeological Research, divers can explore the ship's steam engine, bilge keels and rudder quadrant and investigate the mystery of the wreck.
A plaque will soon be sunk as the last step in designating the wreck of the Vamar as a state underwater preserve. The wreck was dedicated an underwater preserve back in 2004.
"I think the Shipwreck Trail kind of renewed the interest in getting that plaque down there," Smith said.
In order for a wreck to become an underwater preserve, Smith said, it must be nominated by a local group interested in recognizing the site.
"It comes from a community level, where the people come together and want to recognize a specific site," Smith said. "It's all done with public support and volunteer work."

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