From public parks such as De Land’s Blue Springand Chiefland’s Manatee Springs to privatefacilities like Williston’s Blue Grotto and Ocala’s Forty Fathom Grotto, these confined-water locations are havens for instructors from all over Florida and many sur-rounding states. Of these, more than 50 lie within Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. But it’s the shark’s mellow attitude and tolerance for bubble-blowing divers that makes it a crowd favorite, as well as an amazing photo subject. Like an English muffin, this environment is all nooks and crannies, home to a host of eels, shrimp and juvenile fish. Equally exciting is an event that plays out on a smaller scale here: About a week after the first full moon in August, coral polyps do their magical spawning thing, drawing thousands of hungry mouths to feast on the bounty and lighting up the underwater world like the aurora borealis. Thanks to a state law that guarantees shoreline access, there are still dives to discover — if you can get the locals to give up the goods. Colorful characters, including a rainbow of nudibranchs and the region’s signature neon-orange garibaldi, add interest to any shot. And third, a small population-to-surface-area ratio equals low development density — in many places none — which minimizes the chance for runoff to spoil the party. Aside from inducing vertigo, it’s also habitat to giant Pacific octopuses, skates and lingcod. The marine life here is as rich as any coral reef’s, and just knowing that orcas are around adds to the rush. On Oahu, the big city spills into an ocean rich with wrecks.
In the winter months, manatees migrating to warmer water create an added attraction at many locations (although encounters are snorkel-only). Due mainly to the depth and stunted visibility, this playground is made for advanced divers. The cargo, deck-cabin windows, interior staircases and crew lifeboat are also still preserved. Artificial reefs such as the Aeolus, USCG cutter Spar, Papoose, Atlas and Caribsea are well-known hangouts for raggies. And the thick, towering kelp forests are tailor-made for atmospheric, wide-angle seascapes and abstract macro artistry. Add these factors together to achieve visibility that can stretch as far as the eye can see. On the other side of Point Defiance lies Day Island Wall — arguably Puget Sound’s most notable dive, and a huge factorin earning this area the 3 third-place awardfor domestic wall diving. If you get to just one spot, make it Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, where spotting Steller sea lions, whimsically patterned nudibranchs, and wolf eels are all in a day’s dive. Kauai is the quiet, verdant gem, where turtles nap by the dozens in caverns.
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