Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, a walkable town with 2.4 miles of shoreline, has managed to maintain its Old Florida charm. It frowns on high-rise buildings, rejecting such projects in favor of independent hotels and other businesses that stand just a few stories high.
The most prime Lauderdale-By-The-Sea real estate, however, at least in travel dollars, may be under its waters rather than on land. The town, with coral reefs and their resident marine life just 100 yards offshore, is best known as Florida’s shore diving capital.
Reef Diver’s Paradise
Southeast Florida’s extensive reef system resides close to the shore because the continental shelf is narrow along that stretch of coast. Coupled with a Gulf Stream current that flows close to the shoreline—bathing coral reefs in warm, clear water—the shelf offers conditions for reefs to grow and marine life to flourish within their clefts.
Tom Carpenter, owner of shore dive tour operator The Beach Diver, counts 74 shore access points for worthwhile diving in the 80 miles of coastline from South Beach in Miami-Dade to Riviera Beach in Palm Beach County. “Those include reefs, wrecks and artificial habitats you can easily access from the beach,” Carpenter says.
Launching a dive by wading into the ocean from the beach has its benefits over taking a boat out to a site. It’s eco-friendly because there’s no boat fuel involved, and divers don’t have to shell out a minimum of $60 each for the trip to a site miles offshore. Shallow waters like those off Lauderdale-By-The-Sea let divers explore more by staying down longer; the deeper the dive, the quicker a diver consumes air.
Besides the convenience, a bonus of shore diving is avoiding seasickness on boats and having to abort your dive. The biggest bonus comes when you’re diving a healthy reef system full of spectacular marine life.
Of the beach access spots Carpenter has identified, only Hollywood has a coral reef system similarly close to shore as Lauderdale-By-The-Sea. But Hollywood, just a few miles south, is a more developed community, posing more obstacles to shore divers.
“The difference is Lauderdale-By-The-Sea is a much more laid-back and accessible beach, whereas in Hollywood it’s become a lot more built up and it’s much more difficult for the diver to find parking and gain access to the beach,” Carpenter says.
What’s more, “what makes Lauderdale-By-The-Sea very special is that within 100 yards a very articulated limestone reef begins,” Carpenter adds. “It rises about 15 feet off the bottom, up to a depth of about 9 feet, and is interlaced with ledges, nooks, crannies and holes, and then it is punctuated with coral heads and coral domes.”
Those habitats are teeming with creatures. On a recent morning dive, it took only a few minutes before Carpenter and his group encountered two sea turtles, more than a dozen lobsters and three nurse sharks, which tend to be docile and feed on lobster and smaller fish.
Divers in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea and elsewhere in Broward County waters routinely spot sergeant majors, cuttlefish, barracuda, trumpet fish, French angels, bluer angels, parrotfish and wrasse.
“On occasion at that location we’ll see manta rays, which a lot of divers never see,” Carpenter says of Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, “but they seem to favor that area.”
Young Manta Rays
In recent years, researchers began suspecting that the shallow, coastal waters of South Florida are a nursery ground for manta rays.
All the rays that the Marine Megafauna Foundation, a Truckee, California, research group, has seen in south Florida waters have been juveniles, and half of those have been seen again. That’s evidence, the MMF says, that manta rays are using the habitat over long periods, a key sign of nursery habitats for marine life with cartilage skeletons such as sharks, rays and skates.
The MMF began studying Florida’s manta rays in 2016 through underwater photography. Last summer, the group, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), attached five satellite tags to young manta rays so they can track their habitats and the impact of fishing and boat traffic on the animals.
Like slow-moving manatees, an animal common in the state, manta rays in south Florida are frequently entangled in fishing line or struck by boat propellers, the MMF says.
Many divers yearn for an encounter with manta rays, majestic batlike creatures with an average wingspan of up to 22 feet; in the case of the largest member of the ray family, the Atlantic manta ray, or Mobula birostris; the largest wingspan recorded is 30 feet. Moreover, divers can potentially connect with manta rays, which have the largest brain-to-body ratio of all fish.
Reefs and Wrecks
Broward County is roughly 24 miles long, with reef structures along the entire stretch. Lauderdale-By-The-Sea has three main “reef lines,” the first of which is in about 10 feet of water, the second in 40 to 60 feet, and the third in about 100 feet, said Steve d’Oliveira, a town spokesman who is its de facto point man on offshore issues by virtue of his scuba background. “There are individual reef patches between those,” d’Oliveira adds.
Lauderdale-By-The-Sea attracts divers for its man-made sites as well. Its Shipwreck Snorkel Trail, an artificial reef south of Anglin’s Pier, features wreck artifacts including an anchor, five concrete cannons and a ballast pile within a 100- by 20-foot area 200 feet offshore. The site was dedicated in 2002 by explorer Jean-Michele Cousteau, and built by the Marine Archaeological Council to promote Broward County’s rich maritime heritage.
More recent artifacts can be found in the form of two 6- by 15-foot steel cages deployed more than a decade ago for a reef restoration project known as Biorock, but abandoned. The town is pursuing other methods to restore its coral reefs, a helpful barrier to beach erosion when hurricanes strike (see below).
Because the reef system is so close to shore, ships hugged the coastline, leaving plenty for today’s divers to see when the vessels succumbed to storms and other obstacles.
Many ships carried coal as cargo or fueled up with cheap, hot-burning bunker coal. Even today divers can follow coal trails on the shallow ocean floor to wreckage, a sign of the heavy use of the black rock in transportation and commerce over the years.
The town’s most popular wreck is the SS Copenhagen, a 19th Century British steamship that wrecked in May 1900 while transporting coal from Philadelphia to Havana, Cuba, less than a mile offshore in 25 feet of water and just a little over two years into its life. The single-screw steamer was built in Sunderland, England, and launched in February 1898.
The SS Copenhagen became Florida’s fifth underwater archaeological preserve when it was dedicated in June 1994. It was added to the US National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
Sites off the shores of Lauderdale-By-The-Sea attract scuba divers, snorkelers and free divers. Divers must be PADI-certified and use a dive flag when scuba diving; snorkeling at Lauderdale-By-The-Sea also requires a dive flag.
The Beach Diver offers training in basic skin diving, snorkeling and free-diving, as well as full open-water scuba certification on many levels. Two dive shops in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea offer equipment rentals and dive certification classes: Gold Coast Scuba and Deep Blue Divers.
Saving South Florida Coral
Over the past five years, a group of Nova Southeastern University marine scientists and researchers have snipped pieces of staghorn coral from their coral nursery off the Ft. Lauderdale coast and transplanted the clippings to the natural reef system off Lauderdale-By-The-Sea to the south.
Both the town and the researchers, who transplanted more than 3,000 staghorn coral clippings since 2015, have deemed the recently ended, five-year, $59,000 project a success. The town has renewed the project for another five years at the same cost, says David Gilliam, PhD, the project’s lead researcher and an assistant professor at NSU’s Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography.
The effort aims to counter decades of reef decay from a growing Southeast Florida population. Some 7 million people in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties all live within 30 miles of the coast, Gilliam says, and rain runoff from all that development carries pollutants. “It’s mostly runoff, land use issues,” the researcher says.
Those pollutants block sunshine that coral, which have algae in their tissue, need to process food. “If they don’t have nice, clear, warm water,” Gilliam says, “they can’t function as efficiently.”
The South Florida coast has lost about 40% of its coral just over the past six years, but to a different culprit: Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, or SCTLD. Its origins are unknown, but bacterial pathogens are the suspected culprits.
The staghorn coral that NSU is growing in its nursery for transplantation, Gilliam says, is not one of the more than 20 coral species affected by SCTLD. Staghorn corals grow in branches, so they’re easy to break into fragments and transplant, unlike boulder-shaped corals, which have been victims of SCTLD and grow about 2 centimeters a year. Staghorn coral grows at about 10 centimeters a year.
“The results have been very positive,” Gilliam says of the reef restoration project. “We did suffer some setback because of Hurricane Irma in 2017, and that impacted the entire Florida reef tract. Our nursery was banged up pretty significantly and we lost a lot of corals. But there’s still a lot more coral that we out-planted than there was beforehand.”
The NSU reef restoration project at Lauderdale-By-The-Sea follows another coral growth effort that the town abandoned. Under that earlier project, called Biorock, electric currents were sent to corals to stimulate their growth. Owners of the town’s main pier balked at the idea of electric lines running from the structure to the reef, so project managers attached solar panels to buoys instead.
A similar Biorock effort worked in the Pacific but not in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, where the system had been installed for nearly six years, said Steve d’Oliveira, a town spokesman.
“It never provided enough electricity,” d’Oliveira said. “We removed the solar buoys in August 2015 as Tropical Storm Erika approached, and we decided not to put them back. There was some coral growth, but it wasn’t what we were told we would see.”
Gilliam and his NSU team have been transplanting coral along south Florida for a decade. Lauderdale-By-The-Sea is the only township or municipality it has contracted with to restore local reefs.
With the help of 1,000 volunteers, the town has also planted sea oats to ease erosion along the entire 2.4 miles of its shoreline to create a continuous dune system and trap windblown sand.
“They’re good stewards of the environment,” Gilliam says of the town.
How to Start a Beach Dive
For all its convenience, beginning a dive from the shore takes some special skills. Unlike diving from a boat, which typically involves stepping off a platform right into the spot where you’ve planned your dive, shore diving forces you to negotiate surf before you reach your dive site.
“That can be a real issue for some folks,” says Tom Carpenter of The Beach Diver. “You can have rip currents and sideways currents, and waves that are anywhere from one to four feet can be challenging.”
Start by scanning the beach and water, Carpenter recommends, to check that the area looks stable and safe from the surface. Once you give it the okay, gear up as any diver would, and enter the water carrying your fins.
Wade into the surf until you’re waist deep, turn your back to the water and put your fins on. Then, with lift from the air in your buoyancy compensator, also called a buoyancy control device or BCD, surface swim—continuing with your back to the water—to your dive site.
“The majority of the air in your BCD is in the back portion, so if you are going backwards the flotation is from beneath you and it makes it more comfortable,” Carpenter says.
Swimming along the surface rather than starting your dive from the shoreline helps you conserve air and energy, he adds. And you can enjoy talking with your buddies until you reach your dive site.
WHERE TO STAY
Laid Back, Retro Vibe at Plunge Hotel
During a winter visit when tourism is at peak, it was hard to find an open spot on the crowded beach just around this town’s main pier. That made our choice of the Plunge Beach Resort all the better. Despite many of the hotel’s 163 rooms and suites being filled during our stay, we found plenty of elbow room and distance between lounging guests on the property’s spacious palm-lined stretch of white sandy beach.
Guestrooms are spacious, and the hotel’s minimalist, retro design is always charming and at times whimsical, as in the lobby print in which characters’ pink and yellow hair stretches beyond the picture frame and onto the wall. The fun indoor vibe nicely complements all the amenities available for outdoor adventure—bicycles to ride along A1A, volleyball, a quaint pool and a hopping beach bar, where we savored delicious fish tacos and citrus-infused cocktails. Visit plungebeachhotel.com.
Diplomat Touts Comfort and Fitness Training
If you’re seeking a higher-end experience in a luxury high-rise hotel, and don’t want to be too far from town, the Diplomat Beach Resort, set between Miami and Fort Lauderdale along Hollywood's Gold Coast, has something for families, the adventurous and the fitness-minded.
The oceanfront property features cozy cabanas and two pools for winding down after jet skiing, kayaking or paddle boarding. Or you can indulge at the Diplomat Spa, with ocean views and massage enhancements like hot stones or CBD massage oil, after starting the day with sunrise yoga on the beach.
Picky eaters won’t have any trouble finding their favorites and pleasant surprises, with eight restaurants by celebrity chefs Geoffrey Zakarian and Michael Schulson on property. We found a breakfast buffet that was both healthful and indulgent at Point Royal. For dinner, we turned to Monkitail, voted No. 1 Best New Restaurant of 2017 by USA Today's readers' choice, and Four Diamond AAA-rated Diplomat Prime, and were not surprised by those accolades.
We found Schulson’s Monkitail an enchanting space and feasted on its ample Chef’s Tasting Menu, which took us on an Asian journey through inspired dishes, hot and cold, like Baked Seabass Rolls, Chicken Teriyaki with yakitori, red pepper jam, and crispy garlic, and other creative small plates. Don’t miss the private karaoke booths in the rear.
There are plenty of opportunities to work off your culinary indulgences. The Diplomat’s two-story fitness center touts an elevated cardio deck with elliptical, treadmills and stationary bikes, and you can go more extreme with on-property Core Fitness Training, with boxing, Upper Body Blast and other invigorating classes. Visit diplomatresort.com.
TRYP by Wyndham Maritime Beckons Sports Fans
Also not far is TRYP by Wyndham Maritime Fort Lauderdale, which puts you in a modern nautical frame of mind as its close to the cruise ports, features in-room sea life artwork from photographer Richard Murphy and is located in a city known as the world’s yachting capital.
Some nice touches for sports fans are a mini sports theater with a giant screen and a small basketball court in its fitness center. The court and theater exemplify how the property makes great use of space; it also provides a compact but soothing meditation area by a koi pond at the entrance to its pool and hot tub. Modern, clean and bright with natural light, TRYP by Wyndham and its amenities are worth a stay and return visits. Visit wyndhamhotels.com.
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