One of the greatest things about living in Florida is the easy access to the kind of natural areas and wildlife encounters that most people only read about in travel magazines or see on wildlife documentaries. For all of the traveling that my husband (Javier) and I have done, we keep coming back to Vero Beach, on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, for the sheer variety of adventures that await us.
Javier and I have paddleboarded within an arm’s reach of manatees at Round Island Riverside Park on the Indian River Lagoon, and gone airboating alongside alligators and all manner of wading birds at the Blue Cypress Recreation Area. We’ve snorkeled in the Vero Beach reef and we’ve even waded into the water at the tidal pools at Sebastian Inlet, a protected cove where the Indian River meets the ocean. We spotted hermit crabs in the shallows and saw a sea turtle poking its beak to the surface to breathe.
But we knew that since we had only seen what’s above the waterline in Vero Beach, that we were only getting half the picture.
Just offshore from lively Ocean Drive in Vero Beach are four parallel reefs that are home to 400 different species of marine life. You can even snorkel to a late-19th century shipwreck that’s nearby.
It was time, I told Javier, for us to get out there and see what the underwater world had to offer. I enlisted the help of local dive guide Paul Seldes, from Lone Sheep Scuba in Vero Beach, to show us the way.
“I feel like a seven-year-old every time I dive here,” Paul, who moved to Vero Beach 15 years ago from New York City, told us as we geared up in the parking lot of Humiston Park for a shore dive. “So whatever you see, be sure you point it out to me, too.”
While we planned to go scuba diving, much of the reef lies in just 15 to 20 feet of water a short swim from the shore. That means that when the water is clearest—from May through July—snorkelers can enjoy the sights, too, with just a mask, snorkel and fins.
As we walked the few steps from the parking lot to the shoreline, Paul explained that we’d float on our backs out to the point where the first reef in a line of four started. We’d drop down from there to swim to the third reef—the most scenic of the bunch—located about 200 yards offshore. Paul carried an inflatable buoy with a dive flag attached to it to warn any passing boaters that there were divers down.
“Don’t expect a classic coral reef. It’s mostly limestone and worm rock, made from the secretions of bristle worms over many years. But you’ll be amazed at all that lives right off shore here,” he said as we entered the water.
Indeed, the reef structure right off Vero Beach is unlike any place else in the state—and comes closer to shore here, too, than anyplace on Florida’s east coast. And the reef’s pronounced cracks and caverns shelter a fascinating array of creatures.
We descended into the clear blue water and finned across the rippled sand on the seafloor until we reached the third reef, where cuts and crevasses in the limestone hid all kinds of treasures that gave new meaning to this stretch of the Treasure Coast.
The antennas of lobsters tested the waters around them from deep inside hidey-holes, and jewel-colored juvenile tropical fish including French angelfish and queen angelfish flitted around us. I heard a tap on my tank and turned to find Javier, eyes wide behind his mask, gesturing for me to look beneath an overhang in the reef. There, an enormous loggerhead turtle had wedged itself in for a little siesta, seemingly oblivious to the awkward humans in its midst. As we followed Paul’s lead north along the reef line, more treasures revealed themselves. A large southern stingray skipped across the sand like a magic carpet and groupers and snappers weaved in and out of the reef. Paul motioned for us to look up to see yet another sea turtle shadowing us near the surface.
Suddenly, we found ourselves over a structure that was clearly manmade. We had arrived atop the site of Vero Beach’s most famous shallow water wreck, the SS Breconshire, aka: the Boiler Wreck. The English-built steamer had been on its way to Tampa from New York City when it wrecked in April 1894 and came to its final resting place just offshore from where vacation-goers now sip frosty drinks and admire the shoreline.
The once 300-foot-long ship has been worn down and broken apart over the decades since its demise, due to the corrosive tropical waters and ocean surge. But divers and snorkelers can still make out the boilers that powered the engines and the clear shape of the bow. The amount of life harbored in the bones of the Breconshire, however, is what’s really astounding. All around us, the rusted remains were alive with the vibrations of jellyfish, snapper, grouper, crabs creeping slowly along and all manner of small tropical fish. And from every nook and cranny, black sea urchins waved their spines.
When we made our way back to the beach at the end of the dive, it was hard not to feel smug as the people on the beach asked us what we’d seen. We rattled off a list of diving highlights: rays, sea turtles, crabs, grouper and a rainbow of tropical fish, all visible to anyone with a mask.
It was another Vero Beach adventure to add to our list. And I couldn’t wait to see what memories Javier and I would be rewarded with next time.