Last Updated: February 14, 2023
Pensacola is the westernmost city on the Florida Panhandle – but it’s really known as the home of the legendary Blue Angels as well as the National Naval Aviation Museum, situated on the US Naval Air Station.
Of course, Pensacola is also well known as being home to some of the best scuba diving you’re going to find anywhere in the state of Florida. The underwater adventures you can have in the Gulf of Mexico are unbelievable, with artificial reefs, natural structures, and tons wrecks to explore.
If you’ve been thinking about doing a little bit of diving in Pensacola Fl, but aren’t quite sure of whether or not it’s worth the trip you’ll want to check out all the info I share below.
Pensacola is a scuba diving hotbed that you want to visit at least once!
Best Dive Sites in Pensacola
1. USS Oriskany
The cornerstone of the largest artificial reef on the planet, the USS Oriskany started its life as a 900+ foot U.S. Navy Essex class aircraft carrier.
In 2006, though, the Navy decided to not only decommission this vessel but also sink it to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico just off the coast of Pensacola – making it the largest vessel ever intentionally sunk, too.
Because the Navy handled every aspect of the sinking, they were able to control how it went down. That made it possible to drop this ship up right on the bottom of the ocean, giving divers an opportunity to swim in and around the vessel.
Nicknamed the “Great Carrier Reef” scuba diving in Pensacola is worth it just for the opportunity to check this thing out in person.
2. Portofino Reef
Newbies will fall head over heels in love with the Portofino Reef dive, and for good reason.
Technically a “sure dive” site, you’ll only ever have to go down 12 feet to see everything that is to be seen here. Make sure that you swim your way over to the “Christmas Trees” that make up the backbone of this reef system, though.
These beautiful little blobs of reef are huge attractors of marine life, including gigantic schools of tropical fish that showcase just about every single color of the rainbow. You don’t really have to worry about tides when you are diving this reef, but you will want to pay close attention to the currents, the surf, and surge conditions as well.
3. Joe Patti Barge
Mostly made up of a 175 foot long barge that was donated by the Patti family in 2013, this artificial reef is a memorial designed to recognize a fishing boat captain that created the now world-famous Joe Patti Seafood Company.
One of the most interesting things about this barge, though, is that it had a whole host of different steel structures welded directly to it before it was dropped to the bottom of the ocean.
An artist named Kevin Marchetti designed this as a beautiful memorial art installation, one that encapsulated the community of Pensacola – even after it’s had time for the ocean to reclaim it (at least a little bit).
Most of the barge sits in about 50 feet of water, though the very top of the wreckage can be found in about 35 feet. That makes it something that even beginners will have a pretty easy time navigating.
A wreck this size is always going to attract a ton of marine life. You’ll find big schools of fish swimming all over the water column, but it’s also not unusual to find dolphins, manatees, and sharks swimming around, either.
Be sure to search through the sand around, too. Sand dollars, starfish, and shells, not to mention sharks teeth, can be found without too much hassle.
4. Fort Pickens Jetties
Ideal for newbie divers, the Fort Pickens jetties are situated just off the west side of Santa Rosa Island.
Finding these jetties is almost foolishly easy, since they sit in just 5 to 50 feet of water. You’ll be able to swim all over them as you dip beneath the surface, taking in all the natural marine life that call these jetties home.
One word of warning, though, make sure that you pay close attention to the currents every time you go out to dive here. They can get incredibly strong, but when you’re underwater you might not even notice them until it’s too late.
A good dive operation will help keep you safe. The best time to dive is this place is about an hour before high tide.
5. Timber Holes
A fantastic reef diving opportunity, the “Timber Holes” are natural creations that have sort of been stamped into the face of the limestone so common in this part of the Panhandle.
Researchers believe that the holes were originally caused by gigantic ancient trees that used to grow in this part of Florida, trees that have long died away and rotted to the point where only the holes where their roots ran through are left behind.
Diving this spot is going to require some experience under your belt. You’ll find the Timber Holes in between 120 and 130 feet of water.
6. Ocean Wind Tug
The Ocean Wind tug was originally built in 1952 and used to handle the bulk of the ship docking assistance needed in Pensacola.
After the tug was decommissioned, it was decided that it would be brought out into the Gulf of Mexico and added to the artificial reef inventory (so to speak) – and that’s exactly where it sits still today.
Recommended for open water divers with a little bit of experience, the Ocean Wind dive site isn’t in the deepest part of the Gulf by any stretch. But dive conditions can get a little choppy and hairy from time to time, so you’ll want to be sure that you are working with a charter that knows what they’re doing for sure.
7. USS Massachusetts
Another incredible wreck, this ship is almost the complete opposite of the USS Oriskany.
A much smaller vessel, as well as one of the older ships in U.S. Navy history, the water keeps the hull of this ancient ship preserved and protected. The beautiful emerald water and white sand that surround the USS Massachusetts are the perfect “final resting place”, making this a wonderful underwater archaeological site to explore.
Diving Conditions and Best Time to Dive
One of the big draws of diving in the Florida Panhandle is that it offers true all year round scuba diving.
Of course, there are sometimes of the year where it is better. If you want the absolute best possible conditions (when the water is warmest and you’ll have the best visibility) you’ll want to shoot for the summertime months.
June, July, and August will really set you up for success on your dive trip.
Annual water surface temperatures hover anywhere between 58°F in the winter and 85°F in the summer. The coldest time of the month to dive here is in January, but even then it’s not going to put a ton of divers off.
Swimming around in 60°F water during the winter is a whole lot better than in the northern part of the country with significantly lower temperatures.
Top Dive Operators in Pensacola
– Dive Pros
One of the most established dive shops in the Panhandle, the Florida Dive Pros have been serving scuba divers in and around Pensacola since 1988.
Many in the community consider this to be the top dive operation anywhere in the Gulf Coast.
The trainers here are exceptional, skilled and certified to not only help you get up and running in the world of scuba but also able to help train you for more specialized or more technical dive experiences, too.
You’ll find gear to rent (and to buy) charter opportunities, and even help finding travel and accommodation setups.
– Jolly Roger Dive Charters
Though Jolly Roger Dive Charters don’t have the same kind of pedigree that the Dive Pros have, it has still earned an almost legendary reputation in the local scuba dive community.
With charter operations to more than 100+ wrecks throughout Pensacola, experienced teams of professional divers and boat crews, and some of the best gear available for rent anywhere in the region you’d have to be at least a little bit crazy not to consider them as your “go to” shop when in town.
– MBT Divers
(Maximum Bottom Time) MBT Divers can help you get certified, but they can take you to the next level with their instructional courses as well.
I’m talking water courses, advanced adventure and rescue diver courses, nitrox training, and so much more.
MBT Divers also offer fantastic equipment rental options, sales and service solutions, and some of the best priced gas refills anywhere along this part of the Gulf.
Combine all of that with dozens of different charters (including to some of the more private dive spots) and it becomes obvious that this shop is well worth a closer look.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Pensacola Good for Scuba Diving?
Pensacola is an incredible place for scuba diving, regardless of the type of dives you like to do. The weather is great all year round, the dive shop community is exceptional, and there are dive sites – like the USS Oriskany – that you literally will not be able to find anywhere else.
How Much Does it Cost to go Scuba Diving in Pensacola Florida?
Scuba diving in Pensacola isn’t going to blow holes in your budget or empty out your bank account.
All of the reputable charter and dive shop operations (including the ones I highlighted above) offer very competitive prices. Expect to spend at least a few hundred dollars on a dive charter for a day or two, and more if you’re going to extend those underwater adventures further.
Are There Reefs in Pensacola?
There are tons of reefs to explore in Pensacola, but almost all of them are of the artificial variety. Be sure to check out the “Great Carrier Reef” when you are diving this part of the Gulf.
How Deep is the Water off Pensacola Beach?
The water depth in the Pensacola Bay only gets to about 20 to 50 feet, but the Gulf drops off to depths of 160 feet or so the further you get out from the Pensacola Beach.
My unbounded love for the oceans and everything it has to offer motivated me to pursue my passion and become a professional scuba diving instructor.
I keep reading, exploring, and learning more about scuba diving and the underwater world all the time, so I’m excited to share my knowledge with fellow scuba enthusiasts and hopefully contribute a little to your development as a diver. I want people to fall in love with the oceans with as much passion as I have. Read more about me here.