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The Phil Foster Park Snorkel Trail

Stephen Brown

Exploring the underwater world is closer than you think, especially when taking the plunge at one of Florida's most diverse, easy-access dive spots, Phil Foster Park.  While hiking trails are widely known, few have heard of snorkel trails. The name says it all: a string of artificial reefs close enough to shore and shallow enough for divers to explore without the need of a boat, expensive equipment or even much experience.

   Opened in August, the Phil Foster Park Artificial Reef and Snorkel Trail is an 800-foot-long tract of artificial reef incorporating more than 600 tons of Anastasia rock boulders, loosely strong together in easily accessible depths ranging from six to 10 feet.

Phil Foster Park Snorkel Trail - Aeriel Layout

Aerial shot of the Phil Foster Park Snorkel Trail with a highlighted placement of the artificial reef tract.

   “The area has always been dynamic in terms of sea life,” said Carmen Vare, environmental program supervisor for the marine/estuarine enhancement and restoration program of Palm Beach County’s Environmental Resources Management department. “The one thing that it was lacking, though, was substrate on the sandy bottom.”

concrete module from Phil Foster Park Snorkel Trail

Artificial reef rock pile at the Phil Foster Park Snorkel Trail

Underwater shot of the Phil Foster Park Snorkel Trail artficial reef. Atop, a concrete module from Pineapple Grove Designs; below, one of the rock piles created by ERM.

*Photos by Elaine Blum

   As part of the county’s Artificial Reef Program, ERM, buoyed by the support of the Board of County Commissioners and the Lake Worth Lagoon Initiative, began the process of adding to one of the most dynamic and prolific habitats in all of the Intracoastal Waterway. The whole process took about a month and a half, from hand-selecting the capstone in western Palm Beach County to transporting the rock by barge and then meticulously placing it on the sandy seabed. Starting with smaller rocks and boulders, ERM built piles about 10-20 feet long and half as wide. Larger rocks on top created crevices, ledges and nooks for sea critters and fish to proliferate. These larger rock piles, 15 in all, were spread as far as 50 feet apart, allowing the reef to run for 800 feet. Interspersed throughout are smaller, more discrete rock piles, connecting the dots. Additionally, six concrete reef modules, about five by seven feet in size and sculpted to resemble sponges and coral, were donated by creator Christopher O’Hare of Pineapple Grove Designs and punctuate the reef tract.

   “It wasn’t an overly ambitious plan,” says Vare, who has helped lead the artificial reef program and the Lake Worth Lagoon Initiative in creating an array of underwater and island habitats throughout the Intracoastal Waterway and the lagoon. “We weren’t trying to change the complexion of the area too much—that was one of the main concerns. If we put too much down, it might actually change things.”

   Though this is a significant concern, the inclusion of the artificial reef trail did slightly alter the site, for the better. These artificial reefs, though simple in form and function, make for more variation for divers and sea life. “One of the unique things about this area is the diversity,” Vare says. “There have been more than 300 different species of fish observed in this area. You won’t find anywhere near those numbers anywhere else.”

   This diversity all comes back to the location. It's situated less than mile from the Lake Worth Inlet, which in turns sits just four nautical miles from the Gulfstream, making it somewhat of a resting spot for weary travelers on the great Atlantic loop. Inward, Phil Foster is the vanguard of Palm Beach County’s largest estuary, the Lake Worth Lagoon, an important breeding ground and nursery of many fish and marine life species. This creates a dynamic location at Phil Foster, a point where two very different marine ecosystems collide.

Twospot Cardinalfish from the Blue Heron Bridge and Phil Foster Park - Linton Creel - Palm Beach County Reef Research TeamBeaugregory - Phil Foster Park - Linton-Creel

A twospot cardinalfish (left) and beaugregory are but a few of the damselfish species at Phil Foster Park's Snorkel Trail.

*Photographed by Linton Creel

   “It’s a special place and a particularly rewarding project,” says Vare, who has helped on the construction of six reefs in the lagoon. “It’s a little more rewarding when you put a reef down and actually see it, where there is blue water around. Some of the reefs we put down, it's just brown water. Its great for fish, creates a fishery, which is the most important thing, but it's really difficult to see the reef, see the fish.”

   On an incoming high tide, Phil Foster is flushed with clean, clear ocean water, allowing for visibility up to 80 feet when the conditions are right. The dive is perfect for the beginner and seasoned vet alike, attracting people from across the world to take the plunge. On any given weekend, finding a parking spot at Phil Foster when the tide is about to come in is near impossible. The main attraction for the SCUBA set is below the Blue Heron Bridge, along the pylons, abutment and pier, which can become crowded with divers as they jockey for position to capture the right picture.

octopus - Phil Foster Park - Snorkel Trail - photographed by Bryan Clark - adeeperblue.com

An octopus comes out of hiding at Phil Foster Park. Found in crevices, under ledges and even in discarded cans and bottles, octopi are a common occupier at the snorkel trail’s many artificial reef rock piles.

*Photo by Bryan Clark, adeeperblue.com

   “It's an excellent place to dive and see juvenile fish,” says veteran diver Linton Creel, acting coordinator of the Palm Beach County Reef Research Team—a team of volunteer divers charged with monitoring the county’s natural and artificial reefs—and an advisory board member of ERM’s Artificial Reef and Estuarine Enhancement Committee. “The Blue Heron Bridge has been popular dive spot for a number of years, but it got to the point that there was almost more divers than there was area to share. And since there is a lot of sand areas at Phil Foster Park, and sand doesn’t attract a lot of sea life, [AREEF] came to the conclusion: Why not build an inshore reef?”

   The site was a win-win. Located just south of Phil Foster Park’s beach, 200 feet offshore, the dive is accessible for every level, ranging in depth from six to 10 feet. For beginners, who are taking to the water with just a mask, snorkel and fins, the trail is a true treasure—not too taxing of a swim and shallow enough to ease anxiety but populated enough to get a sense of Phil Foster Park's biodiversity. For SCUBA divers, it's shallow enough to stay underwater for two hours—plenty of time to capture a shot of some of the rare fish species scurrying about.

   “There really are no safety concerns,” Linton says. “If you dive, it's best to experience the reef 30 minutes before mean high tide and leaving 30 minutes after the tide turns. That gives you approximately an hour and a half to a two-hour window without current.”

Longfin Damselfish - Blue Heron Bridge Phil Foster Park  - Linton-Creel

   The artificial reefs have already recruited a significant amount of fish inhabitants. On any given dive, one can see countless species of fish, from colorful cruisers like angelfish and parrotfish to juvenile reef species like snapper, grunts and grouper as well as pint-sized damsels, blennies and wrasses and even the exotically odd trumpetfish or scrawled filefish. Flying gurnard also take up residence at Phil Foster, crawling along the seafloor with adapted fins that act like legs. The keen observer might pick out the elusive jawfish with a brood of eggs cradled in its mouth or a spectacularly camouflaged sea horse, of which six species have been observed in this tiny stretch of water habitat.

   Invertebrates inhabit just about every nook and cranny, from shrimp to crabs and lobster, while octopus squeeze into the tightest of spots, peering out with their horizontal pupils. On occasion, rays and juvenile sharks glide through, while visiting manatee cruising from seagrass bed to seagrass bed is not a rarity.

   “There is a lot of variety there,” Vare says. “It’s a special place and its right in our backyard.”

Sea Horse - Bryan Clark - Phil Foster ParkYellowheaded jawfish - Phil Foster Park

Two of the more unique species found at Phil Foster Park’s Snorkel Trail, sea horses (left) and yellow-headed jawfish.

*Photo by Bryan Clark, adeeperblue.com

 

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