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.
Completed in August of 2013, the 800-foot-long tract of artificial reef incorporates more than 600 tons of Anastasia rock boulders. Loosely strung together in easily accessible depths ranging from six to ten feet. Part of Palm Beach County’s Environmental Resources Management’s Artificial Reef Program, the snorkel trail has added to one of the most prolific dive spots in the entire county, helping disperse the crowded Blue Heron Bridge.
Aerial shot of the Phil Foster Park Snorkel Trail with a highlighted placement of the artificial reef tract.
The snorkel trail, is located just south of Phil Foster Park’s beach, 200 feet offshore, and 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 up to two hours—plenty of time to capture a shot of some of the rare fish species scurrying about.
The design of the reef trail mimics a barrier reef, skirting along the shore, with breaks inbetween structure and mounds, making indivisual havens for fish and invertebrates to call there own. 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, punctuate the reef tract. Adding to ERM’s reef, older artificial structure like sunken boats, shopping carts, and other manmade debris offer additional snorkel spots—the shopping carts are a pretty cool sight. All of this adds to one of the most diversely populated sites in Palm Beach County—up to 300 species have been counted here.
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
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 species. This creates a dynamic location at Phil Foster, a point where two very different marine ecosystems collide.
On an incoming high tide, the site 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 fishing pier, which can become crowded with divers as they jockey for position to capture the right picture.
The Snorkel Trail, now celebrating its second year, has recruited a pretty variety of fish and invertebrates. 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—the largest stingray I have ever seen was here, easily six-feet across—and juvenile sharks glide through, while visiting manatee cruising from seagrass bed to seagrass bed is not a rarity.
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
Type of snorkel spot: Artificial Reef
Depth: Roughly 6 to 12 feet
What to Bring: Mask, snorkel and fins; dive flag; refreshments (though there are concessions as the Singer Island Outdoor Center)
When to go: High tide. Visibility is near zero at low tide, and swift current and boater traffic can create a rather difficult dive in-between tides.
Avoid: Deeper water and the boater channel. There are a few boater markers for the channel, but if you are not vigilant, you will quickly find yourself in a dangerous situation.
What to see: Lots and lots of tropical and reef fish; invertebrates and crustaceans.
What to leave at home: Spears and Hawaiian slings. Phil Foster Park is a unique place; please leave the underwater inhabitants and rock at Phil Foster and out of your home aquarium—unless of course you see a lionfish, then by all means capture and kill.
Park Extras: The recently opened Singer Island Outdoor Center, located on the northern portion of Phil Foster Park’s island offers snorkel and dive gear rentals and sales, refreshments, and paddleboard and kayak rentals. As an added bonus, the seasoned crew offers snorkel tours, taking newbie divers along the Snorkeling Trail. This is great for tourists and newbies alike, with expert divers pointing out some of the more interesting and hard-to-see critters, while keeping everyone safe and within the bounds of the trail. Tours start at $35 per person and include all the necessary snorkel gear. Call 561-839-5130 or click here to reserve a spot.
Tips: Before you head to Phil Foster Park, check on the weather and tides. This is strictly a high-tide dive spot, so know before you go—I am partial to NOAA’s Tide and Currents site. If the weather looks ominous, avoid the water—there are a lot of anchored sailboats around this site, creating a veritable lightning rod forest. Also, if the wind is whipping, and the seas choppy, snorkeling is usually pretty shot.
Expect crowded parking on the weekends—this is a very popular spot for divers and boaters. If you are planning a weekend dive, get to the park an hour or two before high tide to ensure getting a parking space (and even then it is not guaranteed).
If you venture to the Blue Heron Bridge, avoid snorkeling along the fishing pier. This is a pretty active fishing spot, and the fishermen are not always accommodating to divers—many treat divers like the golf ball retrievers at the driving range: a target.
And do not forget the dive flag. The Sheriff’s office patrols these waters, and are all too happy to give you a ticket for diving without one.