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Taking the Plunge
A family's diving adventure in Gulf Shores & Orange Beach
It's hard to describe the magic of scuba diving to a land lubber. When I slip beneath the surface and slowly descend down the anchor line, I enter another world. Venturing into the aquatic animal kingdom and weightlessly flying over reefs and wrecks, I'm overcome with the contrasting emotions of both adrenaline and tranquility at the same time.
I've been hooked on diving for almost 10 years. So it was a joyful moment when my daughter, 16-year-old Christina, decided to get certified and then join me on an underwater adventure. Accessible, affordable and with sites suitable for beginners, we headed to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach for a week of diving and fun in the sun.
Checking out the Whiskey Wreck
On our first day of diving we rented gear at a dive shop and headed to the Whiskey Wreck, one of the only wrecks on the Gulf Coast that is accessible from shore. We donned our gear, walked straight into the water and made the 150-yard swim out to the site.
At a depth of only 25 feet, the Whiskey is a perfect site for newly-certified divers and snorkelers. On the way out we came across two other divers and gave the universal shaka hand gesture. Christina confidently made the descent to the bottom and took the lead around the site. I was incredibly impressed with her obvious excitement, and proud to share my favorite hobby with her. We hovered a few feet above the sandy floor and glided over the rotting and rusting remnants of the 200-foot rum runner ship which dates to 1920. We were greeted by a huge school of spadefish, a couple flounder and a small octopus hiding in the rubble.
"Everything looks so different underwater, Dad!" exclaimed Christina after we surfaced. "It's so quiet and it feels really peaceful, and the fish are so pretty! I love watching my bubbles float all the way up the surface. It reminded me how deep we were, but not in a scary way. It's just really cool!"
I beamed with pride. "Diving is a pretty spectacular experience, isn't it? Would you like to try another wreck tomorrow?"
Christina responded with a resounding "YEAH!"
Diving the LuLu
The next day we set out on a 46-foot charter boat to explore some of the area's top underwater sites. After a 90-minute ride over waves into the Gulf of Mexico, we stopped at the LuLu, a 271-foot-long decommissioned freighter that was intentionally sunk in 115 feet of water 17 nautical miles south of Perdido Pass in 2013. Part of the largest artificial reef program in the United States, it is home to abundant sea life including red snapper, king mackerel, bluefish and cobia.
After a brief orientation from the dive master and a final gear check, we suited up, put our regulators in our mouths and took a giant stride off the boat. Slowly descending into the greenish blue waters, we followed the guideline to a dark shape below.
It wasn't long before we clearly saw the top of the ship's wheelhouse which sits at a depth of only 60 feet. Rising plumes of bubbles indicated a dozen divers already at the site. I glanced back at Christina and saw the same awed look in her eyes I had on my early wreck dives. We weightlessly and gracefully propelled ourselves to the large ship, entering an aquatic world that few people get to experience.
Slowly swimming around the wheelhouse, we peered into rusted holes and glided through schools of brightly-colored fish. Everyone stopped for photos in front of the cabin, where the painted LuLu logo in the shape of the state of Alabama welcomes divers. Shining lights into nooks and crannies, we explored this hulking remnant from the past that had now become a playground for marine life and adventurous divers.
A beginning diver like Christina shouldn't go deeper than 60 feet or swim into a wreck, so we stayed around the wheelhouse on that dive. Fish scattered before us as we swam and I knew that she would be eager to gain more experience so that we could explore the LuLu in greater detail on a later visit.
We surfaced from the LuLu with smiles on our faces and priceless, eternal family memories. Back topside in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, we recapped our day's dive adventures over grilled mahi-mahi and raw oysters then watched the sun drift below the horizon as we treated ourselves to dessert.
"Dad, this one was so great! Diving makes me feel like I'm in a totally different world. I can see why you love it so much—I do, too."
I think we have another diver in the family.
Much more to come
We only scratched the surface of more than a dozen dive sites in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. In the summer of 2015, dive boats will start running charters to Poseidon's Playground, a growing artificial reef just three miles outside of Perdido Pass. Sitting in only 40 feet of water, it's a perfect spot for beginning divers. The reef was started in December 2014 with the sinking of three statues and more are being added every year. A shell-covered concrete cross was placed there in March 2015 to host underwater weddings.
Advanced divers can also find excellent dive sites accessible from the Alabama Gulf Coast. The U.S.S. Oriskany is the largest artificial reef on the planet and has been named one of the top 10 wreck dive sites in the world. Divers come from all over the globe to explore its 888-foot-long hull which sits in 212 feet of water and is home to abundant sea life.
For those who want to learn to dive, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach is the perfect place to become certified. A number of schools offer 4-day dive courses that can have visitors diving in open water on day three and reaching open water certification by day 4. There are also junior diver certification classes and experiences in the safety of a pool for children as young as 10 years old.
We've had a lot of great family experiences and memories over the years but some of the best have been down under. Make a trip down to the Alabama Gulf Coast and take the plunge.
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