Blue Heron Bridge / Shore Diving

For years, Palm Beach County, Florida's Blue Heron Bridge was a well-kept secret, only known and shared between local underwater macro photographers who enjoyed the never-ending contest in finding new forms of strange and unique cryptic critters. Others knew it as a training site for local dive instructors to introduce their students to their first “ocean” dive.

The small beach at Phil Foster Park made entry easy, the depths are shallow (the deepest point is 18 feet), the bottom sandy, and most of all, underwater visibility can be extremely good reaching in excess of 60 foot during the incoming tide.

But as what eventually happens with all good secrets, word got out.

Macro photographers began sharing prize finds - from yellow longsnout seahorses (Hippocampus reidi) and shortnose batfish (Ogcocephalus nasutus) to even striated hairy frogfish (Antennarius striatus) - on underwater photography forums, and social media sites.

All exalted the bridge as one of the “best muck dives” in the Tropical Atlantic or Caribbean, letting the genie out of the bottle to fellow divers at what treasures await under the bridge.

 

The Secrets of the Bridge

by Laz Ruda & Walt Stearns

So what is muck diving exactly?

The term Muck Diving can be applied in various ways describing a style or a type of diving that does not take place on a reef, but rather some place close to shore, or inside a bay, lagoon or cove. Unlike what you would see on a reef, the bottom is not colorful, is generally sandy, and can even be covered with silt that is easily stirred up.  Most apparent is that the bottom appears deceptively lifeless. Yet this aquatic desert is home to a parade of small, strange and unique, and sometimes highly ornate collection of bottom dwelling creatures. And that’s what the Blue Heron Bridge is largely about.

It’s not about the scenery, it’s about the locals

Some of the more interesting bottom dwellers in this region are the predators that rely on camouflage to help them remain unseen; they lie-and-wait to ambush their prey at the most opportune time. Among this list of specialists are the odd shaped fishes such as scorpionfish, Northern stargazers, four species of batfish and three species of frogfish.

To find many of the unique critters that reside here requires a sharp eye and a bit of patience. While some are a little more conspicuous like the longsnout seahorse, which can come in shades of yellow to orange, others, like it’s cousin the lined seahorse (Hippocampus errectus), are marvelously well camouflaged, and far more difficult to spot.

But, then there are a few that will reveal themselves when you least expect it. 

When disturbed flying gurnards, along with their close relative the bluespotted searobin (Prionotus roseus), take flight across the bottom, they spread their broad pectoral fins displaying brilliant blue markings.

On the ornate side, divers will often find juvenile French and grey angelfish. These beauties are easily identified by their jet-black body coloration sporting three deep gold body bars with a small splash of royal blue in lower pec fins.

Having near identical coloration and markings as they do during their immature state makes it difficult to tell them apart. The trick begins with the tail.

On the juvenile grey, the back half of the tail is clear, whereas the French’s tail is round, rimmed in gold with a solid black center. Another distinctive trait that makes the juvenile French a bit more unique is its tendency to swim with a fluttering motion. The purpose of this behavior is to advertise its services to other fish that they will clean them of bothersome parasites.

Other ornamental bottom dwellers found here include the lantern bass (Serranus baldwini) featuring rows of orange rectangular blotches and spots across its body. Commonly found around bottom rubble, these little members of the grouper family (measuring 1 to 3 inches in length) are highly inquisitive making them great subjects for photos.

Not all is sand and rubble bottom with the occasional empty bottle or can, which also provide shelter for tiny creatures like octopus. The pilings supporting the bridge spans provide habitat much like the condos lining the beach on neighboring Singer Island.

Among the hodgepodge brown, pink and orange hued sponge growth lining the columns, divers and snorkelers will find a variety of small crustaceans like arrow crabs and banded coral shrimp, while schools of grunts and immature snapper and spadefish move about feeding in the current.

Adding to the bridge’s venue, in 2012, the City of Riviera Beach, Florida, created the Phil Foster Park Snorkeling Trail in the shallows out front of the beach under the Blue Heron Bridge. To create the trail, more than 600 tons of Anastasia rock boulders were placed in varying sized piles to form an 800-foot-long artificial reef tract.

Down on the east end of the reef there is even a couple of small wrecks, which had found their way on their own to liven things up.

Water depth around the rock piles ranges between six and ten feet, and in the short period of time that they have been there have now become a clear attractant to a host of fish and invertebrate life.  

The variety of invertebrates that can be found between the bridge pilings and the new artificial reef is staggering. Along with the parade of crabs, shrimp, snails, octopus, sea stars and urchins, is the number of nudibranchs and sea slug species that have been identified here. 

Paul Humann and Ned Deloach’s Reef Creature Identification book for Florida, Caribbean and the Bahamas lists approximately 49 species total; most of those listed have been identified here at Blue Heron Bridge.

Among the list of creatures sure to bring a thrill to visitors of the bridge are the resident horseshoe crabs that live in the Intracoastal Waterway. Horseshoe crabs are living fossils with an ancestry dating back 450,000 million years. Yet, the body of this large marine arthopod, with its hard protective carapace and compound eyes, has undergone a minimum amount of change in all that time.

What can be found out around the bridge is not limited to only the small and unusual. On occasion, snorkelers and scuba divers can encounter a passing manatee. Southern stingrays and young eagle rays, more often swimming solo, but sometimes in small groups, will grant a beautiful fly by as they glide effortlessly above the bottom.

Ins and outs of diving the Blue Heron Bridge

The bridge is part of Blue Heron Boulevard connecting Riviera Beach with Singer Island. Divers coming from the north or south on I-95 should take exit 76 and head East all the way to the first (larger) span of the bridge to Singer Island. Coming down the backside of the larger span there will be a lighted intersection for the entrance into Phil Foster Park, a small island comprised largely of a parking lot with a boat ramp and docks on the north side, with a small beach on the south side.

Parking of course is free, but is on a first come, first served basis. The most convenient spots for accessing the water are along the base of the bridge’s larger span.

Diving at the bridge is quite easy, but there are few important things to consider, primarily, deciding where it is you want to dive. The area that makes up the bridge is comprehensive, making it nearly impossible to cover adequately in one dive.  For practical purposes, the dive area can be separated into three distinctive parts:

  • The Main Bridge: This area, which spans the southwestern side of Phil Foster Park, also includes a large section of the original Blue Heron Bridge, which now serves as local fishing pier. Depth range = 4 to 12 feet max.
  • The Small bridge: The small bridge section connects Phil Foster Park with Singer Island. Originally built in 1950, the small bridge generally has more growth on the pilings than the larger bridge span, but is also more prone for stronger currents during the middle phase of the rising tide. Depth range, 4 to 18 feet max.
  • Phil Foster Park Snorkeling Trail: This area encompasses the 800-foot-long Phil Foster Park artificial reef tract out front of the beach, which contains a public swimming area. Depth range, 6 to 11 feet max.

 

The Tides

The engine that drives both the abundance of marine life and clean water around the Blue Heron Bridge is the water that pours in through the Lake Worth Inlet during the incoming tide.

Due to the Bridge’s somewhat close proximity to this inlet, tidal flow can get quite strong, namely during the middle stage of the incoming (rising) tide. The areas where the currents are going to be the most prevalent is around the bridge pilings, and far less so on the Snorkel Trail.

Timing is everything

Timing is important as the best clarity takes place during the last couple hours before the high tide mark, which will require consulting the local tide chart.

Best times for entering under the bridge around the pilings, when the current is easier to handle, is half an hour before the apex of the rising tide. Timed right, you will be able to enjoy an additional half hour almost current free before conditions change as the tide reverses course, bringing with it the dirtier waters of the Intracoastal Waterway.

 

Other considerations

Here the sea bottom is very silty. Thus, it is very important to control your buoyancy, along with keeping your fins from hitting the bottom when you kick. Not only can it stir up the bottom sediment reducing the clarity for you and anyone else nearby, your activity could possibly be destroying somebody’s home. Keep in mind little creatures in the sand such as nubibranchs and crabs can be easily bounced around if you fin too close to the bottom.

Required Rules & Rregulations For Divers and Snorkelers

  • Divers are required to carry a dive flag; the authorities are usually in the area ticketing the divers who do not.
  • Divers are not permitted to submerge until they are outside the swim zone, which is marked by series of large orange buoys and signs on the beach.
  • When diving the Snorkel Trail, do not go any further than the channel markers that designate the main channel used for boating traffic that runs parallel to the shore and under the bridge.

New divers should make note of where the boat traffic areas are, including the one under the center of the large bridge, and steer clear of it. In addition to being dangerous it is also against the law to dive in those channels, so make sure to stay away!

Take the Experience, Not the Marine Life

The entire Blue Heron Bridge area is a deemed “No-Take Zone” for spearfishing or lobster harvesting, and the possession of nets and slurp-guns for tropical fish collecting is seriously frowned upon.  Hook and line fishing, however, is not forbidden from the old bridge section and short bridge span to Singer island, so it is best to be aware of fishing line and hooks when passing under either area.

 

Night Diving

Although the Phil Foster Park generally open from sunrise to sunset, night diving is allowed through special arrangements with some of the dive operators in the Riviera Beach/Singer Island area. Should you become a fan of bridge during the day, coming back at night is something worth looking into.

When the sun goes down, so begins the hour of the night beasts. Octopus and mantis shrimp emerge from their burrows and dens to forage for food. Among these nocturnal denizens, reef squid hang in the shadow of a diver’s lights ready to snatch small unsuspecting fish or shrimp exposed by the illumination.

For night diving opportunities, inquire with the PBCDA members in the Lake Worth Inlet area > Here