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Nature Tourism in the Panhandle – Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) – Okaloosa County

Nature Tourism in the Panhandle – Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) – Okaloosa County

ALL PHOTOS: MOLLY O’CONNOR

 

As many of you already know each month we have posted articles about nature tourism locations along the Intracoastal Waterway in the Florida Panhandle. This month we visit coastal Okaloosa County.

The Gulfarium in Ft. Walton Beach gives those who do not get a chance to go offshore, or dive, to see some of the unique marine organisms found in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Gulfarium in Ft. Walton Beach gives those who do not get a chance to go offshore, or dive, to see some of the unique marine organisms found in the Gulf of Mexico.

As with many other fishing piers along the panhandle, the Okaloosa Pier not only provides a spot for good fishing but a good spot to watch for marine life and great sunsets.

As with many other fishing piers along the panhandle, the Okaloosa Pier not only provides a spot for good fishing but a good spot to watch for marine life and great sunsets.

For years’ tourists have been visiting the beaches of Ft. Walton and Destin. The big draw has been the clean white sand but the area is also known for its really clear water.  This clear water has supported a charter fleet that focuses on diving and fishing, but in recent years several operations have included inshore snorkeling and even trawling for marine life for tourists to view.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many feel that you are not allowed on Eglin property. This is true for much of the island under their jurisdiction but there are places where you can park and enjoy the beach - though you must obey their rules.

Many feel that you are not allowed on Eglin property. This is true for much of the island under their jurisdiction but there are places where you can park and enjoy the beach – though you must obey their rules.

Residents enjoying the beach at one of the public access points on Eglin property.

Residents enjoying the beach at one of the public access points on Eglin property.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Destin harbor is now home the Haborwalk. There is a lot to see and do on the Haborwalk - and plenty of boat tours.

Destin harbor is now home the Haborwalk. There is a lot to see and do on the Haborwalk – and plenty of boat tours.

This sign gives the visitor some idea of the different activities that can be found along the Haborwalk.

This sign gives the visitor some idea of the different activities that can be found along the Haborwalk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are numerous types of tours to found along the Harborwalk. Information booths such as this one can help you find what you are looking for.

There are numerous types of tours to found along the Harborwalk. Information booths such as this one can help you find what you are looking for.

Charters include fishing, diving, snorkeling, and some collect marine life for you to see.

Charters include fishing, diving, snorkeling, and some collect marine life for you to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dolphin cruises are very popular.

Dolphin cruises are very popular.

There are sailing charters that will allow you to experience the Gulf of Mexico, sunset cruises, and there are some designed with kids in mind.

There are sailing charters that will allow you to experience the Gulf of Mexico, sunset cruises, and there are some designed with kids in mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Henderson State Park is on the south side of Highway 98. It has hiking trails, campground, and access to the Gulf. This is a nice natural location within a very urban area.

Henderson State Park is on the south side of Highway 98. It has hiking trails, a campground, and access to the Gulf. This is a nice natural location within a very urban area.

One of the scenic trails that wind through Henderson State Park

One of the scenic trails where you can explore the natural dune ecosystem in Henderson State Park

ARTIFICIAL REEFS

The natural substrate for most of the northern Gulf of Mexico is quartz sand. There are areas of hard bottom, shell hash, and even some natural reefs but sand dominates the landscape beneath the waves.  There is no question that the natural coral reefs of the Florida Keys have been a huge economic engine for that part of the state.  The clear, high saline water is filtered by the Everglades and allows much needed light to reach the tiny coral polyps and their symbiotic plant partners, which in turn produce limestone substrate for the polyp colonies to live and grow on.

 

Locally we have rivers that discharge into the Gulf but the water clarity is still pretty good. The bigger problem for coral development here is the cold winter temperatures and the lack of hard substrate for coral colonies to attach.  There are several species of corals, and other encrusting invertebrates and plants, that can tolerate our cooler winters but substrate is still an issue.  The answer… artificial substrate… artificial reefs.

 

Northwest Florida and Alabama have one of the most active artificial reef programs anywhere. Thousands of structures from small concrete pyramids, to chicken coops, to U.S. Navy vessels have been dropped to the bottom.  The concept is “build it… and they will come” – meaning the encrusting organisms and eventually larger predatory fishes.  At first artificial reefs were just left over rubble and car bodies that were indiscriminately dropped on the Gulf floor.  But over years’ marine scientists began to monitor and evaluate what works and what does not and artificial reefs became a science.  One question has not been answered… do artificial reefs generate more fish for fishermen – or do they just congregate the existing number of fish into more easily accessible points in the Gulf for easy capture?  There is science that supports both arguments… and the debate continues.  But if you want to know whether artificial reefs have been an economic success the answer is… yes… by the tens of millions of dollars it has.  The charter fleets of Ft. Walton, Destin, Panama City, and Pensacola have all benefited from the artificial reef program.  There are numerous structures to dive and many are part of the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail.

 

If you get a chance take a charter and dive, or fish, one of these interesting and well thought out habitats. Next month we head further east to Walton County and the famous “30A” highway.

PG

Author: Rick O’Connor – roc1@ufl.edu

Sea Grant Extension Agent in Escambia County

Rick O’Connor

Permanent link to this article: http://washington.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2016/04/22/nature-tourism-in-the-panhandle-intracoastal-waterway-icw-okaloosa-county/