Every destination has its “Signature Dive.” In most cases it’s a particular wreck, reef or animal attraction that is touted as a must-do. Off the Palm Beach County coast, there are several to choose from. Some are wrecks like the Castor and Zion Train, others are comprised of reefs best known for seeing sea turtles. There is even a shore dive consider one the best muck diving sites in the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean – the Blue Heron Bridge.
Then there is that spot that holds a certain mystic due to its notoriety in presenting big things in additional to a few logistical challenges; like being a bit out the way in in terms of accessing it, and/or requiring advanced diving skills to dive it.
Off Jupiter, Florida, that spot is the Hole-in-the-Wall.
Referred to by most locals as simply “The Hole,” the site is a cave within a deep-water ledge running north and south with depth range 120 on top to 147 feet at its deepest point. The cave itself features a 40-foot-wide by 10-foot high opening on the ledge formation’s eastern face that cuts back in some 35 – 40 feet before making a hard-right turn to an exit nearly the same size where the ledge makes a slight dog leg to the west before continuing north.
In addition to the depth, which happens to be just over the edge of the 130-foot limit most training agencies deemed for recreational divers, there is matter of dealing current. On most days, the western edge of the Gulf Stream sweeps across the site, bringing a north-flowing current of 1 to 2 knots. As a result, The Hole can only be done as a drift, with divers being dropping in as much as 150 yards up current, and hopefully timing their descent to arrive on the bottom just up current of The Hole.
This scenario can present a challenge for both diver and dive operator. The boat crew must anticipate the current’s often variable speed to give divers sufficient time to descend, but not place them too far up current causing them to come up short of the cave at such depths, or too close, risking overshooting the cave during the descent. And on some days, the currents are so strong that the only sensible course is to abort the dive before even attempting to reach the ledge. Bottom line, it’s not a dive for novices.
But what truly gives the Hole-in-the-Wall its mystique is not the conditions, but its reputation for attracting the bigger players of the reef. After its discovery in the early 1970’s, spearfisherman would return from a trip to ‘The Hole’ with huge cubera snappers 40 to 80-pounds, large grey and goliath grouper (before became protected) together with tales of evading even all kinds of large sharks.
The Hole was a favorite with a group of local hunters who called themselves the Guerrilla Divers. In an era when men were men, and risk was an accepted form of macho male expression, these guys were the Alpha Males of the Palm Beach dive scene. They dove long and hard – and considered newfangled Buoyancy Compensators to be crutches for the weak. The saying was: “Anyone who needs a BC deserves to drown.”
One of the best known of the Guerilla Divers was Frank Hammett, owner of Frank’s Dive Shop. From the late ‘50s through the ‘70s, when the public still considered sharks to be evil eating machines, Frank was known as the “Shark Killer,” and the Hole-in-the-Wall was his personal playground. If Frank ran into a shark, it was often quickly dispatched, becoming another casualty of, as Frank put it, “Accidental death due to Inappropriate Behavior.”
According to the old timers, sand tiger sharks used to frequent the hole before Frank changed the natural order by inserting himself as the new apex predator. The coast’s resident population of giant Goliath grouper proved to be even easier targets. By the time I started diving this area in the late 1970s (with Frank in the beginning), the Goliaths where all gone, and it seemed they would never return.
The Guerrilla Divers like Frank are history now having hung up their fins in retirement to be replaced by different breed diver, most with a greater appreciation for the sites Mother Nature gives them.
As for the Goliath groupers that once frequented the Hole. Well, something remarkable one summer day in August of 2002 the goliaths returned. Twelve years from the date they were place under federal protection in 1990, the Hole was once again a spawning aggregation site for immense groupers. To the local diving population, the spectacle was something that most had never seen before having been out of existence for nearly 30 years.
The discovery was unprecedented as it was the first large-scale observable aggregation in recent years to take place over natural bottom instead of a wreck. Researchers identified 42 large fish at the aggregation. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Florida State University’s Institute for Fishery Resource Ecology Department placed tags in 24 adult fish ranging 120 – 350 lbs. and identified three others that were tagged 20 miles up the coast near Stuart the previous year.
In the years since, animal activity at life at the Hole seems to have continued to increase. In addition to the goliath groupers, which begin to show up in August and linger through October, the sharks have also made a healthy comeback. Venture out with some of dive operators that run specialize charters to see the gals (most are females) in the grey suits will get a healthy dose just about everything from of large bull sharks (which are year-round) with the occasional Atlantic reef generally patrolling the bottom to assortment of pelagics like silky, dusky, sand bar to even tiger and greater hammerhead in the upper water column. If you are fortunate. Point here, expect the unexpected as this area has produced the occasional great white, most have been sighted by fishermen and spearfishermen.
Should you think that is not true, quick visit to ocearch.org’s website and check the movements of several white sharks like Freya and Hali to Kathrine that have been tagged by this research group in the Atlantic and you be very surprised just how many times these sharks have traveled this stretch of coast.
Stranger yet, even with the amount of baiting performed by a handful of specialized dive charters to bring in sharks for divers to see, this particular species has yet to show any interest in that exercise.
If you have the experience and skills needed to perform drift dives, and to function safely at the lower end of the recreational dive envelope, the Hole in the Wall is a site that shouldn’t be missed.
Who Goes There?
These days trips to the Hole-in-the-Wall are treated as a technical dive open to advance nitrox and rebreather divers alike as the dive will entail a decompression profile. Due its location near the southern end of Jupiter, access to the site is provided by both dive operators out of Riviera Beach Marina (down in West Palm Beach area) and up north in Jupiter, which offers a shorter run. Should conditions look too unfavorable, most of these charters will switch a plan B dropping divers either the Jupiter Wreck Trek featuring the Zion Train and Esso Bonaire wrecks, or the Princess Ann wreck of West Palm which sits in 110 feet of water.
To find out which dive charters go where, you can begin here at the Palm Beach County Diving Association’s website – divepbc.com