NOTE: Please follow ALL dive laws and rules. Beach diving can be dangerous and only experienced swimmers/divers should pursue this activity.
At first glance, Bradenton Beach may not be all too remarkable. It is relatively small, and nowhere near as developed as the beaches of Pinellas and Volusia Counties. No fancy hi-rise hotels can be seen stretching along the sand to both horizons, and there aren't twelve million college kids spending weeks at a time in March there either. What makes this a notable beach, however, is what lies above the sand and under the water.
Bradenton is home to one of the Gulf's best beach access snorkeling and SCUBA diving locations. First time snorkelers - as well as advanced divers - find this area to be a real pleasure. It's one of only a few spots on the Gulf where saltwater beach diving is really good. And one of the great advantages of beach diving is the fact that you don't need a boat, or don't have to pay the price of a boat charter when you want to dive, but your budget is tight!
Finding the dive site is easy: it stretches out perpendicular to the third of three small piers on Bradenton Beach (the southernmost pier). You simply have to pick a spot in the general area of the third pier, swim out about 100 yards and start looking for rock outcroppings jutting out from the sandy bottom. If visibility is at all good, you should see the darker reef formation contrasted against the light sandy areas as you snorkel along the surface.
You won't find the large, hard coral structures found in the Keys, but a variety of colorful sponges and soft coral abound! The Third Pier Reef, as it is known, is also loaded with a wide variety of gamefish and marine tropicals: large stingray, grouper, snapper, hogfish, gobies and blennies are plentiful. And, if you're extremely lucky, you may have a close encounter with a barracuda or a 500 pound goliathfish!
Concrete was also dumped about 250-300 yards offshore - this will certainly attract many more fish and serve as an anchoring spot for soft corals and sponge. It is also a little deeper, so the visibility is likely to be a little better, but only very strong swimmers should try to go out this far!
The drawback of this location is the fact that the quality of the snorkel/dive is totally dependent on the weather. Strong Westerly winds can reduce the generally good visibility to about two feet--making the dive virtually useless. The best way to plan the trip is to set up a tentative date and check the weather reports for the area--unless you want to drive a pretty long distance just to get in a good swim!
Of course, all diving laws should be followed when snorkeling or SCUBA diving. If you have any questions or concerns take a trip to see Mike Hays at Ocean Pro Dive Shop (8104 Cortez Rd. in Bradenton). He is knowledgeable of the area and can route you to alternative beach diving spots (such as Siesta Key) if the weather is non-cooperative. Mike can also recommend and set up offshore SCUBA trips for the advanced diver who wishes to take a further trek out into these tropical waters.