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Divers deliver revenue, tourists during slow season

The diving — and tourism — industries are big fans of the goliath grouper.

The big-eyed fish gather off Jupiter to spawn every late summer. The fish that grow up to six feet long and 800 pounds, once fished and speared relentlessly, are now rebounding. Goliath groupers are protected in Florida waters, which means fishing or spearing them is illegal.

That brings tourists, who dive to watch and photograph groupers that gather in groups of 40 to 60. The tourists are especially welcome during the slow August-September period, the “shoulder season” in the hotel biz.

“Many of our diving guests come from north Florida. Some bring their own boats,” said Maria Grebe, general manager of the La Quinta Inns & Suites off Indiantown Road in Jupiter.

While diving revenue doesn’t come close to the dollars collected from golf and polo, it is still a strong attraction, said Glenn Jergensen, executive director of the county’s Tourist Development Council.

“People think they have to go to the Keys or the Caribbean. We have some of the best diving right off of Palm Beach County,” he said.

There are no numbers available on how much revenue diving generates in the county. But with tourism booming in Palm Beach County — January tourism tax revenue totaled $5 million, up more than 41 percent from January 2014 — diving activities should be boosted and promoted, he said.

The county is doing its share by building more artificial reefs throughout the county, said Carman Vare, the county’s environmental management supervisor.

Click here to see list of Palm Beach County natural and artificial reefs.

The county has sunk 54 ships, about 105,000 tons of limerock and about 77,000 tons of concrete to build about 100 reefs, according to county records. Deep-water reefs several miles offshore are for certified divers, while recreation divers can strap on a snorkle and see all kinds of sea life at underwater sheltered parks recently built at Phil Foster Park and Peanut Island.

Diving near the Blue Heron Bridge off Phil Foster Park is very popular with underwater photographers. Sea horses, tropical fish, rays and sea turtles come in and out in the clear water from the daily tides, said Shana Phelan, administrator for the Palm Beach County Diving Association.

“Divers from all over are making sure the Blue Heron Bridge is on their list,” Phelan said.

Not only do the reefs provide nurseries for fish and other sealife to grow, recycling construction materials to build the reefs keeps the stuff out of landfills.

For example, remnants of the old U.S. 1 bridge over the Loxahatchee River in Jupiter were used to build a 100-foot-by-100-foot reef at the Sugar Sands site in the Intracoastal Waterway north of the Blue Heron Bridge.

And more artificial reefs give people more places to fish. That means more business for charter fishing boats, bait shops and sporting goods stores. Building new reefs puts less pressure on existing reefs.

“Reefs placed in the right location and built correctly last a long time,” said Tom Twyford, president of the West Palm Beach Fishing Club.

And continue to bring tourists.

For example, those reefs brought six divers this past September from New Jersey, said Paul Mickel, a tour guide with Short Hills, N.J.-based Underwater Adventure Dive Center Inc., the firm that sponsored the tour. They spent five days at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Palm Beach Gardens. They dived and saw goliath groupers. They went out at night to local restaurants and attractions. They hit a sports bar to watch a football game.

“Everybody left with an excellent impression of the area. We’ll be back,” Mickel said.

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