Exploring an Underwater World


Visitors to South Walton generally come to soak up the sun on a pristine Emerald Coast beach. But just offshore—a few feet beneath the surface—lies an extraordinary world offering a very different kind of experience.

The South Walton Reef Association (SWARA) has established more than a dozen artificial reef sites for diving and snorkeling along 30A. These habitats are constructed from steel, limestone, and concrete to provide marine ecosystems for some of South Walton’s most fascinating “locals.”


art being lowered in the the UMA

Exploring an Undersea World

The reefs are peppered along the shores of Walton County from Inlet Beach to Miramar Beach. One of the most popular is a turtle-shaped reef off of Grayton Beach State Park—an ideal but little-known venue for those seeking an underwater adventure. Snorkeling or scuba diving the artificial reef structures offer views of corals, plants, and various sea life.

Walt Hartley of Dive 30A grew up in Walton County and fell in love with the Gulf of Mexico at a young age. He’s an avid diver, spearfisherman, and underwater videographer who shares his passion for the water through snorkeling and diving tours. His shop is in the heart of Grayton Beach. His motto: “Explore beyond the shore.”

In early 2017, Hartley began running family-friendly guided snorkel tours. Two years later, his company was permitted to launch directly from Grayton Beach as South Walton’s first full-service dive operator. Their guides can answer all your questions about snorkeling, scuba diving, and the reefs themselves. The entire process is turnkey: Dive 30A provides masks, snorkels, fins, and vests in a range of sizes, as well as incidentals such as sunscreen and drinking water.

An artificial reef tour can also be booked through 360 Blue. If you’re looking for a true one-of-a-kind experience, this excursion is ideal for those eight years and older. A tour of the reefs provides a glimpse of any number of saltwater fish, as well as stingrays, barracuda, and sea turtles.

These marine-life-shaped reefs can be reached by kayak or paddleboard and are ideal for snorkeling.

Underwater Museum of Art

Another extraordinary experience found only along 30A is the Underwater Museum of Art (UMA). Form meets function here, as art pieces also serve as protective marine habitats. UMA’s sculptures welcome many local visitors, including schools of baitfish and large gamefish. UMA was established via a partnership of the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County (CAA), the South Walton Artificial Reef Association (SWARA), and Visit South Walton.

Entering its fourth year of sculpture deployments, UMA selects a variety of works from local, regional, and global artisans.

Inaugural UMA artist and 30-year certified scuba diver Vince Tatum says the museum is a diver’s dream. He has seen his piece, the SWARA Skull, attract species rarely spotted along the Gulf Coast. “Incredibly, last time I dove UMA, I spotted two French angelfish. I have only ever seen those while diving in the Caymans,” he shared.

scuba diver

Get Open-Water Certified to Scuba

You must be an open-water certified scuba diver to visit UMA. Anna Schmitz and her brother, Tom, are owners of Emerald Coast Scuba and have been in business in Destin since 1992. They offer a three- step streamlined scuba certification process that requires less of a time commitment than many think.

“The first step is an e-learning component,” Schmitz says, “and most finish this before their planned trip to the area. The next two steps can be completed in four days—two days practicing at their onsite pool and two days diving in the open water.”

The guidelines for participation are also reasonable.

“You should simply be in overall good health, comfortable in the water, and have a desire to achieve your certification,” Schmitz says. From the beginner level to dive instructor programming, Emerald Coast Scuba offers classes and training year-round. Their dive certification can be used for the rest of your life, anywhere in the world.

CAA board member and UMA co-founder Allison Wickey created Anamorphous Octopus—an eight-foot by eight-foot octopus sculpture comprised of 16 metal bars. Eager to visit her piece in person, she used Emerald Coast Scuba for her dive certification. An avid water enthusiast, Wickey speaks highly of the program.

“I felt really safe and supported while getting certified with the dive masters at Emerald Coast Scuba,” she says. Fostering a close-knit working partnership with UMA, Emerald Coast Scuba has also dedicated itself to keeping the museum clean of debris and fishing lines.

It’s important to remember that no matter which adventure you pursue—snorkeling reefs or scuba diving an underwater museum—taking time to explore the depths of the Emerald Coast is sure to be an experience you will never forget.