Text and Photography by Curt Bowen
lorida’s Gulf Coast boasts some of the finest white sandy beaches in the world. Millions of tourists stroll these beautiful stretches each year. But the sand does not end just off shore, it continues westward in some places for over a hundred miles. Below the water’s surface, there is a massive sand desert that contains few rocky outcroppings for fish to live and seek cover from natural predators. Massive structures such as large wrecks and natural sinkholes in the Gulf of Mexico are few and far between.
Photo: Scuba Quest dive manager John Falcone documents the bow section of the Mexican Pride wreck.
For the last hundred years, man has helped to provide such shelter by adding a multitude of artificial reef structures such as concrete pilings, bridge rubble, barges, ships, and even decommissioned military tanks. When discovered, fish flock to these structures in numbers so thick that they sometimes block out the sun’s rays. Millions of small cigar minnows create a moving blanket of life as they shift together in an underwater ballet. Larger fish such as snapper and grouper tuck under and inside every crack and crevice while behemoth rough-skinned jewfish dominate the food chain, only to be challenged by an occasional passing shark or dolphin.

Due to the long distances from shore, many of these massive structures are rarely visited. One of the more popular wrecks off the shores of Tampa Bay is that of the Mexican Pride. The Pride, as locals call it, is a 200-foot-long bulk-products barge that once transported phosphate out of Tampa Bay. In the 1970’s, the ship fell victim to mismanagement and subsequently was neglected to the point of no return. The vessel was towed off shore for about 35 miles and, with a single explosive charge in her bow, sent to the bottom of the Gulf.
KISS CCR instructor Warren Stincer swims through the marine-encrusted rudder section of the Pride.
Today, the Pride sits upright in 130 feet of water as she continues to deteriorate from the never-ending effects of salt water eroding her metal structures. Her bow and stern sections still stand tall, but her center has collapsed into an unrecognizable pile of rusted steel beams and metal sheathing.

Artifacts are not the treasure that divers seek on the Pride. Divers come to immerse themselves in the immense schools of fish, and to get a chance to swim along with a multitude of VW Bug-sized jewfish that inhabit the wreckage. The stern of the Pride contained the crew’s quarters, galley, and heads. These days the giant fish have taken over this section and renamed it the Jewfish Condo. Care should be taken when entering into the lower decks of the stern section: three or four five-hundred-pound fish do not like to share a crowded space with one misplaced diver blocking the only exit.

The long boat ride to the Pride provides enough time for the divers to get acquainted, prepare their dive equipment, and, depending on the speed of the vessel, take a long nap. During the early summer months, the Gulf of Mexico is somewhat predictable for calm weather so seas are normally tolerable.

The Pride contains no mooring buoys, thus dive and fishing vessels are required to anchor into the wreckage or drift fish across the structure. As you will see when you swim around the Pride, many of these misplaced anchors stay while the previous owners whimper back to shore leaving their unwanted sacrifice for the fish. If you need a new anchor for your boat, many times it’s good pickings — bring along a 100-pound lift bag.

Besides the enormous numbers of fish swarming the wreckage, macro photographers can locate a vast amount of small critters to keep themselves entertained. Every inch of the wreckage is thickly coated with barnacles, shells, small fish, crabs, and fish hooks; bring a line cutter and gloves.

If you’re seeking a dive full of life and adventure, the wreck of the Mexican Pride is an oasis filled with surprises.
Camouflaged in color, this lone crab hunts along the millions of barnacles and shells encrusted on every inch of the wreckage.
Three, 400-pound Jew Fish (Goliath Grouper) seek refuge from divers inside the upper stern decks of the Pride.