Divers have always found much to see in the clear waters around the Blue Heron Bridge in Riviera Beach, just north of West Palm Beach.
A few years ago, however, Palm Beach County took this popular snorkeling and scuba-diving site and made it better.
In a swimmable distance off the beach at Phil Foster Park, the county built an 800-foot-long man-made reef and snorkel trail in 6 to 10 feet of water. It attracts a volume and variety of sea creatures rarely seen from the beach.
Phil Foster Park is an island in the Lake Worth Lagoon at the center of the Blue Heron Bridge. It is just a mile from the Palm Beach Inlet and thus gets a steady flow of crystal clear water from the Atlantic, along with all sorts of fish and other creatures that come in with the tide.
The bridge pilings and rocks have long attracted a variety of sea creatures, and the additional reef structures just created more habitat for them.
The reef was constructed with 600 tons of rock and six man-made concrete reef modules. The structures, each of which weighs two tons, have ledges and small habitat spaces ideal for fish, octopus, sea horses and other creatures.
At the western end of the trail, three 5-foot-long concrete statues of hammerhead sharks were added in 2015. The sharks were created and donated by artist Tom McDonald.
This snorkeling site is well-known for the diversity of species. Squid, octopus, spotted rays, and starfish are regularly seen. Colorful angelfish and parrotfish, juvenile snapper, grunts and grouper, damsels, blennies and wrasses are all there.
My first impression on visiting was how clear the water is here. Right from the beach, you see small fish glistening in the water.
Finding the snorkel trail, however, was a little bit of a challenge as there are no markers showing you where it is.
I started snorkeling on the eastern end of the beach. Wrong. I saw a few fish and enjoyed the clear water, but I didn’t come across any parts of the snorkel trail.
Trying again, I swam straight out from the lifeguard stand. I had better luck, coming across one of the reef structures, and eventually snorkeled the length of the trail. At the far western end are the shark sculptures. Set your expectations appropriately: They’re neat, but they’re not huge and they’re in pretty deep water.
More impressive to me were some of the large boulder piles, which have been in place longer and were covered with coral and swarming with schools of fish.
All of the reef structures are located between the white buoys that mark the swimming area and the orange buoys that mark the boating channel, so you need to swim a good distance out from the beach. (There’s a map on the beach to consult.)
When we visited, at high tide on a sunny Saturday morning, there were myriad fish on and near the snorkel trail, including schools of vivid yellow-and-black-striped sergeant major fish. We saw pufferfish, sea anemones, several 2-foot-long barracuda and lots of fish I couldn’t identify. People at the beach talked about spotting sea stars and octopus, though I wasn’t that lucky.
The beach itself is immediately adjacent to the bridge on its south side. (Most of Phil Foster Park is located on the other side of the bridge.)
People set up on the beach to make a day of it here, including in the shade right under the bridge. Nearby are picnic tables, restrooms, a fishing pier and a shaded playground.
We found several divers and swimmers were anxious to tell what they saw and where they saw it, so you might benefit from being chatty.
When planning your trip, also check the tide table. The best time to snorkel is a half hour before high tide. Between tides, the current can be strong.
Nearby and within site of the Phil Foster beach is another great snorkeling place in the Lake Worth Lagoon, which benefits from the same conditions: Peanut Island County Park.
Phil Foster Park
900 E. Blue Heron Blvd.
Riviera Beach, Florida
The park is open sunrise to sunset. There is no admission fee and parking is free, although the lot does fill up on some weekends. When that happens, some people drop off a member of their party and their gear at Phil Foster Park and then park the car at the Ocean Mall at the Riviera Beach public beach on Singer Island. This is about a 10 minute walk back to the park. Or: Consider a weekday visit or an early-morning arrival.
Looking for easy-to-reach snorkeling spots? Florida Rambler has a comprehensive list of places where you can snorkel from shore, from Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West up to Bathtub Reef on Hutchinson Island.
- County website for Phil Foster Park
- Here’s a report on diving Phil Foster Park from reef.org.
- Background on the project from Palm Beach Illustrated.
- The snorkel trail on YouTube: