• Joe Capozzi

Rough waters ahead for renowned dive spot during Blue Heron Bridge construction project

Updated: Jul 15




SNORKELING AT THE Blue Heron Bridge, a world-renowned dive spot, will be a lot more challenging for a few months next year.


Access to the scenic waters around Phil Foster Park will be restricted from March through October 2023 while sections of the deteriorating westbound decks on the east side of the bridge are replaced.


Although Phil Foster Park will remain open, the beach area under the bridge decks — the usual access point to the Lake Worth Lagoon — will be closed for at least two months starting in March.


Snorkelers and divers will still be able to use the parking lot during the $2.8 million rehabilitation project. But to access the swimming areas and popular underwater snorkel trail on the south side of the bridge, they will have to carry their gear across Blue Heron Boulevard at a traffic light and descend a set of short stairs leading to another section of beach.


(PuraVidaDivers.com)


“Having to go from the parking lot up and over the bridge is not ideal. The gear is 50 pounds,’’ said Susan Innis, a scuba instructor who attended an informational meeting July 12 hosted by the Florida Department of Transportation.


Plus, the parking lot is often full on weekends, meaning swimmers will have to use caution walking through traffic to get to the south beach.


“My main source of income is taking people to the Blue Heron Bridge to dive,’’ Innis told DOT project managers.


“This is a very popular training area for new divers. A lot of lessons are done here for folks who have never scuba dived before,’’ she said. “The divers and snorkelers use the whole area.’’


(Florida Department of Transportation)


In 2013, Sport Diver magazine ranked the Blue Heron Bridge as “the best dive spot in the world” because of its colorful array of bizarre marine life lurking in the shallows — from flying gurnards and octopus to bandtail sea robins and striated frogfish.


“That bridge brings in a lot of money to the city. There are people who come from all over the world to dive that bridge,’’ Richard Steckler, a scuba enthusiast, told project managers.


Steckler said it's imperative that the reefs beneath and around the bridge are not damaged during the work.


Porcupine fish in the shallows of Phil Foster Park. (Michael Patrick O'Neill)


“It's a world-renowned dive spot and the diving really needs to be given some consideration,'' he said. "If you damage that, you're damaging the restaurants and everything else.’’


John Danielsen, an FDOT engineering consultant, said the construction work will take place above the water, not below it. He said the crews will be required to make sure no large chunks of debris fall into the water.


“The most disruptive work is the deck replacement (on the westbound lanes directly above the beach) and that should be done in a little over two months,’’ he said.


The rest of the work will entail concrete restoration, patching and painting the entire bridge an off-white color, he said.


Spadefish school beneath the Little Blue Heron Bridge in Phil Foster Park. (Michael Patrick O'Neill)


Barges and equipment in the water near the construction site will be cordoned off with floating turbidity barriers. “We don't recommend divers going underneath the barge,’’ Danielsen said.

Everyone at the meeting agreed the rehab work needs to be done.


"We've had many concerns and complaints about the condition of the bridge, especially that westbound outermost lane. I really look forward to having this project completed around the fall of 2023,'' said Dr. Julie Botel, a Riviera Beach City Council member.



Built in 1974, the bridge is in good shape except for the westbound spans just west of the entrance to Phil Foster Park. Those sections have deteriorated from years of saltwater saturation from boat trailers leaving the park.


“When boaters leave, they stay in that right lane, and the upward section of the bridge seems to be the worst when boats drain their water. It requires full deck removal and replacement,’’ Danielsen said.


“We have been getting a lot of complaints that the bridge is getting worse, so the sooner we remove it and replace it the better.’’



(Florida Department of Transportation)


He said the new sections will be “a lot stronger and less permeable and will repel that water.’’


The bridge will remain open to traffic during construction. The westbound spans will be closed for three months. Westbound traffic will be detoured to the eastbound spans, with one lane in each direction.


The channel will remain open to marine traffic and the fishing piers in the park will also remain open.


At a public meeting July 12 at the Riviera Beach City Marina, FDOT engineering consultant John Danielsen points to area where swimmers will have to access the Intracoastal Waterway while the Blue Heron Bridge is repaired next year. (Joe Capozzi)


Transportation planners considered keeping part of the beach beneath the affected spans open and working in smaller sections at a time. But Danielsen said the priority is “getting four lanes of traffic back as fast as we can’’ and for most of the 2023 hurricane season, which starts in June.


He said the DOT might put incentives in the contract to get the work done quicker.


Meanwhile, Innis said scuba instructors will have to hope for the best.


“We're going to see how it goes,’’ she said.


Snorkelers and divers usually access the popular snorkel trail (above) from a beach (unseen in this photo) beneath the bridge. When bridge construction starts next year, they will have to carry their equipment across Blue Heron Boulevard and enter at the beach above. (Michael Patrick O'Neill)


(Special thanks to Palm Beach Gardens photographer Michael Patrick O’Neill for use of his Blue Heron Bridge images. On July 15, O'Neill will present marine wildlife photographs from his recent trip to Malawi, Africa, at the Palm Beach County Library's Acreage branch at 2:30 p.m.)


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About the author

Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm

Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020.View all posts by Joe Capozzi.

 

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