(PNJ.com) - Many locals know of the popular dive spot called the Russian freighter, which lies on the Gulf of Mexico floor about 80 feet below the surface and 9 miles south from Pensacola Pass.
On Wednesday, a boat full of divers and media on a Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail excursion learned local lore has been wrong: It's not a Russian ship at all.
"It's actually the San Pablo, a steamer from Belfast, Ireland, built in 1915," Franklin Price, a state marine archeologist explained while standing on the deck of the H2O Below dive charter boat. "It was a refrigerated cargo carrier that brought bananas up to Boston from Central America for years. It was torpedoed in 1942 at the dock in Puerto Limon in Costa Rica by a Nazi U-boat."
"That's really cool," several of the divers chimed in when Price explained it recently was discovered that the ship made its way to our waters in 1944 when it was refloated and towed here for a top secret government mission using remote controlled boats to blow up big ships.
This revelation only fueled the divers' eagerness to slip into the clear blue depths to explore the wreck, during the kick-off dive for a state campaign to promote the trail dubbed "Beyond the Beaches."
Secretary of State Ken Detzner launched the campaign with a presentation at Pensacola Yacht Club before the dive trip, explaining a BP tourism grant is paying for the $225,000 promotion, complete with rack cards for visitor centers and the media tours for sport fishing and diving publications and other news outlets.
"The ... Trail was developed in 2012 by the state's Bureau of Archeological Research in partnership with the Panhandle waterfront community to stimulate tourism and educate residents and visitors about Florida's maritime history," he said.
About 22 partnering dive shops and charter boat captains worked with state archeologists to identify 12 of the best shipwrecks out of dozens between Pensacola and Port St. Joe that would appeal to divers of various skill levels, he said.
To get a full experience, divers are encouraged to visit the Trail's website where they can virtually explore the wrecks and learn about their history and the marine life they will encounter while diving.
"One of the most exciting aspects of the (program) is the ... passport," Detzner said.
For $5, divers purchase a passport from the participating partner that has a page for each ship. Dive shops or charter captains validate each dive, and once all 12 are completed, participants receive a T-shirt and bragging rights.
So far, more than 800 divers have purchased passports, but only two divers from North Carolina have completed all the dives, which includes the USS Oriskany, an aircraft carrier that was sunk in 212 feet of water in 2006, and four other wrecks off Pensacola.
Price said the program is targeting recreational divers and people who may want to get certified just so they can explore these historically and ecologically significant jewels of the Gulf. It's also about showcasing Northwest Florida's dive opportunities to people who may think of South Florida when they plan dive trips to the state.
"There's more than just the beaches here," he said. "There's world class diving. The Oriskany is the largest artificial reef in the world."
Wrecks on the nearly desert-like floor of the Northern Gulf create an oasis for marine life — sponges, corals and all manners of fish, he said.
"Goliath grouper, sandbar shark, big red snapper and eight lion fish, we got seven of them," Robert Turpin, announced as he climbed back on the H2O after his dive.
Everyone gathered around to admire the invasive albeit beautiful lion fish impaled on a spear.
Turpin, Escambia County Marine Resources manager, was on the trip checking on the reef population and marking a milestone, his 2,999th dive. He made his very first and second dive on the San Pablo in 1975.
"The water was so clear, you could see the wreck from the surface and the surface from the wreck," he said. "Everybody deserves to know this is here."
Patrick Green, who owns one of the Trail's participating dive shops in Panama City, was impressed with the San Pablo.
"The water is crystal clear, there was very little current, and as soon as we splashed in we could actually see the whole wreck unfold in front us," he said. "It's a beautiful wreck. The first thing we could see was the old boilers from the steam engines ... the heart of the ship. The history behind the sinking of it is fascinating. The C.I.A.-involved coverup of why it's here adds to the mystery."
A new promotion "Beyond the Beaches" aims to encourage visitors to explore the states rich maritime history through the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail.