South Padre Island is best known for its rowdy spring break parties, recreational fishing and local dolphin trips. However, this barrier island is also a rich ecosystem that offers a variety of beautiful subtropical dive sites within 18 miles of shore.
McAllen is the nearest major city with an international airport, from which you can rent a car and drive just over an hour to reach South Padre Island. Texans typically drive to the coast for weekends to reach this year-round destination. However, dive season begins in March and closes in December, when the Gulf of Mexico weather becomes more unpredictable.
Dive sites can accommodate any level of diver, with oil rigs offering not only the easiest diving, but also the opportunity for longer dives at shallower depths.
Dubbed the Aquarium by locals, these movable offshore drilling platforms are in the process of being taken to the Port of Brownsville to be dismantled, but the rigs that remain still offer a rich habitat. The newest site to see for the upcoming dive season will be the Ben & Casey shrimp boat. This is the closest site to shore, which also means visibility will vary the greatest on this site. Although the wreck is shallow, visibility can be more limited than that at the rigs or the USTS Texas Clipper.
Since the Clipper rests on its port side, the most visually appealing sections of this wreck are also in shallower sections along the promenade windows. On occasion, a fishing net has become entangled on this wreck by local fishermen trying to take advantage of the fish schooling nearby.
From numerous sea turtle species to great barracuda and greater amberjack, this wreck attracts a variety of ever- changing wildlife. Spadefish and triggerfish can be found regularly, and sharks and rays are seen occasionally.
The Laguna Madre, a protected lagoon on South Padre Island, is a snorkeling destination rich with fish, rays, sea turtles and sea grass. Plan time to enjoy sandy beaches where sea turtles nest each spring. The destination itself is remote, but dive sites are near shore and feature tropical fish and blue-water diving during summer.
USTS Texas Clipper
This artificial reef was a World War II troop transport and attack ship, but later served as a luxury liner and then a merchant marine training vessel. It was purpose-sunk in November 2007. This advanced dive has much to explore throughout 473 feet of wreck open to penetration by divers with the proper training. The wreck sits between 70 and 130 feet.
Ben & Casey Shrimp Boat
One of several shrimp boats sunk off South Padre Island, this wreck lies at 65 feet of depth. It can be found 5 miles from the northeast jetties, and still has the rigging attached. Sunk bow-first just this year, the wreck has yet to build much growth but attracts passing fish.
Jack Up Rigs
Just an hour offshore, these oil rigs provide tropical reef habitat from the surface all the way down beyond recreational limits. Large fish such as barracuda and sharks will pass through, while smaller tropical fish tend to congregate around the rig legs. Numerous shrimp and macro subjects can be found in the coral structure.
Local sea turtles are rehabilitated and periodically released from this nonprofit rescue center on South Padre Island. Learn more about the local habitat at its educational center and through periodic presentations, and participate in a public hatchling release from June through August.
Drive by this SpaceX launch site just south of South Padre Island, less than an hour from Port Isabel, and glimpse rockets being developed, including the Falcon Heavy rocket. If a launch is planned, local roads near the site close. However, you can easily see a launch from nearby beaches if the timing aligns.
The Laguna Madre is one of six hypersaline lagoons in the world. Nearly 80 percent of all Texas seagrass beds can be found growing in the lagoon, supporting fish life, green and other sea turtles, and an extensive colonial water bird rookery.