It’s Spring Break on Scenic Highway 30A – our slice of paradise along the Florida Gulf Coast. Every inch of sand is lined with umbrellas and beach chairs set up for the wave of visitors from Dallas to Detroit. Real estate agents are busy persuading vacation-house-hungry buyers that 1200 sq. ft. of new build ‘north of the 98’ is the beach house of their dreams.
But there is a place along this coast where acres of untouched sand remain. Where you can spend the day miles from your nearest neighbor, and the sound of country-pop, loud telephones-talkers, and screaming kids never penetrates.
The locals know where it is and, for a modest fee, will take you there.
Ask Walt Hartley.
Walt runs Dive30A and Snorkel30A, and will happily take you and your party out into the Gulf—away from the screaming and shouting hordes—anchor up above one of the many dive hot spots and sand bars along this coast, and let you float and cruise through the emerald waters.
Born in Dallas, Texas, Walt moved to Seagrove as a young kid and wasn’t immediately struck by the beauty of the beach.
“I hated it,” laughed Walt. “Like any other pouting pre-teen, I couldn’t immediately see what the attraction was to all those miles of empty beach. When I swam in the salty water, it stung my eyes, and I longed for the urban life we’d left behind in Dallas.”
Walt worked in the Seagrove Village Market his father had bought in 1999 and moodily explored the dune lakes, forests and beaches in his free time.
“It was on one of my long walks that things changed,” recalled Walt. “Hunting around under the beach access points, I found a battered old surfboard. Well, it was probably 2/3rds of a surfboard, but for an 11 year old, it opened a world of possibilities.”
“It felt like this new opportunity had just dropped into my lap, and I started spending more and more time messing around in the wave breaks and paddling my beat up old board along the beach.”
Things conspired to move fast for Walt.
“I got a job offer from Chris Webb who ran one of the very first beach service teams down at Rosemary Beach, so I ditched the kitchens at my dad’s place for working on the sand,” said Walt. “I met Ridge Nye and his son Nicholas, a huge influence on me, and after spending time in the dive pool in Destin, the summer I turned 12 I picked up my Dive Certification. I thought I was the coolest kid in the school.”
But this newfound love of the water and what lay underneath was to shape a philosophy Walt has lived by ever since.
“I want to have fun, no matter the weather. If the water is still and calm and flat, then I’ll be out spearfishing. If there’s a favorable breeze, I will sail, and if it’s choppy and stormy, I’m going surfing.”
Diving and working the beach, Walt settled into life along 30A. His parents took him on a diving trip to the Florida Keys where Walt was amazed by the wealth of marine life he saw. Returning north, he started diving and exploring the fresh water springs that dot the landscape of Northwest Florida.
“Cave diving became a thing for me. Going down 140 ft through these twisting caves and passageways is a real thrill,” he said.
Graduating high school, Walt headed off to Boston College but the pull of the warm waters in South Florida saw him transfer to University of Miami to complete his degree in Film and Motion Pictures.
Bouncing around jobs in Colorado, California, and Texas, Walt headed back to 30A in 2013 to set up his video and film production company.
“I met Andy McAlexander who was involved in the South Walton Artificial Reef Association (SWARA), and in 2015, when they received their permits to create the first of the now 16 reefs off the 30A coast, they wanted a video created. This was my destiny. Working in film, diving, and living along this precious coast.”
Learning more about the work SWARA was doing, Walt joined the board in 2016 and became a passionate advocate of marine conservation, expanding the coastal habitat, and managing issues along the coast of Scenic 30A.
“I started spending more time out on the water,” Walt recalled. “I had a crude GPS, I was trying to master the art of dropping anchor exactly where I wanted to be, and was seeing sharks, octopuses, and sea turtles up-close.”
It was then that Walt recognized there was a business opportunity there.
“There were no dive shops in Walton County. If you wanted to dive the reefs, it was a two-hour boat ride to Destin and back,” he said. “I set up Snorkel30A in 2017. We would meet clients on the beach, pile them onto our giant raft and use our kayaks to paddle them out to the reefs – whether that was the Grayton Beach Turtle or Inlet Beach Grouper. Arriving by kayak, with no noise in order not to disturb the marine life and the giant raft we still use served as a great dive platform for guests to explore from.”
Walt decided to expand his underwater adventure businesses to include Dive30A.
“I got the first Scuba Launch permit in Walton County and invested in a dive boat, trailer, compressors, and other key operational infrastructure and kit,” he said.
In 2018, the Underwater Museum of Art had opened off 30A’s coast and had attracted a lot of attention. National Geographic wanted to do something and needed a suitably qualified underwater cameraman. They went to see Walt.
In 2020, Walt opened Dive30A, and of course, it was immediately impacted by the COVID19 pandemic. To deal with the crisis, the authorities temporarily closed the beaches, a challenge for many businesses, including Walt’s fledgling enterprise.
But Walt persevered and now the business is thriving.
“Last year we probably did in excess of 100 charters in the summer season and took more than 600 guests on dives. We also offer training, classes, and certification. We’ve offered Dive Master internships and provide support for volunteer dive teams,” said Walt.
And the dive scene in South Walton continues to grow.
The Underwater Museum of Art (UMA) is preparing for its fifth deployment of statues and works of art to be submerged on sand bars off the coast. The one-acre patch of seabed off Grayton Beach State Park, the world’s only permanent underwater gallery, provides a source of biological replenishment and protective marine habitat, offering divers and snorkelers the chance to view creative art and the wonders of the Gulf at the same time.
“The natural environment along 30A deserves our protection,” said Walt. “While development, traffic, and human activity are changing our way of life on land, out here in the Gulf, the natural world is still king.”