Diving Florida

Growing up in England I used to curl up into an ancient chair with a dog-eared book on Florida and spend dreary winter nights in fantasy. I escaped to a land of swirling coconut palms bordering a beach with lapping azure water. Ah, Florida (Spanish for flowers). I smelled the blossoms and felt the sun on my face. Florida is now my home and I never tire of the surprises it has to offer.

One of the best ways to see Florida is driving from the north-through the rolling, pine-forested hills-to the sub-tropical lushness of the south and on to the exotic islands of the Keys.

The Emerald Coast's sandy beaches, stretching from the historic Navy town of Pensacola in the east to sleepy Apalachicola in the west, are considered some of the best beaches in the world. State parks along the coast provide an opportunity to photograph indigenous wildlife, including alligators. Sand dunes covered with sea oats protect the beaches and provide a spectacular backdrop for sunsets. Resort towns draw vacationers by the thousands with condominiums, motels, amusement parks, fishing and endless golf courses. Diving is always popular with visitors and locals and dive shops are kept busy with boat trips and instruction.

The warm, green-tinted waters of the gulf support massive schools of migratory marine life. Limestone ledges form underwater reefs and, owing to a strong artificial reef building program in the Panhandle, a multitude of wrecks litters the coast.

With the aid of an ingenious pump system lozenge-shaped Vortex Spring, near Ponce De Leon, is clear year-round. The 20 foot basin leads down to a cavern at 70 feet, where a gate prevents untrained divers from entering the 100 feet deep cave system.

Morrison Spring has two caverns-one at 23 feet and the other leading down to 85 feet. Cypress Spring is photogenic above and below water. The basin is at 20 feet and a small cave descends to 70 feet. All of the springs have excellent visibility in the 68 degree F water and all offer diving and camping facilities.

The Chipola River near Marianna is a place to find fossilized shark teeth but consult with local dive shops on the laws and locations.

The towns of Port St. Joe and Apalachicola, to the east of Panama City, have a variety of wrecks. One of the best wrecks in the area is the British tanker Empire Mica. Sunk by a German U-boat during WW II, this 465 foot ship now lies upright in 110 feet of water. The wreck of the dredge Gilmore lies upside down in 80 feet of water 20 miles off the coast, between Panama City and Apalachicola. It's a long boat ride, but worth it, as Jewfish frequent the dredge and ingots of nickel are being discovered.

Farther south, a series of seamounts rises to 90 feet beneath the surface, forming the Middle Grounds. The mounts are covered with hard and soft corals and attract exceptional marine life. Dive operators from Panama City can arrange trips to the Mica and the Middle Grounds.

Tidal marshes form part of the coastline between St. Marks and Crystal River, the Big Bend of Florida's west coast. Crystal River and Homosassa Springs are the winter home of the West Indian Manatees. These slow moving giants seek the 72 degreeF warmth of the springs between October and March. Although sanctuaries are set aside for Manatees, very often they'll leave the protected area and interact with snorkelers. Note: interaction must be on a Manatee's terms. It's against a Federal law to harass marine mammals. Boats can be rented from one of the many Crystal River dive operators to dive the Kings Bay Springs. Unfortunately, motor boats are the cause of many Manatee fatalities, so be extremely vigilant.

In Crystal River, Kings Spring is the largest and most popular. The spring drops down to 30 feet and two entrances access a cave with a depth of 60 feet. Three Sisters spring consists of a group of five springs with a depth of 18 and 25 feet. Homosassa Spring is one of the best areas to observe Manatees in the shallow 20 and 30 depths. Check with the dive operators on advice and boat rentals.

Farther south, the coastline between Tampa, Sarasota and Naples is blessed with a great artificial reef program. While visiting Disney World, divers may want to run over to the area and check out the abundance of marine life on the wrecks and limestone reefs along this coast.

There are many wrecks along the coast. The Bay Ronto, a 400 foot British freighter, sank during a hurricane in 1919. She's upside down in 110 feet of water and lies 30 miles south of Venice. In 1942, the 266 foot Baja California was carrying tons of glassware and military Jeeps when a German torpedo struck her. She sank in 114 feet of water in the gulf, 25 miles south of Naples.

The warm Gulf Stream sweeps the Atlantic Coast and drift diving in the stream is full of surprises. Large pelagics-such as Whale Sharks, mantas, sharks and turtles-follow the current and thrill divers with sightings. Wrecks and reefs, natural and artificial, are massed along the coast.

Sizzling, golden Miami hails to be the "wreckreational" diving capital of the coast with more than 30 shipwrecks, oil rigs, tanks, and other artificial reefs.

The sinking in 1981 of the 120 foot Orion was the first for the Dade County Artificial Reef Program. She is a colorful representative in 95 feet of water. The 180 foot freighter Tortuga (renamed Fair Game in 1995) created publicity for the artificial program, a filmed segment was used for a movie. The 165 foot Andro, a private yacht with a history of chasing WW II submarines, was sunk as a reef in 1985 in 105 feet of water. The Spirit of Miami is a Boeing 727 that's worth a fly through.

A favorite of local divers is the underwater trail of several ships called The Wreck Trek. Deeper dives such as the five oil rigs of Tenneco Towers, from 95 to 190 feet depths, are teeming with Barracuda. Miami sizzles above water and below.

There are also impressive wrecks in Ft. Lauderdale waters. The 198 foot Mercedes sank in 100 feet near a ledge. In 1997, the 185 foot freighter Guy Harvey (named for the artist) was sunk upright in 145 feet of water. Although this wreck is in water beyond recreational limits a careful, experienced diver can explore the top deck and still be within the 130 feet limit.

At Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, a reef called the Honeycombs runs parallel to the shoreline and about 150 yards off. The 10 and 20 foot depths are ideal for new divers, snorkelers and seasonal lobster hunters. The Ancient Mariner, a 165 foot ex-U.S. Coast Guard cutter sunk near Boca Raton, sits in 72 feet of water. A good interactive dive featuring stingrays, jewfish and morays is the Sea Emperor, a 171 foot barge and concrete rubble in 72 feet of water.

Delray Beach has excellent drift dives such as Grouper Hole, with a small cave, and Delray Ledge.

To fly like an Eagle, has a new meaning for dive operators at Palm Beach. They share a love for flying (drifting) through water at a level of 70 feet through the Corridor-the result of an inventive artificial reef program. First stop is the 170 foot Mispah, home to Jewfish, next the WW II vintage aircraft PC 1170, then drifting pass boulders to glide through the 450 foot shell of the Amaryllis. If the current is strong the fly-dive continues to the China barge and ends at the Brazilian Pier rubble. Five sites in one dive. Wow!

Other sites nearby are the photogenic reefs of the Breakers. The Princess Anne is a 350 foot ferry sitting upright on the sand at 100 feet. Loggerhead Reef is well known for turtle sightings.

Heading up the coast there is a multitude of wrecks and reefs from Miami to Jacksonville that could fill a thick book. My advice is to seek out the dive shops for information in the area of choice.

The central section of Florida is like stepping into a bygone age. Most of the springs have a visibility that is "forever" with water temperatures that are a constant 72 degree F. Camping, canoeing and restaurants are available at most of the springs.

Ginnie Springs is close to High Springs and is 15 miles from I-75 in acres of primeval woodlands. At Ginnie Springs a large, deep basin of crystal clear water is the entrance to the 60 by 70 foot cavern. The welded gate prevents entrance to the cave system but allows a gale force flow of water through. Devil's Eye, Devil's Ear and Little Devil are also in the Ginnie Springs complex. Madison Blue Springs near Lee is a large 70 foot basin with a cavern at 30 feet leading to passageways for trained cave divers. It's a training ground for a team of cave divers with plans to map Wakulla Springs cave system.

One of my favorite springs is Devil's Den, close to Willeston. It's unique to descend the limestone steps 50 feet below ground and enter clear water. Floating underwater and looking upward to the circle of sky in the ceiling is breathtaking. The facilities available include horseback riding.

Close by is Blue Grotto, with a visibility of 200 plus feet. The cavern has a surface to air ventilated diving bell for communication. An underwater lighting system and a permanent line guide divers through an exploration of the cavern's interesting features.

Hal Watt's Forty Fathom Grotto, near Ocala, is a not open to the general public. However, it's popular with instructors for dive training in warm clear water. Several underwater platforms are situated between 7 and 30 feet. Sand Dollar fossils are embedded in the limestone walls that extend to a depth of 240 feet.

Rainbow River, close to Crystal River, is a fun drift snorkel. The 20 foot deep river has vents that keep the water a sparkling blue and the one knot current is great for viewing fish. It's a deliciously decadent feeling to drift down Rainbow River with beautiful scenery above and below.-Shirley Brown

Stretching in a gentle arc from Key Largo to Key West, a string of unique islets or Keys are linked to the mainland by the Overseas Highway, thus granting easy and inexpensive access to some of the only living coral reefs in the continental United States.

No matter what aspect of diving excites you the most, the Keys have it all: coral reefs teeming with life, a wealth of wreck diving, drift diving, night diving, snorkeling and extraordinary underwater photo opportunities. Even the most jaded diver will find more than enough for an adrenaline rush here. Visibility averages 60 to 80 feet with good days topping 120 plus feet. The reef depths average 20 to 40 feet before spilling over a steep slope to 120.

There is an abundance of Brain, Star and Elkhorn Corals surrounded by a vast diversity of fish. Regardless of where we have traveled, we have never encountered such a profusion of fishlife as in the Keys. If diving is not the only reason you choose to visit, you'll find that great family adventure also abounds. Parasailing, boating, jet skiing, mangrove exploration by canoe or kayak, fishing and birding are a few of many other activities to be enjoyed by family members while you're out blowing bubbles!

Each year Therisa and I vow to dive and explore new areas, but it's really difficult to take a compass course past some of our favorites. Beginning in the north off Key Largo and named after the HMS Crawford, wrecked in 1770, Carysfort Reef and its historic lighthouse mark an area noted for extensive Elkhorn Coral formations. The shallows here provide excellent snorkeling, while scuba divers can enjoy a great reef system extending to 80 feet. Nearby, Elbow Reef normally enjoys excellent visibility since, as its name implies, it juts out into the Gulf Stream's clear waters; thus current can be a factor. Adorned with many shipwrecks, Elbow hosts the broken remains of the City of Washington on the northern edge of the reef. Local dive operators have taken great effort to befriend and feed creatures inhabiting this area, affording divers an array of large groupers, inquisitive Barracuda and friendly Green Morays, all willing photo subjects.

Just inshore of the Elbow is the world famous Key Largo Dry Rocks, home of the inspiring Christ of the Abyss Statue. The 4,000 pound statue was given as a gift in 1966 by Italian dive equipment manufacturer Egidio Cressi and nestled in 25 feet of water in a beautiful coral alcove. Despite exploration by numerous snorkelers and divers, this reef site is healthy and the coral formations are absolutely breathtaking, with steep canyons and absolutely enormous Brain Corals just south of the Christ statue. In short, don't go just to see the statue, the reef is stunning!

Less than a five minute boat trip away lies the very special Grecian Rocks. The shoreside of this reef is very shallow, with depths of only two to six feet. It is well protected from both wind and waves, making it an excellent choice for snorkelers. Large Queen Conch browse a pasture of Turtle Grass surrounded by sizable coral heads, which serve as a nursery for numerous juvenile tropical fish. It's not unusual to see Spotted Leopard Rays cruising over the grassy beds early in the morning. Since this area is so shallow and the marine life so easily accessible, please remember, all animals and plants are protected within the National Marine Sanctuary.

Sunk during World War II, the Benwood's metal hulk now serves as a habitat for all types of marine life. The encrusted wreckage provides a colorful backdrop for both macro and wide angle photography. Dropping off the ledge at the bow of the wreck to 55 feet and swimming east, you'll come across one of the Benwood's large anchor flukes protruding from the sand. Farther seaward lies an outstanding deep reef miniwall with depths to 90 feet, which we've named the Benwood Wall. It's hard to beat this site for variety!

We never tire of the safe, swim-through caves at French Reef. Glassy Sweepers flow in rhythmic unison, silhouetted by the blue glow of daylight always visible at the other end of these short caves.

Even when other nearby reefs experience low visibility, the ever popular Molasses Reef remains clear owing to an often strong Gulf Stream current. Prolific corals and marine life make this the most frequented reef in the Keys. The inshore shallows are outstanding for snorkelers.

Off Molasses Reef, the sister ships and former Coast Guard cutters Duane and Bibb lie where they were sunk in 1987 as artificial reefs. Sitting in 120 feet and 130 feet of water, respectively, these wrecks are usually swept by strong Gulf Stream currents. Exploration should be reserved for experienced divers who will not be intimidated.

Five miles off Islamorada, the wreck of the Eagle rests in 110 feet of water and is not usually subjected to the same strong currents as the Bibb and Duane. Intentionally sunk in 1985, this classic freighter rests on her starboard side with only 60 feet to her port rail. During the last 13 years she has become well decorated with a variety of colorful marine life and provides shelter for thousands of fish in vast cargo holds. Last year, Hurricane Georges caused her hull to split and separate, allowing new entry points for wreck certified divers.

Marathon is the base of dive operations for Sombrero Reef, which unfolds beneath yet another historic lighthouse bearing the same name. Snorkelers will thrill to diverse fish populations, spur and groove coral valleys and a swim-through coral archway. Nearby is the Thunderbolt shipwreck at 120 feet, with 80 feet to the wheelhouse. Resting on an even keel, she is a veritable zoo of marine flora and fauna.

When the visibility is good, the remote Looe Key Reef near Big Pine Key is certainly worth visiting. Spearfishing and lobstering have long been outlawed here and these critters abound among lush coral and seafans.

Key West plays host to numerous shipwrecks: the Cayman Salvage Master, Joe's Tug and the Adolphus Busch, which became the latest addition to this fleet when she was intentionally sunk off American Shoals last December. You can be among the first to dive and explore her 210 foot length lying in 100 feet of water.

A short trip from Key West, Sand Key is a miniature islet crowned with a small, rusty, historic lighthouse. There is wonderful snorkeling in calm, protected water on the inside shallows, which are blanketed with Turtle Grass and juvenile fish. Some 65 miles beyond lies the Dry Tortugas and some really virgin diving territory-Tom and Therisa Stack.