Expand Your Dive Experience

by Stephen Frink

The Florida Keys represents one of the world's most diverse dive destinations. Because of the sophisticated scuba infrastructure found throughout the Keys visitors can easily book trips to coral reefs and wrecks just offshore. These islands are well known for their rich spur and groove coral formations, fantastic populations of tropical fish, warm, clear water and a wealth of both natural shipwrecks and those sunk purposely as dive attractions. Day trips to the reefs to sample these underwater wonders are the primary reason divers and snorkelers travel to the Keys. What many visitors do not know is that many of the same activities pursued for fun can lead to advanced dive training and specialty certifications.

Specialty certification

Conceived as a means to gain greater in-depth knowledge about a specific area of sport diving, specialty certification programs are available though virtually all recognized certifying agencies, including PADI, NAUI, SSI and NASDS. While the requirements for completion may vary slightly from agency to agency, most specialty courses can easily be completed in just a day or two while on a dive holiday. Some courses have more academic content and require time spent in the classroom, while others offer a classroom portion that can easily be completed on the boat en route to the dive site. The common component is that the dives will be made with an instructor skilled in that specialty and the instructor's unique knowledge and experience will enhance both the enjoyment and educational significance of the dive. Listed below are some examples of specialty classes especially popular in the Florida Keys.

Underwater naturalist: One of the most impressive aspects of the Florida Keys is the sheer quantity and variety of fish inhabiting the reefs. A quick review of Paul Humann's excellent Reef Fish Identification book reveals 628 fish found in The Bahamas, the Caribbean and Florida. Only 97 of these are identified as rare or not reported on Florida Keys reefs. Perhaps nowhere else could 85 percent of these species possibly be sighted, making the Keys one of the world's great fishwatching destinations.

Grunts school by the score beneath the massive arms of Elkhorn Corals; parrotfish cruise in prodigious numbers nibbling on algae; and all Caribbean species of angelfish are common on these shallow, fringing reefs. Most divers will recognize these familiar fish but the Keys' coral reefs also provide habitat for myriad other species that are less recognizable but no less important to the ecosystem. Snook, Sunshinefish, Jewfish, Sand Perch, Puddingwive, Clown Wrasse, Rosy Razorfish, Flamefish, Conchfish, Sharknose Gobies, Redlip Blennies and Slippery Dicks are all common here but could you find and identify them on the coral reef without guidance? As an underwater naturalist specialty diver you will.

Underwater photographer: With so much photographic potential beneath the sea, it is little wonder underwater photography is one of the Keys' most popular specialties. Local photo pros are well skilled in teaching the intricacies of equipment, ranging from the popular Nikonos V camera with SB 105 strobe through the single lens reflex systems such as the Nikonos RS and various housings. Classroom sessions will explain proper camera maintenance, how to make TTL systems work optimally, how to ensure proper focus and exposure, techniques of approach for fish photography and how to work with models for wide angle images.

Quick one hour print or E-6 slide film processing will help students determine what they did right or wrong but the real joy of an underwater photo specialty in the Florida Keys is the wondrous photo-opportunities. Imagine practicing macro photography on a reef rich with nudibranchs, minute crabs, tiny cowries or juvenile species perfectly sized for a Close-up Outfit. There's also fish photography, where Atlantic Spadefish pose fearlessly and Barracuda approach with great curiosity. Here, wide angle scenics may be composed, rich with stands of high profile coral, graceful seafans and punctuated by brilliantly colored tropical fish. Massive shipwrecks harbor giant populations of Tomtate Grunts and impressive individual species of moray eels, angelfish and trumpetfish. Everywhere beneath the Keys' inviting waters is a photo waiting to be taken and the photo specialty is a great way to increase the probability that the image on the film emulates the glory of reality.

Wreck diver: The shallow reefs of the Florida Keys have long been the bane of careless mariners. From the tragic shipwrecks of the Spanish Plate Fleet in 1733 to more recent navigational blunders, these reefs have doomed hundreds of ships over the years. Some of the historical shipwrecks, such as Key Largo's City of Washington, from 1917, and the Benwood, from 1942, were blown apart to avoid hazard to navigation and consequently provide safe, easy exploration in shallow water. The wreck diving specialty will help identify features that still remain on these wrecks and lend an appreciation of their historical significance but require no special diving skills.

Other shipwrecks of the Florida Keys present an overhead environment and the potential for penetration, making the normally two day wreck dive specialty especially useful. Modern artificial reefs such as the U.S. Coast Guard cutters Bibb and Duane, off Key Largo; the 287 foot freighter Eagle, off Islamorada; the 188 foot cablelayer Thunderbolt, off Marathon; and Key West's Cayman Salvager and Jose all provide places to learn how to dive shipwrecks safely and knowledgeably.

Night diver: It should come as no surprise that reefs as rich and prolific as those found in the Keys should provide ample fascination to the night diver. The icons of night diving such as the parrotfish in its mucus cocoon, marauding moray eels, sleeping turtles, corals with polyps extended for feeding and bizarre macro life define the nocturnal reef here and enthrall night divers. The night dive specialty will teach students what to look for, to appreciate what they are seeing and prepare them to dive safely and efficiently while their vision is restricted to the beam of their underwater light.

Of course, there are far more specialties certifications that can be arranged for Florida Keys divers. Those wishing a more technical orientation to their sport may opt for the nitrox specialty. While most of the reefs are fairly shallow, some of the deeper shipwrecks are perfect for the deep dive specialty. In many parts of the Keys spearfishing is permissible and the underwater hunter specialty can be booked. Underwater navigation, drift diving and computer diving are other popular specialty certifications in the Florida Keys. To become a more experienced and safer scuba diver, while at the same time enhancing the enjoyment of your dive holiday, consider a specialty dive certification in the fabulous Florida Keys.

The Florida Keys are easily accessible via automobile, of course, but those who prefer to fly will do well to choose American Airlines, Something Special to the Florida Keys, to Miami with connecting flights on American Eagle to Marathon or Key West. For reservations, just call (800) 433-7300. For more information about the Florida Keys you can call (800) FLA-KEYS or visit the Web site at http://www/fla.keys.com.