The Florida Keys

        The Florida Keys are affectionately known as The Islands You Can Drive To, an appellation that refers to the Overseas Highway, a system of roadways and bridges that connects the islands to the Florida mainland. Historically, the highway, also known as U.S. 1, evolved from the old railroad bed of Henry Flagler's Railroad that Went to Sea." The Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway connected 30 of the 200 islands that comprise the Keys, operating for 23 years until an horrendous hurricane wiped it out in 1935. The railroad was never rebuilt. By 1938, however, its bridges and embankments were critical components of the new highway that launched an era of automobile tourism to the Florida Keys.The Overseas Highway has been renovated continuously since that time and today it is safe and scenic. Southbound motorists can look out their left windows to see the turquoise expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and, on the right, view the emerald green of Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Engineering wonders such as the Seven Mile Bridge, connecting the Middle and Lower Keys, make this one of America's most unique drives.

        A variety of climatic phenomena conspire to make the Florida Keys warm and appealing year-round. The Keys are just 70 miles north of the Tropic of Cancer, the line of demarcation for the "tropics." This southerly setting provides temperatures ranging from 80 to 90F in the summer and an average of 72 to 84F in the winter. While much of the country is gripped in the icy embrace of snow, sleet and slush, in the Florida Keys, palm trees, warm breezes and watersports are the order of the day.
       Other factors that make the weather favorable include the minimal landmass and the effects of the Gulf Stream. Because of the islands' propitious location, they don't attract the inclement weather found farther up the Florida mainland. Even Miami gets far more rain than the keys, making weather forecasts from Miami fairly inaccurate for gauging the daily conditions of the Keys. The Gulf Stream is a massive offshore current that brings warm, clear water past the Keys from the Caribbean and The Bahamas. The prevailing onshore wind helps keep air temperatures consistently balmy and the cleansing current of the Gulf Stream helps maintain the crystalline water clarity for which the Keys are famous.

        The Florida Keys have long set the world standard of marine conservation and ecological concern. In the late 1950s, when too much spearfishing and coral collection began threatening the wondrous coral reefs off Key Largo, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was created to preserve this amazing resource. Then, in 1975, the area of protection was increased with the creation of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. By 1981, one of the jewels of the Lower Keys reef tract was protected under the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary legislation. Then, in 1990, the entire Florida Keys, including 2,600 square nautical miles of ocean, was established as a marine preserve under the direction of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

       Specific use zones are designed to ensure recreational access to the Keys' coral reefs, In some areas it is possible to spearfish or engage in other consumptive activities but other areas have been set aside as marine nurseries and refuges. Mooring buoys help eliminate the hazard of misplaced anchors and charter dive boat crews do their best to ensure scuba divers look but don't touch. All of this will help ensure our children's children enjoy these coral reefs.

        Marine life in Florida is abundant. In the Florida Keys, gigantic schools of grunts still cluster under the branching arms of Elkhorn Corals and curious angelfish swim ever closer to peer at their reflection in a camera's dome port. The fish population is both diverse and plentiful. For an underwater photographer, the gregarious nature of the undersea animal is another tremendous advantage.

        The shallow reefs off the Keys have long been the bane of careless mariners. While the era of wooden sailing ships left little behind but piles of ballast (and significant treasure, as in the case of the Atocha), more recent wrecks;such as the World War II casualty Benwood;are steel hulled, providing an enduring refuge for marine life and a point of attachment for corals and colorful sponges. There is also an ever-increasing fleet of ships sunk purposely to entertain visiting divers. The Eagle off Islamorada, the Thunderbolt off Marathon, the Cayman Salvager and Joe's Tug off Key West and the U.S. Coast Guard cutters Bibb and Duane off Key Largo host thousands of visiting divers every year. Each ship has its own fascinating history and offers exciting and unique dive potential. The largest, the 510 foot Spiegel Grove, is scheduled to be sunk off Key Largo sometime during this winter.

        A tremendous variety of lodging options has evolved to accommodate the huge number of tourists that visit the Keys each year. Familiar chain hotels (although imbued with a distinctive Keys character), upscale waterfront resorts, intimate guesthomes, campgrounds, condominiums and small motels, all cater to the specific needs of the traveling scuba diver. In fact, so great are the options, a call to the local dive shop might be prudent to see if a dive/lodging package might offer significant savings in price and convenience.

        The dive shops of the Florida Keys are among the best in the world. Their boats and captains are U.S. Coast Guard certified to assure optimal safety for the four to six mile ride offshore. All levels of dive instruction are offered, from resort courses and basic open water certification through specialty courses and advanced training. It is even possible to become a dive instructor in the Florida Keys. The shops offer comprehensive retail goods and services and all the latest technology, including nitrox and rebreathers.

        Unlike many destinations where nondivers are relegated to tedious hours ashore, the Florida Keys offer shopping, lounging on the beach, museums, fishing, sightseeing, nature walks or a huge variety of other watersports, including waverunners, parasailing or ocean kayaking. Given the quality of the shallow reef, there are wondrous opportunities for snorkelers. And, given the quality of the dive instructors, this is a perfect place for a resort course or full certification. Although you may arrive as a nondiver, there is no reason you have to go home that way.

        Throughout the year the Florida Keys host a variety of special events of interest to traveling divers, ranging from the famed Nikonos Shootout in Key Largo to the Underwater Music Festival at Looe Key. Ask your local dive operator for a schedule of events or stay in touch by visiting the Web Site at http:/www.fla or dialing (800) FLA-KEYS for more information.

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.