The Florida Keys Diving/Snorkeling Mecca

by Stephen Frink



This summer we have a family project. My wife and I are hoping to convince our four year old daughter to try snorkeling in the ocean rather than just the swimming pool. So far she's not sure about the whole concept of saltwater but we have a heavy incentive on our side. You see, we live in the Florida Keys. That means when we go snorkeling for the first time she is going to enjoy warm and exceptionally clear water. More significantly, she is going to see schools of colorful tropical fish and a vibrant coral reef. She cant help but be excited. These are the elements that have combined to make the Florida Keys one of the worlds most popular dive and snorkel destinations and I'm sure our daughter will succumb to the allure of this underwater world.

The Keys offer something for every family and for every budget. There is a wide range of accommodations, from upscale waterfront resort hotels, to smaller Mom and Pop motels, condominiums and even campgrounds. Those seeking an economy vacation can drive to the Keys, stay in an efficiency unit that allows them to cook their own meals, and book dive/snorkel packages that remain one of the best bargains in the dive industry. Those desiring a more amenity laden holiday can find plenty of first class lodging options, fabulous restaurants and whatever level of personal dive service or instruction they may want. For the nondive hours there is plenty of opportunity to take an ocean kayak among the mangroves, go fishing, shop or explore the natural wonders of this scenic string of islands. For those who may wish to just vegetate by the pool, this, too, is an option. But with so much to see and do, the lure to interact rather than observe will likely dominate.

Climate: The warm, tropical climate of the Florida Keys is one of the great attractions of the area. There seems to be two distinct seasons. The winter, if it can really be considered such, probably lasts from November through March and is characterized by average daytime highs of 80 and maybe 72 (F) at night. The water temperature ranges from 70 to 78F, so lightweight wetsuits are advisable.

The summer is the season we locals live for. April through October the days are longer, so we have more time to do what we love best, dive the Florida Keys. We may be more tied to the comfort of our air-conditioners on nondive days as the outside temperature approaches 90F but on the ocean the seas are typically calm and the water temperature ranges from the low to mid-80s (F). With milder winds and waves, the water clarity is typically quite good.

Dive infrastructure: There are scores of dive shops in the Keys, most of which are along U.S. #1. Diving here is by boat; the reefs are four to six miles offshore. There is virtually no shore diving except to explore the mangroves and that is probably done as well on snorkel as it is on scuba.

Most levels of dive instruction are available here, from resort course through instructor career preparation. Especially popular is the open water completion, whereby a student will take the course work and pool sessions for scuba certification from their instructor at home and then travel to the Keys to do the open water work. Specialties are popular as well, with probably the most requested including wreck diving, photography, reef ecology, computer and night diving.

Diving the Florida Keys: The following represents a brief overview of the dive opportunities in the Florida Keys, from north to south, Key Largo to Key West.

Key Largo: Key Largo is popular among visiting divers for a number of reasons, including easy access and a history of marine preservation. But it is probably the fortuitous combination of proximity to the cleansing flow of the Gulf Stream and the large mass of the island damming the tidal flow of turbid water from Florida Bay that is most responsible for the outstanding coral reefs that have made the area famous.

At the northern end of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary stands the 112 foot lighted steel tower marking Carysfort Reef. Visitation to this area is reasonably light. Those who make the trip will find intact high profile corals and rich marine life. At South Carysfort fragile Elkhorn and Staghorn Corals decorate a magnificent shallow reef ideal for both scuba and snorkel exploration. Another tower marks The Elbow, so named for the way it juts out into the Gulf Stream. Shipwrecks such as Mikes Wreck, the Civil War Wreck and the City of Washington all accidentally came to their ruin within one-half mile of each other and all now provide refuge for wondrous marine life, particularly the moray eels and Barracuda that have been long fed by local dive operators.

The Benwood, a casualty of World War II, now rests in 35 to 45 feet of water. She was running blacked out to avoid attracting the attention of German U-boats known to be patrolling the area when she collided with another ship. She has been blown apart to avoid hazard to navigation but her bow is reasonably intact and her decking and scattered ribs provides refuge for schooling tropical fish.

The Christ of the Abyss has become the symbol of Key Largo. This 12 foot bronze statue stands with arms upraised as if beckoning divers. Excellent stands of Elkhorn Coral are found near the statue at Dry Rocks Reef.

Molasses Reef is an exceptionally popular destination for both commercial dive boats and pleasure craft. It is easy to find owing to its 45 foot tower and the water is generally as clear here as anywhere in the Upper Keys. Large schools of fish are a Molasses trademark. Farther south and just outside the Key Largo Sanctuary is Pickles Reef, notable for its outstanding macro and invertebrate life.

Wreck dive enthusiasts have come to revere the Bibb and Duane, twin 327 foot Coast Guard cutters sunk in 130 and 120 feet of water respectively. Down since 1987, both vessels have acquired a luscious patina of corals and sponges. Since the Duane is upright and in a little shallower water, she receives far greater visitation than the Bibb. Another new wreck will soon become a Key Largo dive attraction. The 510 foot Spiegel Grove is scheduled to be sunk this month in 110 feet of water at a designated site just to the south of The Elbow. Stay tuned for more information on this one!

Islamorada: Islamorada is known as the Sport Fishing Capital of the World, but mostly for its extraordinary back country Tarpon and Bonefish fishing and the deep water trolling done far offshore for Sailfish. The beautifully clear water and abundant marine life on the reef remains largely the domain of the scuba diver. An example is Davis Reef. Absolutely jam-packed with Schoolmaster Snappers and Blue Striped Grunts, Davis is also famed for its friendly Green Morays and probable Nurse Shark encounters.

Conch Reef, marked by a red nun buoy, is popular both as a shallow reef notable for superior spur and groove coral formations and as one of the more interesting semi-deep dives. Conch Wall has a mini-wall fairly vertical from about 45 to 100 feet. Along the deep plateau prodigious concentrations of Barrel Sponges are found. Other local reef dive favorites include Alligator Reef, site of the 1822 sinking of the USS Alligator. Not much of the wreck remains except ballast rock but the reef is quite attractive on its own. El Infante and San Pedro are both ships of the ill-fated 1733 fleet that were smashed inside the reef by fierce hurricane winds. Like the Alligator they remain primarily of interest for those with a marine archaeology inclination.

Those interested in a modern shipwreck, rich with marine life and colorfully encrusted with sponge and hard coral, should look no farther than the Eagle. Intentionally sunk in 1985, she landed on her starboard side in 110 feet of water. She is especially photogenic at her propellers and crows nest. Grunts and Silversides now occupy the holds that once carried newspaper and cardboard when she worked as the freighter known as Aaron K.

Marathon: Marathon and the Middle Keys are a fascinating blend of residential and resort allure. Marathon is actually on Vaca Key; other nearby populated islands include Crawl Key, Grassy Key, the Conch Keys and Duck Key. Marathon and Key West share the distinction of being The Islands You Can Fly To. Both have airstrips that can accommodate commuter jets and both have regularly scheduled air service.

Diving in Marathon is a combination of wreck and reef attractions. The queen of the shipwreck fleet was sunk intentionally in March 1986. The 188 foot RV Thunderbolt worked for a while as a cable layer, hence her massive spool mounted near the bow, but her most bizarre duty was working for Florida Power and Light trying to harness the energy of lightning by attracting bolts to the ship. Now, 11 years after she sank perfectly upright in 115 feet of water, the top of her wheelhouse sits in about 70 feet of water. Just inside a resident Barracuda named Rover often sits as silent sentinel. Encrusting sponges have cloaked the spool with beautiful pastel hues and the underside of the hull is alive with invertebrate life. The propellers make for a fascinating wide angle composition.

Coffins Patch is one of my favorite shallow dives in the Middle Keys. This is a fairly large area that will justify numerous visits. Curiously, it seems as if a particular species of coral dominates different areas of the reef. In one area it might be Elkhorn, in another perhaps Star Corals. Yet the most striking is probably the Pillar Coral Patch. Unlike many hard corals, Pillar Corals feed during the day. With fuzzy arms extended toward the surface and fish and lobster seeking refuge within, the Pillar Coral community is photogenic and fascinating.

Other favorite reefs off Marathon include the spur and groove coral canyons of Sombrero Reef, marked by a 140 foot lighted steel tower, and Delta Shoal. The shallow reef of Delta is popular among snorkelers as well as scuba divers. A sunken barge provides refuge for schooling grunts and snappers, as well as reclusive moray eels. To the north, near Duck Key, is the remains of what was probably the steamship Conrad, sunk here in the late 1880s. Known locally as the Boiler Wreck for her predominant remaining features, she has been largely reclaimed by the sea.

The Lower Keys: The Lower Keys are far less developed than either Marathon to the north or Key West to the south. They also harbor the last remaining population of Key deer, hunted nearly to extinction in the early 1900s. Now only about 300 deer live around Big Pine Key. An average of 42 are lost each year to cars, so drive especially carefully around Big Pine Key.

While the Keys are not normally noted for their beaches, the Lower Keys enjoy a few lovely stretches of white sand. At the Bahia Honda State Recreation Area beaches are found along the Atlantic and riming a scenic sheltered bay overlooking a historic railway bridge. This is a great place for camping or picnicking but reserve well in advance because the demand for campsites exceeds the supply.

The Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary is a huge underwater attraction for the area. Named for the frigate HMS Looe that sank here in 1744, the sanctuary was designated in honor of a very special reef tract, only 5.3 square miles in area. But within this small coral community is a complete ecosystem.

There is a rubble ridge comprised mostly of fossilized corals deposited by storm surge. This area is interesting perhaps to a marine biologist but it is the seagrass meadow divers and snorkelers will find fascinating. I have seen sharks and turtles here, as well as the more common stingrays. Patch reefs play a big part in the Looe Key community and are a great place to observe the juvenile species of reef tropicals. For divers, it is the outer bank reefs that prove most attractive. Here spur and groove coral formations run to seaward for nearly a mile laterally. Mooring buoys are scattered throughout the Looe Key reefs.

Looe Key Reef was granted even more stringent protection than is found in the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. Lobstering, which was allowed in Key Largo, was outlawed at Looe Key.

Key West: Key West is the most attractive area of the Keys for general tourism. There are scenic beaches, excellent shopping and a strong historical tradition evident in both architecture and culture. Industries such as wrecking, sponging, cigar making and commercial fishing and shrimping have all left their mark on the character of Key West. In recent years tourism has reigned supreme, with cruise ships docking several times weekly supplementing frequent arrivals at the Key West airport from regional air carriers and, of course, by car. For a holiday that combines U/W delights with topside appeal, Key West is hard to beat.

The eclectic dive portfolio off Key West offers both wrecks and reefs. The 187 foot Cayman Salvage Master is an example of the shipwreck segment. Formerly a buoy tender, she was towed to her final resting site in April 1985 and sunk in 90 feet of water. She landed on her side but a severe storm ultimately righted her. She now offers huge open holds in only 60 to 70 feet of water, a resident Jewfish and a Green Moray exceptionally cooperative for U/W photos.

Joe's Tug is another popular wreck. Resting upright in just 65 feet of water, this scenic little ship offers refuge for large schools of grunts.

While most of the diving off Key West is on the Atlantic side of the island owing to its better visibility and coral growth, the Gulf of Mexico side offers excellent wreck diving as well. At different times of the year different fish life can be found on Alexander's Wreck. Sheepshead, Spadefish, Porkfish, groupers, hogfish, snappers and angels are thick, with an occasional Mackerel or Jewfish making a visit. Spearfishermen love this wreck. It sits in 25 to 30 feet of water but sections of the bow are awash on most tides.

Sand Key is among the first sites visited by entry level divers and snorkelers to Key West. Those in private boats will find it easy to locate the iron lighthouse built in 1853. Mooring buoys here facilitate tying off without fear of anchor damage to the corals. Many of the commercial snorkel boats come here as well to share the shallow spur and groove coral formations with their guests. Other shallow spur and groove coral formations a bit more off the beaten track include the Western Sambo's, Eastern Dry Rocks and Western Dry Rocks.

Individual dive operators have their own favorites, so the itinerary may vary from dive shop to dive shop. At Kedge Ledge I found the 18th century schooner anchors to be of special interest. Ten Fathom Ledge is good for the ledges and overhangs that provide a resting spot for Nurse Sharks and lobster. And patch reefs such as Nine Foot Stake offer a glimpse of juvenile reef tropicals amid Boulder Corals and gorgonians.

The Florida Keys provide a rich diversity of U/W and topside attractions in a tropical setting unmatched anywhere in the world. For more information about diving anywhere in the Florida Keys, please contact 800-FLA-KEYS (352-5397) or visit the Web site at http:// www.fla-keys.com.