Scuba Trekking Through the Florida Keys

Skin Diver Magazine / Petersen Publishing - July 1999

It's 78F, the sky is sapphire and I'm comfortably in cruise control at 50 miles per hour in a sparkling new Jeep Wrangler. Led Zeppelin is pumping out "Stairway to Heaven" in perfect Dolby surround sound as I pass over a thousand shades of azure sea spread like a gigantic bowl of Jell-O under the Florida Keys famous Seven-Mile Bridge. My assignment is a rigorous one for certain: dive like a maniac from Key Biscayne to Key West, test drive this showroom-new Jeep and, in what has evolved into a dual mission, search for the tastiest conch chowder in the Keys. I have just one thought: How did I fall into this gig?

Ahead of me in the other Jeep (a flame-red Cherokee) is my partner in this Scuba Trek adventure, Scott Corbett, expert diver, part-time comedian and my navigator for the next six days. I'm so overwhelmed by our good fortune that I grab my cell phone and ring him.

"My watch says it's just about conch chowder-thirty," I yell over Jimmy Page's lead guitar solo.

"Yep," Scott says. "My conch-o-meter is in overdrive, too. I know a good little diner a few minutes ahead."

"Lead the way, sport."

. . . And as we wind on down the road, there is a story we all kno-o-ow . . .

Fortunately for us, there are brilliant executives in the world who dream up clever ideas like Scuba Trek. They think of every last detail, except perhaps the potential hazards of hauling wet, smelly dive gear in new cars under the sweltering Florida sun. Nonetheless, we had a job to do.

This first run was actually a mapping expedition kind of like Lewis and Clark, I suspect to find the best route for future Scuba Trekkers to follow. The real Scuba Trek, a much more illustrious event, is set for late September. The coolest part is that anyone and everyone reading this article right now (that's you) is invited to join us and a whole slew of Skin Diver associates in September as we jump into a bunch of Jeeps and dive our way down the Keys.

So, the First Annual Scuba Trek is officially a go. The route is set, the chowder is brewing and our fishy friends are waiting. Want to come? Before you decide, you might want to find out how our trip turned out. Hang on.

Jeep Mileage:

As planned, there are two sets of keys at the front desk. Scott and I cruise the parking garage like kids on an Easter egg hunt. There they are, a red and a blue Jeep, with stickers still in the windows, plastic still on the seats and zero miles on the odometers. Apparently, they just rolled them off the truck and left them for us. Unbelievable. After a stereo check, we form our plan: load up the Jeeps and roll south down Highway 1, tracing the steps of Hemingway, Buffett and a helluva lot of divers to the hottest spots both below and above water. Then at the end of the trip, when we ease into Key West, tired but contented with our accomplishments, we're going to take the next logical step: throw a huge party. This Scuba Trek thing is sounding better all the time.

After a short test drive, we gas up and hit the hay. We have an a.m. dive tomorrow in Biscayne Bay National Park. We've heard rumors of an awesome wall dive there. Giddyup.

Jeep Mileage:
Location: We see why Biscayne Bay National Park is one of the Keys best kept secrets. Most people blast down to Key Largo and don't take the time to detour to the northernmost Key. Big mistake. This is an incredible facility, a national park mind you, under the same status as Yellowstone and Yosemite, immaculately groomed and outfitted. However, the hordes have not yet discovered this corner of paradise. My intrepid associate, Scott, and I hook up with Dave Inman, whose Diver's Unlimited runs the diving concession here. We exploit the lack of divers and have miles and miles of reef to ourselves a diver's dream come true.

The wall starts at 60 feet and falls to the sand at 110. A slight current and 80-foot viz allows us to drift slowly along and check out giant barrel sponges and soft corals. Suddenly in the distance, the distinctive brown, mottled skin of a jewfish comes into view. This bugger is huge, at least 300 pounds, with a massive mouth that could suck down grapefruits like M&Ms. Apparently he got that robust by using his smarts. When I ease in close for a photo, Senor Jewfish heads for the border and lumbers off into the blue void.

We also come across a few bugs (translation: lobsters) tucked nicely under their ledges. They seem to understand that they're in a national park and protected from lemon butter dippers like me. Oh well, I'll use a credit card to bag my lobster dinner tonight.

After the dives, we bolt down to Key Largo to the Marina Del Mar for a hot shower and conch chowder. So far we've had four meals in these "islands you can drive to" and three of them included conch chowder. The leader so far: Captain's Cabin Too in Key Largo; not too spicy and with healthy chunks of Mr. Conch.

On the Jeep update, both vehicles still have less than 100 miles on them and are performing perfectly. I'm starting to gravitate toward little blue, the Jeep Wrangler convertible. Dual air bags, removable hard top with built-in soft top, nice music, power steering, four wheel drive, automatic yeah, this is a fine ride.

So, the Scuba Trek continues under sunny skies, light winds and warm temperatures (highs ranging from 75 to 80 F tomorrow). Tomorrow we're visiting the world's only underwater hotel, aptly named Jules Verne Lodge. It's the only bed and breakfast with a fisheye view of the underwater world. We'll also dive with the legend himself, Spencer Slate, a man who feeds barracuda with a flair and daring that only he can pull off. Stay tuned.

Jeep Mileage:

I knew it would happen. Every time I take a road trip, I fall helplessly into Hunter S. Thompson's legendary Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas adventure. Under Thompson's laws, "trip" takes on a whole new meaning. For me, it's the inevitable unknown around the next corner. Like today. It began with a quick sunrise photo shoot at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park the World's First Undersea Park as the brochures proclaim. But it's never as easy as just driving to a perfect beach, jumping into perfect sand, with perfect sun, beautiful models, non-pretentious photographers and ten minutes later you're back at the hotel cafe having eggs and O.J. by the pool.

No, this morning we need a permit. This requires the Head Park Ranger. Not just an Assistant Ranger or a Ranger in Training. No, we need to see the main dude. I half expect Yogi Bear to show up. Turns out Ranger Danny Jones is extremely pleasant and helpful, and he takes a liking to our shiny new Jeeps. So, after a few minutes and a few greenbacks we're off with permit in hand. We find our beach, dodge a few sun-blocking clouds and set up the scene as a small crowd gathers. A pushy woman from New York insists that all the models wear her hand-woven straw hats. The photographer growls at her, but she leaves the hats just in case. I end up buying one.

The morning is passing us by and Scott, or as I began calling him yesterday, My Man Friday, is getting visibly weak from lack of food. We leave Pennekamp Park for another "world's first and only" underwater hotel. I promise, I'm not making this up.

Jules Verne Undersea Lodge ain't your run of the mill B&B. It was originally a Navy habitat off Puerto Rico in the 1970s. Some enterprising folks bought the habitat before it was scrapped, converted it to a three-room hotel and dropped it 30 feet into a lagoon in Key Largo.

Scott and I grab our masks and fins and surface-supplied hookah hose rigs and swim down to the hotel. We enter through the large port and pop up into the wet room, a 10-by-20-foot entry/exit room right out of a James Bond flick. We climb up through the port, break down our gear, hit the hot shower and dig into a heaping plate of scrambled eggs, hash browns and bacon. My Man Friday was happy.

Over coffee we cover the only topic that real men discuss when they're dwelling in a habitat. We talk diving. We philosophize about rebreather development, the state of habitats, saturation diving and the general type of stuff that is steeped in science and testosterone.

In addition to an impressive habitat/hotel, the operators of the lodge, Rick Ford and Lance Rennka, have put together a lagoon full of multimillion-dollar adult toys. They've got giant solar panels gleaming in the sun, a complete hyperbaric chamber, a filtration system that keeps the entire lagoon clear year-round, a Navy diving bell, a one-man, one-atmosphere submarine designed by the legendary Phil Nuytten, not to mention a first-rate breakfast grill. This is certainly the complete package. They charge about $300 bucks a night for this totally unique experience. Not only are you subaqueous, but the rooms are complemented with televisions, VCRs, a common kitchen and a view you just don't get every day. The whole place is actually very cozy carpeted walls and all the smooth round shapes give me a warm and fuzzy feeling. I'm ready to curl up with a good book, watch the fish go by and take a nap. But alas, we have a full day ahead as we prepare to enter the Slate zone at Spencer Slate's Atlantis Dive Center.

This week Slate is hosting two large contingents one group of staunch University of Tennessee fans and another group of alumni from Middle Tennessee State University. It's a great day for diving and loaded boats are coming and going. Soon we're on the open water with the warm sun and breeze easing the pace. We're going diving. Everybody is happy.

Lobster season is almost over, yet the Tennessee bubble blowers are set on hunting. Slate puts us on a shallow reef as I examine every form of lobster catcher ever made, from low-tech nets to futuristic stainless-steel retractable loops. I take the opportunity to do some experimental macro photography with the digital camera and score big in the invertebrate category. The reef is quite healthy, nestled among the swaying corals and gorgonians are some stunning anemones, loads of bright-red rope sponges and frequent brain corals decorated nicely with Christmas tree worms. Overall, it's a great dive. But I climb back on the boat to a grim report: no bugs.

Slate's not one to give up. Fifteen minutes later he puts us on another vibrant reef, and this time the lobster hunters bring home some dinner. School pride aside, everyone is friendly and Slate takes us home.

Back at the dock our photographer wants to do a couple more shots. But the light is fading fast and we have a final mission to accomplish. We have conch chowder to evaluate. We jump in the Jeeps, bang off the photos and head for The Fish House. Scott and I belly up to the bar and request a hot bowl of chowder. It's love at first bite.

I explain to John the bartender that our diving quest has the added element of finding the best conch chowder in the Keys. He begins to open up.

"Would you like some sherry with that?" he asks.

"Uh, is that what you're supposed to drink with chowder?" I reply. "I thought cold beer was the proper . . ."

"No, the sherry goes in the chowder. It's an ingredient."

"Oh, well, then we'll try it."

John tells us that sherry goes into the original mix, but a bit more always seems to improve the situation. Good philosophy. We slosh some in, stir accordingly and continue our attack. Chunks of conch melt in each bite. This eatery has clearly taken the lead in the Great Conch Chowder Contest. I inform John that The Fish House is the king of the hill at least for now.

"That's great," he says. "But I would think you'd be doing a Key lime pie contest, since that's what we're really famous for."

Scott and I look at each other and the chilled pie in front of us. For John, it's like feeding steak to a hungry dog. We take the bait.

"Yeah," Scott said. "We can do that contest, too." The Fish House now holds two titles.

Back at Marina Del Mar we hear the music. It's the St. Patrick's Day party at Sharky's Bar complete with a spread of corned beef, cabbage, green beer, Irish music, the works. It quickly becomes apparent that Sharky's is a hotspot during holiday celebrations or otherwise. In fact I run into a number of old dive buddies there including the Godfather of Nitrox himself, Dick Rutkowski, who, with Miller Lite in hand, shares his copious knowledge with students who hang on every word. Not wanting to turn Irish green on the dive boat tomorrow, we call it a night.

Jeep Mileage:

We hook up with Doc and Joe from Ocean Divers for a wee bit of wreck diving in the a.m. and load onto Ocean Divers brand new 46-foot Newton. Cruising at 20-plus knots, we find our way to the Eagle, a 287-foot wreck that Hurricane George picked up and snapped in half like a pencil. The power of nature once again impresses.

It's 125 feet to the sand, and the tower (tilted at an 80-degree angle) begins around 70 feet. Viz is at least 100 feet, and life on this wreck is abundant. Huge schools of snapper, grunts and cudas cruise the open water, while the steel hull of the Eagle is a blanket of corals, sponges and a list of invertebrates out of a marine biology textbook. One visit is barely enough to explore the extensive wreckage. I could do this dive many times.

The next dive, for me, is like visiting an old friend. Back in the mid 1980s, I did some diving in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, on the Hydrolab a Navy habitat in 60 feet of water in the Salt River Canyon basin of the island. The old Hydrolab has since been moved, remodeled and ended up off Key Largo. So, it's reunion time for me and another great dive.

We don't go inside the underwater lab this time, but the dive around the habitat now part of a reef and marine life study called the Jason Project is excellent. One, I always find it interesting to dive on mans undersea marvels, and two, the reefs around the habitat are healthy. There's also a resident population of big barracudas that number in the hundreds.

With our dive gear still dripping, we blast out of Key Largo and soak up the scenic ride south. The afternoon sun is playing sweet music across the water as we ease through Tavernier, Islamorada, Fiesta Key, Long Key, Duck Key and Grassy Key home to the Dolphin Research Center (more on that later). We land in Marathon Key at Faro Blanco (white lighthouse) Resort.

Our agenda is singular: food. We explain our chowder mission to a disinterested waitress who appears ready to go home, flop on the couch and watch Jerry Springer rather than listen to two idiots talk about conch chowder. Nevertheless, she suggests the creamy white chowder. We go for it. Good, but too much like clam chowder. The Fish House's throne has not been toppled yet.

Back at the hotel, I overhear a conversation on the dock nearby.

"Did you see the manatee? It was born just two hours ago."

"Yeah, it was tiny and black. It swam up that canal."

It takes me about three seconds to grab my camera and beat a path to the canal. Seeing a newborn manatee is extremely rare in the wild, and I'm ready. After an hour I give up, but have a new friend in Becky Tagg, a staffer at the Dolphin Research Center whose job is to track down lost manatees, stranded dolphins and whales. This brings us to Grassy Key and the Dolphin Research Center another one of the myriad places in the Keys that piques a diver's interest. Started in 1958, the DRC is geared toward research and education. The 18 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and three California sea lions in residence are used in a unique way. Many of the human visitors to the DRC are terminally ill, autistic or in some way disabled. The goal, as Tagg explains, is to put "a smile on the face" of people who may not smile very often.

"It may be the last smile they ever have. Our dolphins may not jump that high and some have disabilities of their own," Tagg said. "But they bring a lot of happiness to a lot of people."

I lay down to sleep with a feeling that there are good people in the world doing great things. My thoughts drift to tomorrow's diving with Halls Diving Center. After that it's Parrotville, Key West.

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