The Fish are Fantastic in the Florida Keys

by Bill Harrigan

The abundance and diversity of marine life in the Florida Keys is always amazing, but recently I was blown away by the fish I saw on Molasses Reef. I was surrounded the moment I entered the water! Hundreds of yellow and black striped Sergeant Majors flitted about just below the surface, feeding on the microscopic plankton in the water. Right below them a large pack of purple Creole Wrasse was also feeding in mid-water. Beneath the Creole Wrasse a school of chunky Bermuda Chub circled over the reef and below them a dense school of Yellow Goatfish hovered close to the coral.

Maybe you'll think I'm exaggerating if I continue, but I'm not. Everything I'm describing here I saw in the first 15 minutes of one dive in an area no deeper than 30 feet. And, this is not a dive I made 10 or 15 years ago. I had this delightful experience in the Keys about two weeks before writing this article.

There was a long coral ridge off to one side and slightly below me, where more fish gathered in groups along its face. One-half dozen Porkfish shared a sponge-encrusted recess in the ledge with a closely packed school of Blue Striped Grunts. More than 100 Smallmouth Grunts shimmered in a blue and silver line along the top of the ridge. A school of 15 or 16 Atlantic Spadefish patrolled the coral ridgeline, circling back toward me when they reached the opposite end. Out in the blue water above the ridge, 10 or 12 Great Barracuda hung nearly motionless, like arrows frozen in mid-flight. Many other colorful reef fish were weaving in and out of this living tapestry in singles and pairs. A duo of brilliant blue and yellow Queen Angelfish casually munched on sponges. A slender Trumpetfish hid within the soft branches of a golden Searod and a Green Moray revealed itself briefly, swimming snake-like from one coral crevice to the next.

The extraordinary diversity of fish life in the Florida Keys is always a delight for divers. Thanks to the far-sighted vision of conservationists such as John Pennekamp and the efforts of many scientists, divers and yes, even politicians, the Florida Keys now enjoy the benefits of nearly four decades of continuous marine protection. The waters of the Florida Keys are presently covered by an umbrella of protection that includes the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Biscayne National Park, Fort Jefferson National Monument, Everglades National Park, the Great Heron National Wildlife Refuge and other management plans. Surveys conducted by trained observers of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) are one indication of how well this system of management and protection works. During the last three years they recorded 282 species of fish in the Florida Keys, more than any other geographic region in the Caribbean and South Atlantic.

Even More Fish

to Come

These protected areas make a real difference in our diving pleasure. For instance, fishwatching in the Florida Keys is even better since the Sanctuary Protection Areas, or SPAs, took effect last July. These special zones provide an extra measure of protection for 18 major reef areas in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. In the past, fishing directly on the major reefs created some conflicts between divers and fishermen. The mooring buoys were crowded, trolling boats were a hazard and the reef fish population was being stressed by fishermen taking undersized and even inedible fish. Hook and line fishing is now prohibited within the SPAs and the difference is already noticeable. There are fewer boats using the buoys, so getting to your favorite site is easier. And, you can expect to see more fish everywhere in the Keys in the future, not just in the SPAs. As the populations on these selected reefs increase, they will seed the rest of the marine sanctuary with more fish.

Wherever you dive in the Keys, you're likely to enjoy the concentration of fish on one of these special reefs. Six of the SPAs are off Key Largo, encompassing the reefs at Carysfort and South Carysfort, the Elbow, the Statue (Key Largo Dry Rocks), Grecian Rocks, French Reef and Molasses. In the vicinity of Islamorada, there are SPAs at Conch Reef, Hens and Chickens, Davis Reef and Alligator Reef. Several reefs near Marathon now benefit from the extra protection of SPAs, including Sombrero Reef and Coffins Patch. Slightly farther along the Keys, Looe Key Reef, Newfound Harbor Key and Chica Rocks have been designated as SPAs. Key West reefs that received SPA status include Sand Key, Rock Key and Eastern Dry Rocks.

Florida Keys Wrecks

The coral reefs are not the only places you'll find lots of fish in the Florida Keys. Fish are also attracted to wrecks and the history of the Keys is filled with shipwrecks. Since the first explorers sailed along the Keys, many vessels have met their end on these shallow reefs. With the addition of ships deliberately sunk as artificial reefs, world-class wrecks are available along the entire length of the Keys. Starting in Key Largo and working toward Key West, the list includes the City of Washington, the Civil War Wreck, the Benwood, the Bibb and Duane, the San Pedro, the Eagle, the Adelaide Baker, the Thunderbolt, the Cayman Salvage Master, Joe's Tug and the Amesbury. These wrecks vary in depth from about 25 feet to 120 feet and in condition from fully intact to fairly scattered. One thing they have in common is fish. From big, fast-swimming pelagics to small bottom dwellers, the Florida Keys wrecks are thick with fish.

In addition to their abundance on the reefs and wrecks, one of the other things I like about the fish in the Florida Keys is their natural behavior. Except for a few professional displays, fish feeding is discouraged. The result is natural behavior, such as tight groups of fish swimming together for protection from predators and pairs of angelfish feeding nonchalantly on sponges right before your eyes. If you are patient, you can ease up to several hundred Blue Striped Grunts or Yellow Goatfish and the school will close around you without concern. Or, you can see the fascinating way a trunkfish feeds, hovering vertically over the bottom while blowing away the sand in search of marine invertebrates.

No planes, no passports,

no problems

The abundant fish life and beautiful coral reefs in the Florida Keys are only half of the equation for divers. What makes the Keys such an ideal dive destination is the combination of exquisite natural resources and accessibility. Also known as the Islands You Can Drive To, the Florida Keys are as easy and convenient as to get to it can be. And, if you've seen the cost of airfares to tropical islands these days, the ease of traveling to the Keys makes even more sense.

The Overseas Highway runs along the route pioneered by the old Flagler Railroad, just more than 100 miles from Key Largo to Key West. The road gradually sweeps around from north/south in Key Largo to east/west in Key West, crossing 37 new bridges built during a major improvement project completed in 1982. The views along the way are superb, with many places where you can see both the sparkling Atlantic Ocean and tranquil Florida Bay at the same time. The drive is scenic any time of day, but I love to be on the Overseas Highway for sunrise or sunset, when the dramatic colors of the sky and reflections on the water can be spectacular.

Driving the Overseas Highway reveals another important advantage of diving in the Florida Keys: your choice of professional dive operations. The competition among dive shops in the Keys ensures that operators continually improve their services and equipment. As a result, the Keys probably have the finest collection of dive operations anywhere in the world. You'll find modern boats with all the amenities, including freshwater showers, camera rinse buckets and coolers for cold drinks. The boats are carefully maintained to meet the strict requirements of U.S. Coast Guard inspections and the captains are all U.S. Coast Guard licensed. The people who take care of you, both ashore and on the water, will be enthusiastic, highly trained and experienced. Certified instructors will be available for the full range of warm water dive courses, from resort to instructor. Air fill stations in the Florida Keys meet the highest standards possible and nitrox is offered at many dive shops.

Along with the top notch dive operations, you'll find an incredible selection of hotels and restaurants in the Florida Keys. Accommodations are available from luxurious to economical and all of them understand the special needs of divers. With the boats and dive shops close by and plenty of convenient parking, you wont find yourself dragging your dive gear through miles of corridors. There are also restaurants that specialize in every cuisine imaginable, including some superb traditional Florida Keys restaurants that shouldn't be missed.

When you're not diving, sleeping or eating, there are many other fun activities in the Florida Keys, especially watersports. At many locations you can try your hand at sailing, windsurfing, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, watercraft riding or parasailing. Museums, nature trails and beaches are also favorite places to spend time. And, of course, the shopping is great!

American Airlines is an excellent choice for travel to the Keys, with direct flights to Miami from many cities and service to Marathon and Key West on American Eagle. For reservations or information on Florida Keys dive holidays, visit the Web site at www.fla-keys.com or call (800) FLA-KEYS.