Hold on Tight--We're Goin' to the Keys

By Bill Harrigan


I'll bet you're thinking "Oh no, not another Florida Keys dive guide! Can there possibly be anything new to write about?"


Tour the Keys in a Lamborghini Diablo roadster and witness the union of great Italian driving with great American diving. Yes, actually, there is. That's one of the best things about the Keys: Even if you've made hundreds of dives on these reefs, they always have something new to show you. I recently made a dive on Pickles Reef, practically in my backyard, and saw eight enormous Silver Tarpon circling ceaselessly among a mixed school of Yellow Goatfish and Smallmouth Grunts, passing within five feet of me on each circuit. Those Tarpon must have weighed 60 or 70 pounds and looked like they had been carved from solid blocks of chrome.

But you've never been to the Keys before? No problem, meet me at the Miami Airport, and we'll drive down together. We'll rent a convertible, of course, and take in the superb ocean view from the Overseas Highway, which runs like a lazy river straight through to Key West.

Let's skip by the usual staid, four-door rental sedan this time and satisfy our primal need for speed at ExotiCars on Le Jeune Road, right around the corner from the airport. How about that lemon-yellow Lamborghini Diablo roadster? Yeah, baby!

The trip from Miami to the Keys won't take long, especially when 530 horses gets us zero to 60 in less than four seconds.

Good thing one of us packed light, 'cause the trunk on this demon is filled with pistons and forged steel. No problem, though, the Keys are the king when it comes to rental equipment; they have enough rental gear to outfit an invasion force. I've got my mask, fins, snorkel and regulator in one carry-on and two pairs of shorts, three T-shirts and my swimsuit in the other. With my C-card in my wallet, I'm ready to dive.

In a blink, we're suited-up and in the warm, invigorating waters at Biscayne National Park, immersed in the fish-action at the Wall and then at Virginia Reef. We'll still have time to make a night dive in Key Largo since it's only 45 minutes from here by normal conveyance, somewhat quicker in our yellow rocket.

Slide the Supernatural CD into the player, while this thing eats up the 18-mile stretch across the Everglades. Before Santana fingers the last lick of "Smooth," we'll be across Lake Surprise and onto Key Largo.

OK, what's the first thing that hits you about this island? It's big. (The name Key Largo didn't give that away by any chance, did it?) And there are dive shops everywhere, and dive flags are plastered seemingly on every building, shop, car bumper and outhouse. That's good, because competition breeds low prices and world-class service, which makes Florida Keys dive operators among the best anywhere.

Key Largo's size doesn't just mean space for a legion of dive shops, though. This body of land separates the warm, clear water on the oceanside (where the reefs are), from the cooler, more nutrient laden water on the bayside. Why is that important? Because it creates a 25-mile stretch-from Carysfort Reef to Pickles Reef-where the conditions for growing coral reefs are most favorable. This is where you'll find many of the Keys' well-known reefs, including Molasses, French, Grecian, Key Largo Dry Rocks, North Dry Rocks and the Elbow. Molasses, French and the Elbow are on the edge of a bank five or six miles offshore that forms the wash for the Gulf Stream. Depths on these outer bank reefs range from 15 to 90 feet, but in most cases the best part of the reef is between 15 and 60 feet. Although the main body of the Gulf Stream is generally farther out, it provides a steady source of clear, warm water, blessing the reefs with 40 to 80 feet of visibility and temperatures ranging from 75 degrees F in the winter to 85 degrees F in the summer.

Reefs like Key Largo Dry Rocks, where the Christ of the Abyss statue is, are called inner bank reefs, and offer shallower depths and more protection from waves in return for greener water and a bit less visibility. The inner bank reefs are excellent for both diving and snorkeling, with coral extending right to the surface and maximum depths of about 30 feet.

Are you an advanced open water diver with recent dives in your logbook? Want to make a deep dive? Great! Tomorrow morning we'll explore the USCG Cutter Duane, a 327-foot ship that was sunk in 1987. It's one of the premier wreck dives in the world, but strong currents and the 120-foot maximum depth can be tricky for new divers. The Duane sits upright in the sand with thousands of fish jockeying for position around the mast and superstructure. The Duane's sistership, the Bibb, lies on the bottom less than half a mile away. She ended up on her starboard side in 130 feet of water.


Brain Corals dot the Keys' reefs, grunts swarm them, and divers can Kayak over them. For our second dive we'll run over to nearby Molasses Reef and pick up one of the site moorings, such as Winch Hole or the Spanish Anchor. Either site will give us a chance to see Green Morays, Spotted Eagle Rays, Hawksbill Turtles and most of the fish in Paul Humann's Reef Fish Identification book.

With 150 or so moored dive sites off Key Largo and our choice of boats making two two-tank dives per day, plus a weekly night dive, we could dive until we're web-footed. But some of Key Largo's most intriguing attractions are the mangroves lining its shore, providing protection for juvenile fish and bird life. We'll rent a kayak and explore the nooks and hollows of the mangrove creeks. It's another world in the winding waterways among these branching roots, utterly fascinating and surprisingly isolated.

Tomorrow, we have reservations to swim with the dolphins at Dolphin's Cove in Key Largo, one of three places in the Keys, including Theater of the Sea near Whale Harbor and the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, which offer swim-with-the-dolphins programs. You'll love it; just bring your snorkel gear and a towel. Swimming with these sleek creatures is an experience that will stay with you forever.

Right now, though, my stomach is growling louder than the Diablo, and it's screaming for conch chowder. There's nothing quite as satisfying as roaring into Mrs. Mac's Kitchen with an appetite. The conch chowder and the chili are legendary, and there's something about a place with license plates nailed to the walls that say, "Made in America."


Elephant Ear Sponge decorates Molasses Reef. Day two on the road, and this speedster needs gas already? Oh well, we want to hook up with another dive shop in Islamorada anyway. We wouldn't want to miss Conch Wall, Alligator Reef and the wreck of the Eagle. Recent storms have been gradually dismantling the Eagle, opening it up and making it even more effective as an artificial reef. Conch Wall drops quickly from around 60 to 90 feet, with more corals and sponges growing on the substrate than is normal elsewhere in the Keys at these depths.

After the dives, we'll drive down to Whale Harbor and see who's playing at Holiday Isle. Chuck Berry might have been thinking of this place when he wrote "...the joint was rockin', rolling round and round." Live music, good company and icy Rum Runners put this high on the list for anyone with the stamina to boogie after a day underwater.

The next diving stop is Marathon, which was named in the 1930s by tired workers who decided that building Flagler's railroad to Key West was turning into a real marathon. Perhaps the most cosmopolitan part of the Keys now, Marathon has its own airport and a wide variety of stores, from gifts to hardware.

The Florida Keys:
Protected for Your Enjoyment

A network of state and federal marine protected areas safeguard the sensitive coral reef ecosystem of the Florida Keys, starting in the north with Biscayne National Park. Biscayne joins the larger Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS), which in turn is adjacent to the Everglades National Park and Fort Jefferson National Monument. Several other areas, such as John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the Great White Heron National Refuge, are within the boundaries of the FKNMS.

Thanks to these protective areas, the Keys have always been fishy, in a good way of course, and now many of the reefs are fishier than ever, since the establishment of new Sanctuary Protection Areas. Generally called SPAs, 18 of these small areas surround the major reefs from Carysfort to Key West with extra protective measures. In addition to prohibiting any damage to coral, the SPAs do not allow hook and line fishing. Since this ban on fishing became effective in 1997, divers have been enjoying a steady rise in the number and diversity of fish on the reefs. On a single dive you can see several species each of jacks, damselfish, grunts, snapper, grouper, parrotfish, angelfish, hamlet, morays and filefish.

Today I've lined up our first dive for the wreck of the Thunderbolt, an ex- cable layer turned research vessel that was sunk in 1986 and sits upright at 120 feet. This unique ship was used by Florida Power and Light to study lightning. Two jet engines blew ionized particles out of the stack to attract strikes, and presumably the crew made sure they weren't touching anything metal. For our second dive, we'll stop at Coffins Patch and check out the resident Nurse Shark population.

For lunch we beef up on Tex-Mex at Pedro's in preparation for our afternoon dives at Sombrero, the large outer bank reef off Marathon marked by the historic Sombrero Lighthouse.

We'll ease up on the gas pedal as we cross Seven Mile Bridge because the view is spectacular-green bayside to the right; blue oceanside to the left. Keep a sharp eye out for tiny deer too, since we're getting close to Big Pine Key and No Name Key, the home of the endangered Key Deer.

Since we've got time for two dives this morning, how about a deep dive on the Adolphus Busch then a shallow dive at Looe Key reef? The Busch is a 210-foot freighter that was sunk recently, but the reef at Looe Key has been growing since the last Ice Age and is probably the best example of an outer bank reef in the Keys.

Back in the Lamborghini by noon, we'll cruise into Key West and watch the heads turn. Known as Key Weird, Key West is a charming collection of historic buildings and T-shirt shops where a multitude of modern artists, eccentrics, writers and musicians strive to equal the feats of the Key West famous. The locals tolerate the throngs of tourists in the streets, entertain them in the bars and avoid them altogether in the ice cream shops. Divers fit somewhere in the middle; they are here for the sea but ready to explore the back streets, too. None of it matters, because there is something for everyone in this town. Even a 10 minute walk down any sidewalk is entertaining. Spill your beer in the same bar where Hemingway found inspiration or visit Jimmy Buffet's place for dinner. Heft a gold bar in Mel Fisher's Maritime Heritage Society Museum, and kick yourself for not investing in his treasure hunting company or pet a shark in the Key West Aquarium. Be sure to hit Mallory Square for at least one sunset. An old tradition in Key West, the Mallory Square sunset ceremony has grown to circus proportions, but Mother Nature's daily routine is still the star of the show.


Wreck of the Benwood. Key West has its share of underwater attractions, too. The reefs at Eastern and Western Dry Rocks, for example, start almost at the surface and slope gradually down into deeper water. You can't get much deeper than 20 feet wherever you go at Nine Foot Stake, but it's still easy to get all turned around among the coral ridges. If you want a deeper dive, the wreck of the Cayman Salvage Master sits upright in 90 feet and Joe's Tug rests at 65 feet.

Still not worn out from too much fun? There is more to the Florida Keys, west of Key West. Park the car, grab your snorkel bag and take the ferry to the Dry Tortugas, where Dr. Mudd served his time in the prison at old Fort Jefferson. Now it's a national monument and marine reserve, with Queen Conch nearly knee-deep in the moat.

That's the Keys from one diver's perspective, but whatever your definition of fun, I'm sure you can find it here. I only wish I could keep this car for another week. Look, it even comes with a book of preprinted speeding tickets.

30 Great Dives in the Florida KeysBiscayne National Park

Virginia Reef: Shallow coral reef with branching corals on top, boulder and soft corals along sides.

The Wall: Near vertical wall starting at 65 feet, dropping to 105 feet, with large Convoluted Barrel Sponges.

Key Largo

Carysfort Reef: Historic reef light, shallow Elkhorn Corals, unique double spur and groove formation.

South Carysfort Reef: Extensive shallow reef top with live and fossil branching corals, large mounds of Star and Brain Coral on reef front.

Elbow Reef: Bluest water in the Keys, City of Washington and Civil War wrecks, nice balance of hard and soft corals.

North North Dry Rocks: Shallow reef with tall coral ridges and lots of angelfish.

Key Largo Dry Rocks: Home of the Christ of the Abyss statue, very shallow branching corals on top, mounds of hard corals around periphery.

Grecian: Very shallow, good snorkel site, especially when winds are up from the north or east.

Benwood: Freighter sunk in 1942 after collision with Robert. C. Tuttle, 30 to 45-feet deep, lots of fish, great night dive.

French Reef: Calcium carbonate deposits from coral polyps form arches and shallow caverns.

Sand Island: Uncrowded, gently sloping reef with good vertical profile and corals.

Molasses Reef: Large outer bank reef with a variety of very fishy dive sites; depths range from 12 to 80 feet, with most diving in the 20 to 35-foot range.

Bibb: 327-foot Coast Guard Cutter resting on starboard side in 130 feet; strong currents likely.

Duane: 327-foot Coast Guard Cutter sitting upright in 120 feet. Strong currents likely.

Pickles Reef: Outer bank reef with moderate coral ridges, lots of fish.

Islamorada

    

Eagle: 269-foot freighter resting on starboard side in 110 feet, sunk in 1985.

Conch Reef: Many soft corals and sponges, gentle slope from 40 to 60 feet, wall from 60 to 90 feet.

Alligator: Ballast pile from USS Alligator in 10 feet near light house, main reef 20 to 50 feet.

Marathon

Thunderbolt: 188-foot cable layer/research vessel upright in 110 feet; possible strong currents, many fish.

Sombrero: Tall coral ridges extend seaward from 5 to 35 feet, variety of dive sites.

Coffins Patch: Sprawling patch reef packed with fish, including Nurse Sharks.

Big Pine Key

Looe Key: Large, fully developed outer bank reef, tall coral spurs of Star and Brain Coral topped with sea fans and branching corals separated by channels of white sand; many dive sites from 5 to 80 feet.

American Shoal: Shallow reef with many ledges, mix of soft and hard corals with encrusting sponges.

Adolphus Busch: 210-foot freighter sunk in 1998, sits upright in 100 feet of water near Looe Key.

Key West

    

Cayman Salvage Master: 187-foot cable layer upright in 90 feet, possible strong currents.

Eastern Dry Rocks: Extensive shallow coral reef with many ledges and large fish population.

Joe's Tug: 75-foot harbor tug upright in 65 feet, Schoolmasters and grunts cluster inside.

Nine Foot Stake: Extended shallow reef area

For more information on diving in the Keys, call any of the local dive operators or (800) FLA-KEYS. Additional information is available on the Florida Keys website at www.flakeys.com or at Skin Diver Online, www.skin-diver.com. To cruise the Keys in a Diablo, call ExotiCars at (888) 362-1558.