Pennekamp Park's Five Best Dives
An Overview of America's Favorite Dive Destination

Text and Photography by Stephen Frink

In terms of sheer numbers of visiting divers, the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary has long reigned as America's favorite dive destination. Back when sport diving was in its infancy, Key Largo was already popular among traveling divers. Most came to gaze in reverence at the incredible profusion of tropical marine life or perhaps to try to capture the sublime beauty of the pristine coral reefs on film. But, unfortunately, others would have preferred to take those same fish back to the boat on the point of a spear or to pry majestic brain corals from the bottom to decorate their living rooms.

Gratefully, those with vision and a sense of ecological preservation prevailed and by 1960 they established America's first underwater park. Within John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park there would be no coral collection or spearfishing and conservation would be an overriding concern.

There have been several changes in the format of the sanctuary since 1960. To expand the scope of protection of our coastal waters, Congress passed the National Marine Sanctuaries Act in 1972. With the reefs off Key Largo recognized as a national treasure, the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary was designated in 1975. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) came to oversee the protection of this 103 square nautical mile tract of coral reef, stretching from Carysfort Reef in the north to Molasses Reef in the south. Mooring buoys were installed to prevent anchor damage and increasing awareness was directed toward the interrelation of the whole ecosystem, including fragile mangrove and seagrass communities.

Following a series of ship groundings and water quality concerns in the late 1980s, it became apparent that greater protection for the entire Florida Keys was essential. In 1990, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was designated. The management plan has established zones of use throughout the Keys, but in keeping with the strong tradition of conservation, the Key Largo reef tract has one of the most stringent levels of preservation.

Now there are five Sanctuary Preservation Areas (SPAs) within the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary that are 100 percent 'no take.' Spearfishing has long been illegal, but now there is no hook and line fishing or lobstering along Carysfort, The Elbow, Dry Rocks, Grecian and Molasses Reefs. In an area already known for its impressive fish populations, the reef life is certain to increase even more dramatically as a result of this new conservation initiative.

Divers visiting Key Largo will have a diverse portfolio of outstanding dive options, ranging from historic and modern shipwrecks to shallow coral reefs. The dive operators will make their choice of daily dives according to where the water clarity might be best or the special interests of the group on board. I've lived in Key Largo for nearly 20 years and, while I have enjoyed terrific dives throughout the sanctuary, I can't help but have a few personal favorite sites. Try these five dives during your next trip to Key Largo and see if they become your favorites as well.

City of Washington: Launched in 1877 to carry passengers between New York and Havana, the City of Washington earned a place in American history in 1898 as she lay at anchor in Havana Harbor, next to the U.S. battleship Maine. The Maine exploded, sinking and killing 260 crew men. The City of Washington took heavy shrapnel hits from the exploding Maine but served heroic duty rescuing and caring for 90 survivors.

The City of Washington was ultimately converted to a barge. She was carrying coal when she ran aground on July 10, 1917 and sank in just a few minutes. Today, she is scattered wreckage in 25 feet of water, just to the north of The Elbow tower.

While the City of Washington offers no impressive superstructure, her deck plating, twisted beams and ribs provide a wonderful habitat for the fascinating marine life that inhabits the area. For the past 30 years local dive operators have come to this area to hand feed the fish, thus the resident moray eels and Barracuda have become particularly friendly.

North North Dry Rocks: This is a giant spur and groove formation. The spurs are long and tall, undercut in numerous places with swim-throughs and ledges. The undersides of these ledges are encrusted with red, orange and lavender sponges, with impressive clusters of Elkhorn and Star Corals and Purple Seafans decorating the top of the ridges.

Because North North Dry Rocks is along the inner reefline, it rarely receives the clear waters carried by the Gulf Stream. Visibility is more likely to be 30 to 50 feet. Still, the dramatic reef structure and, especially, the proliferation of marine life, make this a great dive. There are more angelfish here than at almost any other Key Largo reef and the colorful backgrounds assure wonderful photo ops.

Benwood: This shipwreck joined Key Largo's underwater pantheon on April 9, 1942. German U-boat activity off the Florida coast during World War II was causing ships to run at night without navigation lights. The Benwood collided with the Robert C. Tuttle, crushing the Benwood's bow and leaving her mortally wounded. The captain ran her aground off Key Largo to prevent her sinking in deep water. She remains here today. She was ultimately deemed a hazard to navigation and blown apart. Now her stern is widely scattered, yet her bow is largely intact. Along the forward hull are large schools of Porkfish and grunts, while Copper Sweepers and moray eels make the crevices beneath the deck plating home. Sergeant Majors and Goatfish school in profusion near the bow and macro enthusiasts will enjoy scores of Christmas Tree Worms that have burrowed through the Fire Coral adorning the hull.

Molasses Reef: No discussion of the best dives off Key Largo would be complete without mentioning this reef. Local legend suggests it is named for a barge that grounded here many years ago carrying a cargo of molasses barrels, but much of the strewn wreckage is probably from a wooden hulled Austrian ship named Slobodna, run aground here in 1887.

Rather than a single site, Molasses is an extensive reef complex with diving depths from about 10 feet to more than 70; there are 33 mooring buoys in place. Certain areas have distinct features for which they have been named, such as Spanish Anchor Winch Hole, Fire Coral Caves, Hole in the Wall and many others. Snorkelers will enjoy the shallow spur and groove formations typified by Elkhorn and Boulder Corals punctuated by seafans. Divers will find plenty to occupy them as well. There are vast schools of Gray Snappers, Horse-eye Jacks, Barracuda, Blue-striped Grunts and Goatfish. A resident school of Atlantic Spadefish has been joined by a pair of Indo-Pacific Batfish, probably the result of the release of fish grown too large for someone's aquarium.

Bibb and Duane: Named in honor of former Secretaries of the Treasury William J. Duane and George M. Bibb, these two decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard cutters now contribute to Key Largo's wreck dive portfolio. Both are 327 feet long, with 41 foot beams. Through the efforts of the Key Largo dive and business community, and the support of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, they were towed from Boston Harbor and sunk as artificial reefs in November of 1987 at sites just south of Molasses.

The Bibb settled on her starboard side in 130 feet of water, but the Duane landed upright at 120 feet. Her depth makes her by far the more frequently dived. Scores of Barracuda hang in the midwater near the bow and crow's nest, while massive schools of grunts occupy the wheelhouse. Corals and colorful encrusting sponges have transformed what was once brilliant white superstructures into a thriving multi-hued artificial reef. For wide angle photographers, the Duane may be one of the world's most photogenic shipwrecks. However, owing to the depth and probability of currents on these wrecks, both the Bibb and Duane are best suited for experienced divers.

For more information about diving in Pennekamp Park, contact:

American Diving Headquarters
Harry Keitz
(800) 634-8464 / (305) 451-9291

Amy Slate's Amoray Resort and Dive Center
Amy Slate
(800) 4-AMORA / (305) 453-9516

Aqua-Nut Divers & Kelly's on the Bay
Rick Thaler
(800) 226-0415 / (305) 451-1622

Capt. Slate's Atlantis Dive Center
Capt. Spencer Slate
(800) 331-3483 / (305) 451-3020

Discovery Dive
Jack Vandelaar
(800) 622-6813 / (305) 453-9630

Dixie Divers
Carlos Serra
(800) FLA-DIVE / (305) 453-9588

It's A Dive
Sam Barrios
(800) 809-9881 / (305) 453-9881

Key Largo Undersea Park
(Home of Jule's Undersea Lodge)
(305) 451-2353

Ocean Divers
Joe Clark
(800) 451-1113 / (305) 451-1113

Quiesence Diving Services, Inc
Rob Blesser
(305) 451-2440

Sea Dwellers Dive Center
Jeff Cleary & Rob Haff
(800) 451-3640 / (305) 451-3640

Seafarer Fish & Dive Resort
(800) 599-7712 / (305) 852-5349

Silent World Dive Center
Rick Altman
(800) 966-DIVE / (305) 451-3252

Stephen Frink Photographic Inc.
Stephen Frink
(305) 451-3737