Become a Key Largo Castaway

by Julie Robinson

Is it time to shed the suit and adopt the life of a castaway, at least for a brief respite? Do you have mask, fins and snorkel but are still searching for a secluded getaway? Since you're dreaming, wouldn't a hotel, restaurant and dive boat;all at the same locale;be nice? You'd also want warm water, great reefs and a casual laidback atmosphere. Add a really friendly dive staff; you want to feel like a castaway not an outcast. Besides, you might want to brush up on your dive training. Maybe learning how to use nitrox wouldn't be a bad idea either. And finally, how about an ocean electrifying, crimson sunset while you sip a tall, icy (you fill in the blank).

Sounds like you're searching for the ultimate dive destination. Sounds like you may be a little bit over the edge. And, fortunately, you're in luck. Ocean Divers to the rescue! In Key Largo, Florida, it'll satisfy all of the above requirements and more, starting with a package that covers hotel accommodations, diving and training, all within a few steps of each other.

Every day, twice a day, Ocean Divers runs trips to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Its two, custom outfitted 50 foot dive boats, crewed by outgoing and professional staff members, cater to the needs of divers of all levels. The catamaran style stability of the MV Big Red wont be lost on divers. Nor will the advantages of its wide dive platform. With two decks, Big Red also offers divers the choice of sun or shade and safe, dry gear stowage.

MV Ocean Diver is equally diver friendly and, because of its fiberglass V-hull and open bow, its passengers can ride dolphin watch. The amenities don't stop there. Both boats are designed to cater to underwater photographers, with camera benches, freshwater rinse buckets and low pressure air. And forget lifting a tank, the boat's crew handles that and collecting rental gear after the last dive.

There are freshwater showers on each boat and every dive trip has an instructor aboard. Ocean Divers runs trips to all of the best dive sites in the Upper Florida Keys;which are far more numerous than there is space here to describe. During any given week you can count on visiting a few of the following: Fire Coral Caves, at Molasses Reef, always guarantees an encounter with Spadefish, Permit and flashy Copper Sweepers that patrol the entrances to this reef's hallmark swim-throughs. The Benwood, a 1942 shipwreck, is a living reminder to the extreme measures ships had to sail under during World War II. Today, most of the wreck is in large pieces but the virtual aquarium created by its remaining structure will amaze divers.The Benwood is a great night dive, too. Schools of Grunts, Goatfish, Porkfish and large Angelfish are replaced by their night patrol counterparts; Cardinalfish, morays, delicate Basketstars and the somewhat large and startling spider-like Clinging Crabs.

For full fledged wreck diving though, the choice is ultimately the Duane or Bibb. These two completely intact, 327 foot long Coast Guard cutters were intentionally sunk as artificial reefs in 1987. Resting between 120 and 130 feet, respectively, either wreck provides an excellent deep dive option to the relatively shallow, beautiful spur and groove reef system of the Upper Keys.

The willingness of Ocean Divers' management and staff to go the extra distance to get you to different and interesting sites really stands out among dive operations in the Upper Keys. Capt. Craig and Capt. Mark routinely make special runs to dive the Penn Wreck, Pillar Coral Reef and Snapper Alley. On good inshore visibility days, Capt. Mark can be coerced into making a trip to a secret patch reef he recently discovered.

Ocean Divers is experimenting with running a three tank safari on Fridays and is the only dive shop in the Upper Keys to have regularly scheduled dives three nights a week.

Training: Ocean Divers has been in operation for more than 22 years and the owners, Joe Clark and Doc Schweinler, don't foresee slowing down anytime in the near future. This is a PADI Five Star Facility, with a high quality and service oriented staff. Ocean Divers offers a complete range of dive training from beginning to advanced and also open water referral training. If you want to develop your U/W photography, get a specialty certification, or maybe make a career of diving (shed the suit forever) this is where you should be.

As a PADI Career Development Center, Ocean Divers' instructors can take you from open water certification through the Instructor Development Course (IDC). There are two full time Course Directors on staff and class size is kept small (six to eight candidates) in order to maintain an emphasis on real life teaching. And, IDCs are always scheduled so regional Instructor Examinations (IE) follow immediately; keeping all of the training in one place.

If you are already an instructor, Ocean Divers provides a vast array of specialty certifications, such as Medic First Aid Instructor, Nitrox Instructor, DAN O2 Instructor and Resort Photo Pro.

Technical Diving: Tek diving has been a fervent wave rolling through the sport diving community for some time now. Dick Rutkowski and Hyperbarics International, at Ocean Divers, have been at the forefront of making the training and equipment available to divers in the Keys and elsewhere. Ocean Divers offers both PADI and IANTD certifications and nitrox (EAN 1 and EAN 2) tank rentals and fills for both DIN and yoke type tank valves. Hyberbarics International has an on-site hyperbaric chamber for teaching purposes and offers Continuing Education Credits (CEUs) for medical professionals and dive rescue personnel.

Marina del Mar: The chance to unwind and re-group are a key part of a dive vacation. Next door to Ocean Divers is beautiful Marina Del Mar. Airy rooms, a swimming pool and a waterfront location only begin to describe the inviting atmosphere of this family owned resort. But, if escaping the ordinary is meaningless without a sunset view, head for Marina Del Mar Bayside, a sister resort. There, a sandy beach, tropical flowers, the Gulf of Mexico, a sweeping dock and serenity served to order take precedence.

For meals, Marina Del Mar's in-house restaurant, Coconuts, has a deck overlooking the yacht basin and serves a variety of excellent appetizers and full course meals. If you're at the Bayside, try Sushi Nami, a local favorite. If it's breakfast or lunch, check out Benny's Gallery above Ocean Divers' Dive Shop.

Sharky's Beer Company, downstairs, is for card carrying locals and travelers alike. The ambiance is diving and tall icy drinks are served up with tall tales. It's an island, you're a castaway; at least in attitude!