Destination Florida Keys
by John Kinsella
The Keys arc gently southwest for more than 200 kilometres/125 miles from the southern tip of Florida. A tropical coral archipelago, replete with palm trees, sandy beaches and shipwrecks, they try valiantly to keep the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic. Testament to their success, a few kilometres/miles offshore lies the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States and the third largest barrier reef in the world. As if that wasn’t enough for any diver, the Keys are also graced with the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail. This series of wrecks stretches from north to south and presents even more opportunity to experience world-renowned diving.
And, you can just drive there. Hit the road and about an hour south of Miami you hit “The Stretch,” leave the Florida mainland and the Everglades behind, and start cruising the Overseas Highway.
First port of call is Key Largo. Try not to be in too much of a hurry because some of the best reefs in the Keys are very close by. The diving here ranges from shallow reefs to one of the largest wrecks ever sunk for recreational divers. Key Largo is also home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Well served by dive shops of all shapes and sizes, it’s a great place to shake down the gear and stock up on o-rings. Pick a spot to savor a sunset, lay the charts out in front of you and start dreaming.
Islamorada is on the immediate horizon although it has long been known as a premier sport fishing destination, the diving’s good too if you can pull yourself away from the galleries and hidden picnic spots that lay waiting nearby in this village of islands.
The Heart of the Keys, Marathon, has a bit of a small town feel. Boot Key Harbor is a popular spot for lunch and pondering a local dive.
The journey over seven-mile bridge on the way to Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys is a spectacular event in itself and here, in what are also known as the “Natural Keys,” there’s more outstanding diving.
Key West, home to a third of the Keys’ population, has long drawn famous, infamous and unknown artists seeking inspiration from the locale, the town and townspeople. The nightlife here is world famous. Make sure to visit Mel Fisher’s famous Atocha treasure while you're here. You'll be sure to keep your eyes open on your next dive. On a clear day you can make out Cuba on the horizon and it’s water all the way. Now, the only way to drive is north.
HOT DIVE SITES
The USS Spiegel Grove is a Landing Ship Dock that is 155 metres/510 feet long and 26 metres/84 feet wide. She lies in about 40 metres/130 feet of water near Dixie Shoals off Key Largo. It’s 18 metres/60 feet to the shallowest part of the wreck. This is an advanced dive due to the depths and frequent current. This is a very large wreck and will take many dives to explore.
Molasses Reef is one of the most popular reefs in the Upper Keys. Molasses is famous for its clear water, many fish, and numerous boulder corals. It is a classic outer reef with well-defined spur and groove coral formations. Depths to about 21 metres/70 feet. Caves and ledges shelter lobsters, moray eels, parrotfish, angelfish, filefish, turtles, rays, and nurse sharks.
The Duane and the Bibb are US Coast Guard cutters sunk in the late eighties. The Duane sits upright in 38 metres/125 feet of water and the tallest part of the wreck reaches up to 15 metres/50 feet. Encounters with schooling pelagics (including Great Barracuda) are a real possibility here. The Bibb lies on her starboard side in 41 metres/135 feet. Both are advanced dives due to depth and current.
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The Eagle is a Dutch freighter that lies in 34 metres/110 feet of water listing slightly to starboard. She is encrusted with sponges and corals and home to schools of grunt, tarpon, and jack.
Alligator Reef is marked by a lighthouse and is a popular spot with new divers. Here, in 1822, the USS Alligator sank while protecting a convoy from pirates. All that remains of the wreck is two piles of ballast stones, but the coral reef, with depths from 3-12 metres/9-40 feet is full of life and color.
Pickles Reef is an ideal spot for macro photographers. Divers with a sharp eye and good buoyancy control can find all kinds of tiny creatures including flamingo tongue cowries and banded coral shrimp, in 5-8 metres/15-25 feet of water.
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The Thunderbolt was sunk intentionally on 3 March 1986 and lies vertically in 35 metres/115 feet of water with the wheelhouse at about 24 metres/80 feet. She is home to sponges and corals and many fish species such as angelfish, barracuda and jacks.
Sombrero Reef is marked by a 43-metre/140-foot light tower and features classic spur and groove reef formations that are considered by some to be among the best reefs in the region. Depths range up to 12 metres/40 feet.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort in Marathon
Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys
Looe Key Reef, named for the HMS Looe, a frigate which sank here in 1744, has it all: a reef flat with great snorkeling in up to 5 metres/15 feet, a fore reef with depths to 12 metres/40 feet and particularly vibrant reef life and depths to 30 metres/100 feet on the outer edges. It’s a beautiful reef featuring coral spurs and large overhangs. Protected since 1981, marine life is abundant and turtles, rays and even the odd whale shark have been seen here. Currents can be significant on the deeper portions of the reef.
The Adolphus Busch Sr. was sunk on 5 December 1998 and lies intact in 30 metres/100 feet plus of water 11 kilometres/7 miles southwest of Big Pine Key. She’s a coastal freighter 64 metres/210 feet long. Goliath Grouper to more than 135 kilograms/300 pounds have been encountered on this wreck.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort in Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys
Sand Key islet is marked by a 34-metre/110-foot light tower and offers snorkelers and divers abundant coral and marine life. One of 18 Sanctuary Preservation Areas within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the local reefs see grouper and barracuda prowling the gullies and coral fingers. The outer ledges drop to more than 18 metres/60 feet.
The Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg sank in less than two minutes on 27 May 2009. Another massive Florida wreck more than 152 metres/500 feet from bow to stern, she’s the most southerly stop on the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail. With superstructure as shallow as 12 metres/40 feet and depths up to 43 metres/140 feet possible, the wreck has something to offer divers of many levels when conditions are favorable. Myriad fish species such as parrotfish, barracuda, snapper and deep-water pelagics cruise the wreck, which lies 11 kilometres/7 miles off Key West.
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Read more about scuba diving in Florida
Depths: Depths vary from shallow reefs in 10 metres/30 feet or less to deep wrecks in more than 40 metres/130 feet of water.
Visibility: From 10 metres/33 feet and up, affected by tide and current.
Currents: Currents can be a significant factor depending on the dive site, especially on the offshore wrecks. Check with your chosen dive center or resort.
Water Temperature: 21-31° C/69-88° F
Dive Season: Year round, can be busy in summer.
Weather: Two seasons: Hot and wet from May through October, warm and dry from November though April. Average low for July is 27° C/80° F and high is 32° C/89° F. In January, average low is 18° C/65° F and high is 24° C/75° F.
Hurricane season begins 1 June and ends 30 November. Peak hurricane activity is between 15 August and 1 October. On average, a hurricane hits the Keys only once every 4.5 years.
Access: There is excellent road access to all major dive hubs. Most of the diving in the Keys is from boats and reefs and wrecks typically lie a few kilometres/miles from shore.
Skill Level: Beginner to advanced
Scuba gear: Ideally, bring as much of your own equipment as possible. One piece, 3 mm wet suits are the norm although some divers use more rubber with hoods and gloves in winter and when diving some of the deeper offshore wrecks.
Length of Stay: All lengths of stay are catered for, the longer the better.
- Butterfly fish
- Blue tang
- Blue striped grunt
- French grunt
- Yellowtail snapper
- Horse eye jack
- Goliath grouper
- Eagle rays
Language: English spoken is throughout and is the primary language. Spanish is spoken by approximately 16 percent of the population.
Currency: US Dollar (USD)
Tipping: Tipping between 10 and 20 percent, depending on the level of service, is standard.
Key West (EYW)
Religion: About 40 percent Protestant (various denominations) and 26 percent Roman Catholic.
110-120v, 60hz with Type A and B plugs
World Electricity Standards
Entry/Exit Visas and Fees:
Valid passports and visas are required to visit the United States. Citizens of qualifying countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program do not need visas but require Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) clearance.
Visas: USA Visa Information
ESTA: ESTA website
Want to know more? Visit www.scubaearth.com for further information on thousands of dive sites, marine species, destination essentials and more.
Photo Credit [from top]: Stephen Frink, Andy Newman (2), Bob Krist, Newman, PADI, Newman, PADI (3)
Frink, Newman and Krist courtesy of Florida Keys News Bureau