Diving and Snorkeling the Keys
Florida Keys Offer Ultimate Experience For Divers and Snorkelers
Famed around the globe, the clear, warm waters of the Florida Keys attract scores of scuba and snorkel aficionados and ocean enthusiasts annually. There’s no better place to learn how to get “up close and personal” with the undersea environment.
Vivid coral reefs teeming with exotic sea creatures, combined with a large number of trained professional snorkel/dive operators, means the Keys are a ready-made vacation paradise for those ready to jump in the water and start exploring — even as first-timers.
Snorkeling requires just a mask to see underwater, a snorkel for breathing and fins for propulsion — all easily rented or affordably purchased — and can be experienced with minimal instruction.
Scuba diving involves additional sophisticated equipment and instruction by certified professionals. Instruction generally takes one day for an introductory lesson, while comprehensive open-water certification can be accomplished within five days.
Those who want to go beyond snorkeling to breathing easily underwater without wearing dive gear or earning dive certification can try Snuba, a hybrid experience that blends the simplicity of snorkeling with the excitement and freedom of scuba diving. Snuba “divers” breathe underwater by means of a 20-foot air hose attached to an air supply that floats on a rubber pontoon raft at the water's surface. No prior diving or snorkeling experience is required.
Whether visitors indulge in scuba, snorkel or a combination of the two, the coral reefs of the Florida Keys provide spectacular scenery and an exhilarating encounter with nature.
To maintain the Keys’ status as the world’s most popular dive destination, the region’s offshore environment has been the focus of conservation efforts for decades. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, established in 1990, encompasses the coastal waters of the entire island chain from northernmost Key Largo southwest to the Dry Tortugas, a group of tiny islands 70 miles west of Key West.
Tour operators who are committed to promoting responsible and sustainable diving and snorkeling practices to reduce the activities’ impact on the Keys’ coral reefs are members of the sanctuary’s Blue Star program. Blue Star operators take the extra step to educate visitors to be environmental stewards and to interact responsibly with coral reefs in the island chain.
Keys conservation efforts advanced significantly in 1960 when widespread public support laid the foundation for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park off Key Largo. The park was named for a late Miami newspaper editor who championed local environmental preservation.
The undersea park’s adjacent waters, all incorporated in the marine sanctuary, feature the 9-foot-high Christ of the Deep, a 4,000-pound bronze statue installed as an underwater shrine. Created by Italian sculptor Guido Galletti, the statue stands on a 20-ton concrete base in approximately 25 feet of water.
A duplicate of the Christ of the Abyss situated in 50 feet of water off the coast of Italy, the Christ of the Deep was a gift to the Underwater Society of America from industrialist and undersea sportsman Egidi Cressi. It has become one of the most photographed underwater sites in the world and is a popular spot for underwater weddings.
Widely regarded as the Dive Capital of the World, Key Largo also is home to the 510-foot Spiegel Grove, a retired U.S. Navy Landing Ship Dock that’s the third-largest vessel ever intentionally sunk to create an artificial reef. An excellent multilevel dive, the huge ship attracts legions of fish and other marine life. The ship can be viewed by scuba divers, snorkelers and even glass-bottom boat passengers. The Spiegel Grove is about 6 miles off Key Largo in 130 feet of water. Several mooring buoys provide convenient tie-off points for boaters.
Experienced scuba divers also can explore two vintage sister Coast Guard cutters, the Bibb and the Duane, sunk as artificial reefs off Key Largo in 1987. Positioned just south of Molasses Reef, the 327-foot vessels rest on white sand in 120 feet of water. It is recommended to dive either of the wrecks with a Keys-based dive-charter operator.
Renowned for a massive population of tropical marine life, Islamorada offers a wide variety of shallow coral reefs with spur-and-groove channels, mini walls, shipwrecks and even an underwater habitat for scientific research called the Aquarius.
High-profile coral heads and broad ledges shelter huge congregates of French grunts and goatfish, while regal queen angelfish casually graze amid the reef recesses.
A sunken Spanish galleon that dates back to 1733 is the focus of the San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve off Islamorada. Little remains of the wreck after more than 285 years underwater, but it’s still a favorite of snorkelers and divers. Seven concrete cannon replicas and an 18th-century ship's anchor were added by curators to enhance the site’s atmosphere.
Crystalline waters off Marathon are flush with extensive spur-and-groove coral formations and well-developed, heartily populated patch reefs that demand hours of exploration. Marathon’s most popular underwater attraction, Sombrero Reef, is marked by a large lighthouse tower that’s more than 150 years old. Coral canyons, archways and coral heads are splayed out like fingers among sand spits, providing refuge for burrowing stingrays, reef fish like sergeant majors, blue tang, grunts, snapper, silver-streaked barracuda, resident moray eels and the occasional reef drifters, sea turtles.
Sombrero Reef and nearby Coffin’s Patch reef, running northeast and southwest in less than 30 feet of water, are designated specially protected areas, or SPAs, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Wreck divers don’t want to miss the wreck of the Thunderbolt, a 188-foot cable layer that served as a research vessel for exploring the electrical energy in lightning strikes.
The Lower Keys are noted for Looe Key Reef, home to large numbers of reef fish and rated by many as among the most spectacular shallow-water dive experiences possible. Looe Key also is the site of the unique annual Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival that promotes reef preservation.
Just west of Looe Key lies the 210-foot island freighter Adolphus Busch Senior, an artificial reef that’s a popular dive site as well as a habitat for marine species.
Key West, replete with luxurious resorts, fine dining and noteworthy shopping, also offers nearby offshore reefs for snorkelers and wrecks that are frequented by area dive-charter operators.
The reef is approximately 6 miles offshore, and charter trips often include two “captain’s-choice” shallow reef sites for the best snorkeling and/or dive experience. Sand Key is one of the many popular reef destinations off Key West. This islet, marked by a large iron lighthouse, delights both snorkelers and scuba divers with its abundance and variety of coral and marine life.
Southernmost shipwreck sites include the 75-foot-long Joe’s Tug, which rests in 65 feet of water surrounded by coral formations; the Cayman Salvager, a 185-foot Coast Guard buoy tender that provides diving opportunities at 70 to 90 feet; and the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, the world’s second-largest vessel ever sunk as an artificial reef. The Vandenberg, which lies in nearly 150 feet of water 7 miles off Key West, is recommended for advanced and wreck-certified divers.
For scuba enthusiasts seeking continued education in the sport, many dive operators in the Florida Keys offer advanced, rescue and professional instructor training programs, in addition to specialty certifications in underwater digital photography, coral restoration, fish identification, deep-water technical diving and more.
And divers with a passion for the marine environment can participate in hands-on coral restoration activities. They can join scientists with Key Largo’s Coral Restoration Foundation, Mote Marine Laboratory and its Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration in the Lower Keys and Islamorada’s coral conservation organization, I.CARE.
While the vast majority of divers will never need it, the Florida Keys have a custom-built hyperbaric chamber at Mariners Hospital in Tavernier. The facility comfortably accommodates five patients at once for the treatment of decompression illness. Patients can listen to music or watch television while being treated.
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS
Florida Keys diving information: fla-keys.com/diving
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