Scuba Diving in The Florida Keys
If the only pictures that pop into your mind when someone mentions the Florida keys are Ernest Hemingway and Jimmy Buffet, you’ve got lots to learn about this idyllic chain of islands that marks the southernmost end of the U.S.
Formed during the last ice age, by the time the ice melted, a chain of islands shaped of limestone and oolite rock remained behind.
Some formations are submerged beneath either the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, while exposed rock became home to Native Americans, until explorer Juan Ponce de Leon happened upon them in 1513. He named the island chain “The Martyrs” because they looked like suffering men from afar.
It took around 300 years for the Keys to be incorporated into the state of Florida. Key West proper was settled in 1822. Since then, this archipelago of islands, has become a tourist mecca for poets and fishermen, artisans and sun worshipers.
Although there are 1700+ islands in the chain, only 43 are linked by bridges, but for scuba divers eager to explore the idyllic waters surrounding the keys, a lack of bridges in some areas doesn’t stop intrepid divers from visiting this string of islands.
Need reference points? Remember that Key Largo is closest to Miami, Marathon is in the middle and Key West is the furthest south.
A road well traveled
Thanks to that network of bridges that take motorists from the tip of mainland Florida to the last of the keys, it’s an easy drive down the Keys Overseas Highway (U.S. 1),and you couldn’t get lost if you tried.
Don’t have tons of time? You and your diving gear can fly to either Miami International Airport or Key West International Airport since direct (and connecting) flights are perpetually available from U.S. and Canada hubs. American, Delta, United and Silver Airlines take divers directly to Key west (http://eyw.com/page/flights).
Where to dive in the upper Keys
Flip flops? Check. Swim suits? Check. Gear? Maybe. Maybe not. After all, you’re heading for Scuba Diving Mecca, so you can rent everything you need at most locations. But where to go with so many awesome choices? If you’ve limited amounts of time, confine your visit to Key Largo because it’s so close to Miami.
Could you mistake Key Largo’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (https://floridakeys.noaa.gov) for diving heaven on earth? You bet. It’s home to around 30 sites offering all of the amenities a scuba diver could want. Expect meet-and-greets with oversized turtles and tread water gently if you spot reef sharks or eagle rays.
Include a stop at the wreck of the USS Spiegel Grove, a decommissioned Navy ship that serves as a favorite for divers who love to roam this 500-foot vessel that sits six miles off shore. Dive veterans swear this wreckage is so fascinating, nobody makes just one dive to the ship that rests at this 60-foot depth. Plan to see the ship’s interior? Prepare to descend 100 feet or more.
Don’t leave the upper keys without stopping in Islamorada, dedicated diver! There are more than 40 dive sites in this area–including Hens and Chickens Reef, another candidate for quirkiest nam but perhaps the most written-about is Alligator Reef, found at a depth of 110-feet depth and home to 500 species of marine life. If shallow diving is your thing, Pickles Reef is not to be missed.
Where to dive in the middle Keys
Looe Key, about five miles off Big Pine Key, is filled with spectacular examples of marine life at many depths, but tread cautiously while swimming and diving around this area because aquatic creatures and the environment are fragile. Marine wildlife experts remind visitors that this underworld belongs to them, not the divers that drop in from time to time.
Headquarter at Marathon if you feel most comfortable concentrating your dive time within a 10-mile stretch that offers some of the quaintest and most primitive jumping-off points. Included in this chain are spots with names so entertaining, you’ll want to list them in your personal logs. Included are West Sister’s Island, Fat Deer Key, Stirrup and Boot Keys, plus both Crawl and Little Crawl Keys.
In addition to filling your log book with fascinating location names, you get bragging rights if you dive this area. Both Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “True Lies” and the James Bond thriller, “License to Kill,” were filmed here to take advantage of the gorgeous scenery above and below the waterline.
Where to dive in the lower Keys
If you’ve seen photos of Rio de Janeiro’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue sitting atop Mount Corcovado and overlooking the city, you have an idea of what you can expect if you visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and dive 25-feet down to check out “Christ of the Abyss,” a beloved bronze statue that’s around 10-feet tall and a favorite stopping place for scuba divers.
Because this donated statuary found in Pennekamp Park resides in comparatively shallow waters, newbies feel comfortable in this area and they enjoy knowing that this underwater attraction is the replica of the original Christ of the Abyss, located beneath the waters of San Fruttuoso, Italy not far from Portofino.
If getting to Italy isn’t on your bucket list, seeing this one at Pennekamp park where mangrove swamps, tropical hammocks and 70 nautical square miles of marine wonders will suffice. Are you a trivia buff? Next time you chat up fellow divers, you can tell them that Pennekamp park was the very first undersea park established in the U.S.A.
Can’t get enough naval wreckage? Key West is home to another sunken ship this one a missile tracker named the USNS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg. Purposefully sunk a decade ago by government officials to create an artificial reef, enough time has passed for coral to cover the hull and for marine life to take up residence within this 524-foot vessel. You need advanced dive credentials since this ship’s depth ranges from 70 to 100 feet.
Need more convincing?
Diving in the keys offers you proximity, convenience and there’s no foreign language to learn in order to chat up the folks you meet who are likely as passionate as you are about diving. But one of the biggest benefits of all is this region’s proliferation of shallow dive spots.
Editors at the “Florida Keys News” remind readers that “Shallow Diving in the Keys Means More Bottom Time,” and isn’t that the objective of your visit? Other immediate benefits at a depth of between 20 to 30 feet? You stay safer, you could avoid decompression sickness and since more light filters into shallow waters, everything you see is brighter and more vivid. In other words, its paradise.