Florida Keys Diving & Snorkeling
Florida Keys Diving – Some come for the sun, some come for the fishing, and some come because it’s the only set of tropical islands in the United States. The Florida Keys beckons all types of folks, but those who dive consider this a special mecca, a not-to-be-missed diving destination on the circuit. Primo reason: the reef. It’s the longest reef in the region, and the only reef in this part of the world.
The coral reef stretches all along the Florida Keys and parallel to them. In Key Largo, the reef is only about four miles from shore, and all the way out to Key West it’s never more than seven miles from the land, and certainly always accessible by boat from any of the Keys.
Beyond Key West, the reef makes its way to the Dry Tortugas, where it finally ends. It’s really the main attraction of Key Largo, where the clear waters of the Gulf Stream make it one of the best snorkeling and dive spots in the world. Divers come here from all over the world and many of Key Largo’s resorts cater specially to divers. The proximity of the reef is really what makes the Florida Keys special, and no matter how you choose to enjoy the reef, either by diving or snorkelling or just passing over it in a boat, you will feel grateful that you came to see this natural wonder.
The Coral Reef
Coral reef is one of the most ancient and intricate life forms, existing in symbiotic relationships with a huge variety and amount marine life. Because of the huge number of different species forming the little mini ecosystem of the reef, it’s one of the most complex systems in the world. There are just so many players here that who knows what is happening amongst all those fish, eels, coral, urchins, you name it.
The reef protects the Florida Keys from pounding waves of the ocean, which by the way is why there are no natural beaches in the Keys. There are no pounding waves to erode the rock away and create sand. The reef is formed by coral polyps, which feed on plankton. The gorgonians are corals that are flexible like the sea fan. Sea fans are easy to spot because they are common and because they are a deep royal blue and well, they do look like tree-fans. Kind of. The hard corals are the brain, the elkhorn, and the staghorn coral. Find examples of these at Carysfort Reef in Key Largo.
The hard reef is actually dead coral polyps, upon which the modern, living coral lives and feeds. Don’t touch the coral (bacteria, laws) and don’t harm it in any way. You cannot harvest the coral because you would be breaking the law. Often you’ll see snorkel trips to the reef, where a giant boat hitches up to a buoy and dozens of geared-up snorkelers spill out into the water. Within minutes of reaching the reef, you can almost bet your money you’ll see at least one person standing up, feet planted right on the coral reef. It’s wrong, wrong, wrong. The coral reef is protected, and if you see coral for sale in gift shops, it will have been imported from other countries that have reefs but apparently don’t care about protecting them.
Spend hours swimming among the sea life and enjoying the sun and sand of the tropical paradise that is the Keys. You can take your own boat, rent a boat, or hire a charter service to take you to the reef or wreck of your choice. Dive shops freckle the island chain—there are more dive shops here per square mile than anywhere else worldwide—so you’re never far from a reputable outfitter.
Consider diving first in daylight, and then heading out again under the darkness of night, when different fish are active. Don’t touch or disturb any of the corals as they’re easily damaged, and removal of coral, including broken or dead branches, is illegal throughout the 2,800 square nautical miles of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Certified divers can choose from a number of gorgeous diving locations:
Location / MM
|Looe Key||Big Pine / 29||Novice – Advanced||24º32.70 81º24.50||HMS Looe|
|Molasses Reef||Key Largo / 97||Novice||25º01.00 80º22.53||#1 Dive Site|
|Sombrero Reef||Marathon / 45||Novice||24º37.50 81º06.50||Coral Bridge|
|Christ of the Deep||Key Largo / 108||Novice||25º07.45 80º17.80||Submerged Statue|
|French Reef||Key Largo / 103||Novice – Advanced||25º02.06 80º21.00||Caves & Fish|
|Thunderbolt||Marathon / 57||Advanced||24º39.48 80º57.90||Ship 120 ft. deep|
|Alligator Reef||Islamorada / 80||Intermediate||24º50.72 80º36.93||Wreck from 1825|
|The Elbow||Key Largo||Novice||Three Wrecked Ships|
|Carysfort||Key Largo / 116||Novice – Intermediate||25º13.80 80º12.74||HMS Winchester|
|Marquesas||Key West / NA||Intermediate||24°33’ 82°09||25 nmi offshore|
|Adolphus Busch||Cudjoe/Big Pine/ 24||Advanced||25º02.06 80º21.00||Giant Grouper|
|Little Conch Reef||Islamorada / 96||Intermediate||24º56.51 80º28.55||Fan Corals|
Divers who don’t want to surface can lodge at Jules’ Undersea Lodge off Key Largo, the world’s first underwater hotel. A converted marine research lab, outfitted with all the modern amenities, now accommodates overnight guests beneath the protected waters of the emerald Lagoon. Newbies can enroll in a three-hour introductory course before heading through the mangroves, and full certification classes are also offered. Contact (305) 451-2353 for details and reservations.
Snorkeling & Hookah Diving
You can snorkel just about anywhere, except posted marine sanctuary areas and, of course, in boat traffic lanes. Many shipwrecks are in shallow waters quickly accessible via a short charter boat ride offshore. Even those who snorkel at the beach will see dozens of species of fish, conchs, rays, and marine vegetation—Bahia Honda, directly north of the Seven Mile Bridge, is an excellent beach for first-time snorkelers. Another popular snorkeling area is the Grecian Rocks off Key Largo, where the waters are calm and the fish and corals bright and abundant.
Hookah is the sort of diving you might associate with Jules Verne and his 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea novel, and reasonably so. Hookah divers need no certification, and can spend up to two hours submerged while tethered to their boat by a long hose that supplies air. Several different charter companies offer hookah instruction and day trips.
Florida Keys Sea Life
There are over 600 species of aquatic creatures in the waters surrounding the Keys, and many more if you include the sea birds, marine plants, and amphibians like giant sea turtles, which divers frequently see around shipwrecks and natural reef formations. Some of the highlights include:
• Dolphins & Porpoise
• Moray Eels
• Jewfish (giant grouper)
• Marlin & Sailfish
• Pilot Whales
• Sharks: Nurse, Blacktip, Hammerhead, and others
• Rays: Leopard, Cow, Manta, Stinging, and more
See the Sea without Leaving Land
Visitors who’d rather remain grounded during their visit can still experience much of the indigenous aquatic wonders. (These are also good opportunities for divers who failed an up-close meeting with a shark or ray). The Key West Aquarium at Mallory Square offers tours and shark feeding shows, as well as displays of most of the indigenous marine critters. Call (800) 868-7482 for times and tickets.
Theater of the Sea on Islamorada is an adventure park centered around marine mammals and features daily dolphin and sea lion shows. Swim with dolphins, sea lions, or even stingrays. Relax on a “bottomless boat” ride or on the beach along the lagoon. Open year-round; call (305) 664-2431 for information & reservations.