Florida Keys Diving & Snorkeling
Articles by the Experts
Expand Your Dive Experience with Specialty Certifications in The Florida Keys
Text and Photography by Stephen Frink©
The Florida Keys represents one of the world's most diverse dive destinations. With a sophisticated scuba infrastructure found throughout the Keys; in Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, the Lower Keys and Key West, visitors can easily book trips to the nearby coral reefs and wrecks just offshore. These islands are well known for their rich spur and groove coral formations, fantastic populations of tropical fish, warm and clear water, and a wealth of both natural shipwrecks and those of a more recent vintage sunk purposely as dive attractions.
Day trips to the reef to sample these underwater wonders are the primary reason divers and snorkelers travel to the Keys. While local dive operators are superbly well equipped to provide boat trips to nearby reefs and wrecks, they are also a wonderful resource for basic scuba instruction and open water completions. Actually, who wouldn't prefer to finish their scuba course in a warm, tropical environment packed with colorful and engaging reef denizens rather than in a cold and turbid quarry? However, what many visitors do not know is that many of the same activities pursued for underwater fun can lead to advanced diver training and specialty certification.
Specialty Certification - Conceived as a means to gain greater in depth knowledge about an area of specific sport diving fascination, specialty certification programs are available though PADI, NAUI, SSI, and virtually all recognized certifying agencies. While the requirements for completion may vary slightly from agency to agency, most specialty courses can easily be completed in just a day or two while on a dive holiday.
Some courses have more academic content and require time spent in the classroom, while others offer a classroom portion that can easily be completed on the boat enroute to the dive site. The common component is that the dives will be made with an instructor skilled in that specialty, and the instructor's unique knowledge and experience will enhance both the enjoyment and educational significance of the dive. Some examples of specialty classes especially popular in the Florida Keys include:
Underwater Naturalist - One of the most impressive aspects of the Florida Keys is sheer quantity and variety of fish inhabiting the reefs. A quick review of Paul Humann's excellent Reef Fish Identification text shows 628 plates of fish found in the Bahamas, the Caribbean, and Florida, and of these only 97 are identified as rare or not reported on the reefs of the Florida Keys. Nowhere else in the Western Hemisphere could promise the possibility of sighting 85% of these species, making the Keys one of the world's great fishwatching destinations.
Grunts school by the score beneath the massive arms of elkhorn corals, parrotfish cruise in prodigious numbers, and all Caribbean species of angelfish are common on these shallow fringing reefs. Most divers will recognize these familiar fish, but the Keys' coral reef also provides habitat for a myriad other species that are less recognizable but no less important to the total ecosystem. The snook, sunshinefish, Goliath grouper, sand perch, puddingwife, clown wrasse, rosy razorfish, flamefish, conchfish, sharknose goby, redlip blenny, and slippery dick are all common here, but could you find and identify them on the coral reef without guidance? As an underwater naturalist specialty diver you will be able to.
Underwater Photographer - With so much photographic potential beneath the sea, it is little wonder that underwater photography is one of the Keys' most popular specialties. Local photo pros are well skilled in teaching the intricacies of equipment ranging from the popular Nikonos V and SB105 system through the single lens reflex cameras like the Nikonos RS and housings. Underwater digital imaging is growing in popularity, and gurus of new technology will explain the unique challenges and rewards of capturing images on CCD rather than silver halide.
Classroom sessions will explain proper camera maintenance, how to make TTL systems work optimally, how to assure proper focus and exposure, techniques for approaching marine life, and how to work with models for wide angle images.
Quick one-hour print or E-6 slide film processing will help students determine what they did right or wrong, and of course digital provide even more immediate review, but the real joy of an underwater photo specialty in the Florida Keys follows the giant stride into a world of wondrous photo-ops. Imagine practicing macro photography on a reef rich with nudibranch, minute crabs, tiny cowries, or juvenile species perfectly sized for the close-up kit. Or fish photography where the Atlantic spadefish pose absolutely fearlessly and the barracuda approach with great curiosity. Here wide-angle scenics may be composed, rich with stands of high profile coral, graceful seafans, and punctuated by brilliantly colored tropical fish. Massive shipwrecks harbor giant populations of tomtate grunt, and impressive individual species of moray eel, angelfish, and trumpetfish. Everywhere beneath the Keys' sea is a photo waiting to be taken, and the photo specialty education is a great way to increase the probability that the recorded image emulates the glory of reality.
Wreck Diver - The shallow reefs of the Florida Keys have long been the bane of careless mariners. From the tragic shipwrecks of the Spanish Plate Fleet in 1733 to more recent navigational blunders, these reefs have doomed hundreds of ships over the years. Some of the historical shipwrecks like Key Largo's City of Washington from 1917 and the Benwood from 1942 have been blown apart to avoid hazard to navigation, and consequently provide safe, easy exploration in shallow water. The wreck diving specialty will help identify features that still remain on these wrecks and lend an appreciation of their historical significance, but require no special diving skills.
Other shipwrecks of the Florida Keys present an overhead environment and the potential for penetration, making the normally two day wreck dive specialty especially useful. Modern artificial reefs like the U.S. Coast Guard cutters Bibb and Duane off Key Largo, the 287-foot freighter Eagle off Islamorada, the 188-foot cable-layer Thunderbolt off Marathon, the Adolphus Busch off Big Pine Key, and Key West's Cayman Salvager and Jose all provide wonderful underwater classrooms to learn how to dive shipwrecks safely and knowledgeably.
Night Diver - It should come as no surprise that reefs as rich and prolific as those found in the Keys should provide ample fascination to the night diver. The icons of night diving such as the parrotfish in its mucous cocoon, marauding moray eels, sleeping turtles, corals with polyps extended for feeding, and bizarre macro life define the nocturnal reef here and enthrall night divers. The night dive specialty will teach students what to look for, appreciate what they are seeing, and prepare them to dive safely and efficiently while their vision is restricted to the beam of their night-light.
Of course there are far more specialty certifications that can be arranged for Florida Keys divers. Those wishing a more technical orientation to their sport may opt for the Nitrox specialty. While most of the reefs are fairly shallow, some of the deeper shipwrecks are perfect for the Deep Dive specialty. In many parts of the Keys spearfishing is permissible and the Underwater Hunter specialty can be booked. Underwater Navigation, Drift Diving, and Computer Diving are other popular specialty certifications in the Florida Keys. To become a more experienced and safer scuba diver, while at the same time enhancing the enjoyment of your dive holiday, consider specialty dive certification in the Fabulous Florida Keys.