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Florida Keys Diving & Snorkeling
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The Florida Keys | Key Largo | Islamorada | Marathon | Lower Keys | Key West

Diving America's Historical Island Paradise

Text and Photography by Stephen Frink©

Fish teem amid the Benwood wreck.
Fish teem amid the Benwood wreck.

The spirit of marine conservation in the Florida Keys was first expressed nearly 30 years ago when politicians and scientists became concerned about the coral collection and spear fishing that threatened to decimate the pristine reef system off Key Largo. Miami Herald newspaper columnist John Pennekamp led the way with a series of stirring calls for conservation. With overwhelming public support, Florida officials established John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park America's first underwater marine preserve.

Established on December 3, 1959, Pennekamp Park transferred control of the ocean bottom out to a distance of three miles to the Florida parks system. On March 15, 1960, the reef waters beyond the three-mile limit to the edge of the Continental Shelf (200-foot depth contour) were placed under federal control. Within Pennekamp Park, spearfishing and coral collection was prohibited and the park became a model for marine sanctuaries worldwide, creating awareness that coral reefs were fragile ecosystems that required stewardship.

However, a problem of jurisdiction remained. The major reef formations of the Florida Keys lie approximately five to six miles offshore. The State of Florida, which administered the Park, could only enforce what happened in state waters out to a distance of three miles. This significant gap in enforcement was resolved in 1975 with the creation of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary under the administration of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Coral encrusts the Eagle wreck.
Coral encrusts the Eagle wreck.

NOAA had established its first national marine sanctuary to protect the historic Civil War ironclad the USS Monitor. Given the depth of the wreck and its generally inhospitable diving conditions, only a handful of technical divers had explored the site. Now NOAA was being asked to develop a new national marine sanctuary that would host thousands of recreational scuba divers each year. A whole new set of issues needed to be addressed. Managers installed a series of mooring buoys off Key Largo to avoid anchor damage to the reef. Sanctuary personnel teamed up with the crews of recreational dive boats to make sure divers understood the moral obligation they had to protect the coral by not touching it. Divers were instructed on proper buoyancy control techniques to keep them from unintentionally damaging the coral.

The National Marine Sanctuary program was further enhanced in 1981 with the designation of the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary off Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys. The 5.3-square-mile Looe Key Sanctuary created as one of President Jimmy Carter's last acts in office. It was protected with mooring buoys and new prohibitions on spearfishing and coral collection.

The Push for a Keys-Wide Sanctuary - Even with establishment of these sanctuaries, ecological threats remained to the coral formations of the Keys. Some of the major oil companies were considering exploratory drilling off the Keys. For divers and environmental groups, the loss of habitat that an oil spill might cause was horrendous to contemplate.

In the end, it was probably the grounding of three large ships in the Keys that motivated the U.S. Congress to pass the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act, which prohibited drilling and laid the groundwork for the first Keys-wide sanctuary. The three ships ran aground within an 18-day period in 1989, pulverizing large tracts of shallow water spur-and-groove coral formations.

An immediate ban on oil drilling was one of the first provisions of the new legislation. The Act also established an internationally-recognized "area to be avoided" for ships greater than 50 meters in length, to keep ships safely away from the coral reefs. Port access was available only through specially designated corridors.

Before this navigation restriction, southbound commercial ships would often hug the reef line to avoid the northbound current of the Gulf Stream. Some ships were granted exemptions from the new regulation, including a research ship that subsequently ran aground on Looe Key Reef. In general, though, the creation of the Area-to-Be-Avoided made ship groundings rare events in the Keys.

A diver photographs Joe's Tug, which lies eerily intact on the bottom.
A diver photographs Joe's Tug,
which lies eerily intact on the bottom.

Florida Sen. Bob Graham had introduced the Marine Sanctuary bill in 1990 and U.S. President George H.W. Bush signed it into law. An avid fisherman, Bush was familiar with the Keys and remains a regular visitor to Islamorada, which is famous for its bonefishing.

As Graham would later explain: "My love for the Keys has made me a strong advocate for their preservation. That is why I introduced legislation passed by Congress in 1990 that established the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary . . . by designating the area as a sanctuary, Congress protected marine animals and plants, and their habitats. Now, oil and gas drilling is forbidden, and large tankers and freighters are prohibited from getting too close to the fragile reefs. But at the same time, the law permits controlled commercial and sport fishing, diving, boating, and any other activities not injurious to the environment when performed properly."

Pillar corals provide a natural home for marine life.
Pillar corals provide a natural home for marine life.

Enacting the law was only the beginning of the sanctuary process. Sanctuary managers spent years developing a management plan that established specific zones of protection for the marine environment of the Florida Keys. Today, some areas are total replenishment zones, off limits to even scuba divers. But there are only a few such areas and they comprise a very small percentage of the Sanctuary. There are "no take" zones known as Sanctuary Preservation Areas, or "spas" in the local parlance. These areas are open to scuba diving and snorkeling, but lobstering and most types of fishing are prohibited. In most of the Sanctuary, it is still permissible to spear fish or use hook and line from a boat. Coral collection, however, is illegal everywhere.

The philosophy of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary prohibits "mining" the sea in any form. All objects, living or dead, must be left in the sea. Of course, if divers find trash on the bottom, they are welcome to bring it back to the boat for disposal, assuming it has not yet been colonized by sponges and marine life.

Geology - The coral reef is crucial to the economic vitality and quality of life in the Florida Keys today, in fact, were it not for coral reefs, these islands wouldn't be here in their present form. The geological foundation for these islands was laid during the Pleistocene Epoch as the earth cooled and the polar caps extended. This lowered the sea levels worldwide, and since corals require fairly shallow water for growth, the coral reef formed well offshore of what is now the Florida Peninsula and the Florida Keys. Then, about 150,000 years ago there was a warm period during the Pleistocene known as the Sangamon Interglacial. This probably raised sea levels 25 feet higher even than it is today, putting all of what is now the Keys under water, but in perfect range for coral reef development. This created a giant living coral reef stretching from what is now Miami all the way to the Dry Tortugas.

Those prehistoric corals were built on a limestone base, and now comprise the bedrock of the Upper Keys, while the limestone remains of the calcareous algae of the reef help make up the oolitic rock found in the Lower Keys. These reefs, now high and dry, are obvious to anyone who digs beneath the tiny bit of topsoil covering the Keys and encounters the unyielding coral rock inches below the surface.

About 5,000 years ago, during the Holocene Epoch, the Earth experienced a period of global warming. Water from melting ice caps spread over the low lying Florida Peninsula and mingled with the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. The southern tip flooded to create Florida Bay while the River of Grass known as the Everglades took shape. The ancient spine of coral that was once part of mainland Florida became the over 200 islands than now comprise the Florida Keys. Most of the islands now sit less than ten feet above the mean high tide. Offshore, the ancient reef beyond the present-day coral formations are in water too deep to support living coral.

History - The earliest residents of the Florida Keys were probably the Vescayos and Matecumbeses Indians, and later the Caloosas. These nomadic tribes traversed the Keys in small boats called pirogues. They lived on fish, turtles, manatees, and shellfish. Spanish explorers were aware of the Florida Keys. By the early 1500s, they wrote of them as "Los Martires" - the martyrs - due to their twisted and misshapen form as viewed from the sea. There was scant fresh water in the Keys, no gold, and little topsoil to invite agricultural interest. Consequently, unlike the islands of the Caribbean that had become centers of commerce by the 1600s, the Keys would remain largely unsettled by westerners for another 200 years.

This is not to say there was no settlement. Bahamians in particular immigrated to these islands during the 1700s. They carried their Bahamian traditions to their new homes, including their taste for a gastropod known as the queen conch, Strombus gigas. Eventually, people born and raised in the Keys would call themselves "Conchs", after their favorite food. In 1982, a group of Conchs declared the Florida Keys "The Conch Republic" to protest a checkpoint that the U.S. Border Patrol had set up at the entrance to the Keys. The tongue-in-cheek gesture had no legal baring, and the Florida Keys remain very much a part of the United States.

The first large settlement in the Keys was at a place the Spanish called Cayo Hueso, or Bone Island, in the early 1820s. English speakers called the island Key West. Here was the only deep water port in these islands, better even than Miami, which was hindered by the 12-foot depth of Biscayne Bay. A few homesteaders took up residence up and down the Keys, where they fished and grew melons, coconuts, and pineapples. The only inter-island transportation was by shallow-draft boat. Tropical produce was carried to Key West where it was loaded onto schooners bound for northern ports.

All this changed in 1905 when Henry Flagler, president of the Florida East Coast Railroad, decided to lay track all the way from Homestead, on the Florida mainland, across 30 of the islands of the Florida Keys and all the way to Key West. Known officially as Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railroad, and unofficially as "Flagler's Folly" or "The Railroad That Went to Sea", the railroad nevertheless would change the Florida Keys forever.

The Overseas Railroad took seven years and $27 million to build. Flagler's workers fought heat, lack of fresh water, and mosquitoes to build a series of bridges and embankments to raise the rails above the sea that surrounded these isles. The railroad operated for 23 years, but never at a profit. On September 2, 1935, a powerful hurricane brought an 18-foot tidal surge and 200 mile-per-hour winds to the Upper Keys. The storm killed an estimated 800 and derailed Flagler's railroad forever.

The railroad went into receivership, and the government bought the right-of-way and bridges (most of which had survived the hurricane intact) for just $640,000. By then the automobile was emerging as the transportation mode of choice and the Overseas Railroad became the Overseas Highway. Roadway replaced rails all the way to Key West. Were it not for groundwork laid by Flagler's enterprise, it's easy to speculate that the network of bridges that now links the Keys might not have been built. Flagler's Folly created the world's most accessible tropical paradise and made the Florida Keys "the Islands You Can Drive To".

Mile Markers - Now the automobile is so important to the commerce and lifestyle of the Florida Keys that many businesses give their addresses not by street numbers, but by "Mile Marker" numbers. U.S. #1 runs along the entire eastern seaboard, from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West. In the Keys, the miles are counted by small green "Mile Marker" signs which begin at 112 in the Upper Keys and end at mile zero in Key West. If the numbers are going up, you know you are headed away from the Conch Republic and toward the Real World.

Climate - The warm climate of the Florida Keys is one of the great attractions of the area. The region is officially located just north of the Tropic of Cancer, and so geographically speaking it is a "subtropical" region rather than a tropical region. However, the warming effects of the Gulf Stream, an oceanic current pushing warm, clear water from the Caribbean, combined with balmy trade winds, make this an island paradise that rarely gets cooler than 60 degrees.

Actually the Keys seem to have two distinct seasons. The winter, if it can really be considered as such, lasts from November through March and is characterized by average daytime highs of 80 degrees and maybe 72 degrees at night. The cold fronts that bring subzero temperatures to the northern United States have a subtler effect on the Keys. Occasionally, a sweater or jacket might be needed as the evening lows drop to 50 degrees and 60 degrees during the day.

For scuba divers, the wind is far more a factor than the cold. The water temperature in the winter ranges from 70 to 78 degrees, so a bit of neoprene can resolve any discomfort in that regard. But since the coral reefs are shallow, typically 25 to 35 feet where most of the diving happens, a heavy wind can make the diving uncomfortable. A 30 knot wind blowing from the southeast can churn 6 foot seas out on the reef, creating significant surge on the bottom, decreased visibility due to sand and particulate matter held in suspension, and making getting back on the boat challenging. Then again, some days in the winter can be slick calm with 100-foot visibility. Either can occur over the course of two weeks. The best advise is to dive when the weather is right, and enjoy the topside beauty and other attractions of the Florida Keys when the seas are too bumpy.

The summer is the season local watersports enthusiasts embrace. In the months of May through October, the days are longer, so we have more time to do what we love best, dive the Florida Keys. We may be more tied to the comfort of our air conditioners on non-dive days as the outside temperature approaches 90 degrees, but on the ocean the seas are typically calm and the water temperature ranges from the low to mid-80s. With generally milder winds and waves, the water clarity is typically quite good. If winter visibility ranges from 30 to 50 feet on average, in the summer 50 to 80 feet is a reasonable expectation. Days of 100-foot plus visibility do happen, but they are more likely to be experienced on an outer fringing reef in proximity to the flow of the Gulf Stream, or perhaps on one of the deeper shipwrecks. The Patch Reefs on the inside do not gain as much benefit from the clear waters carried with this massive oceanic current, but on an incoming tide with a slight onshore wind, the Gulf Stream can influence most of the Keys dive portfolio.

Travel Facts - Some things are obvious about travel to the Florida Keys. Since these islands are part of the United States, there are no passports or customs formalities for U.S. citizens. The currency is the U.S. dollar, and the electric service is the same familiar 110 volt 60 cycles familiar throughout the United States. English remains the primary language.

The Keys are definitely a holiday destination. A study conducted between June 1995 and May of 1996 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concluded that just over 3 million tourists came to the Florida Keys each year, and of these 2.5 million came to "recreate" as opposed to simply relaxing on shore.

Dive Infrastructure - There are scores of dive shops in the Keys, most of which are located along U.S. #1 with their familiar red and white diver-down flags proclaiming their location. There are a few shops that concentrate exclusively on dive retail and don't operate dive boats. But most of the dive operations in the Florida Keys are very involved in chartering day dive boats, typically for two tank morning and afternoon trips to the reef. Some dive operators run shops on the main highway as well as shops at marinas or on canals to provide convenient access to the Atlantic Ocean for diver customers. Some dive operations may not have a shop at all, but book their divers primarily by word of mouth referrals.

No matter how individual businesses are structured, the common denominator among the dive operators is that the best diving in the Florida Keys is done by boat. The reefs are four to six miles offshore. There is virtually no shore diving except to explore the mangroves, and given the shallow depths of the mangrove community, that is probably done as well with snorkel equipment as with scuba.

Recreational dive boat operations here in the Keys are regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard. Vessels must be certified for safety and stability, and captains will have passed specific Coast Guard tests. Most captains are professionals who take their jobs and your safety seriously. They are likely to be certified as divemasters or instructors, and be trained in both first aid and CPR. Their boats typically range in size from 25 to 65 feet. Diesel inboard engines will power most, although some use outboards. Virtually all will be equipped with VHF radios, oversize dive platforms with extended ladders, tank racks, and diver safety/convenience amenities like fresh water showers, camera rinse buckets, and oxygen. In the old days of the Florida Keys, divers were expected to carry their own tanks from the storage shed to the boat. Now the far more popular trend is to have the staff load the tanks on board instead. Nitrox is becoming more widely available throughout the Florida Keys.

Most levels of dive instruction are available here, from resort course through instructor career preparation. Especially popular is the open-water completion whereby a student will take the course work and pool sessions for scuba certification from an instructor back home, and then travel to the Keys to do the open water work. This presents the final dives on a beautiful coral reef in warm, clear water instead of a cold, muddy quarry or lake back home. Dive specialties are popular as well, with probably the most requested specialties including wreck diving, underwater photography, reef ecology, computer diving, and night diving.

Diving the Florida Keys - Scuba diving and snorkeling is clearly a part of the tradition and the future of the Florida Keys. As stated by the late Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, "nowhere is the marine environment more closely tied to the economy than in the Florida Keys. It supports over 6,000 species of plants, fishes, and invertebrates, the nation's only living coral reef that lies adjacent to the continent, and one of the largest sea grass communities in this hemisphere. . . tourists participate primarily in water related sports such as fishing, diving, boating, and other ecotourism activities. The visitors that do not participate in water related recreation have still probably been attracted to the tropical environment that characterize the Keys. The economy of the Keys directly depends upon tourism and fishing, which in turn depends on a healthy marine environment."

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