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Dream Dive Tour of the Florida Keys

Moray Eel
A moray eel bares its teeth for the camera.

Text and Photography by Stephen Frink©

Five miles offshore from the Florida Keys lies a string of natural coral reefs and shipwrecks that I have spent years exploring and photographing.

Scuba divers have so many choices in the Keys that figuring out which reef areas to visit can be daunting. To help you plan your vacation, I have written the following virtual tour of our dive sites based on my personal impressions.

First, imagine you've arrived in South Florida in time for the weekend and you're ready to explore.

Saturday - Key Largo is the first key you will come to as you drive south on U.S. 1, known as the Overseas Highway in the Keys. The numerous red and white "diver down" flags displayed on buildings and shops tell you you've arrived at a serious dive destination. Amazingly, you are only about an hour drive from the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area.

To help you find your way around, you should know that most businesses in the Keys identify their locations by mile-marker numbers. When you reach Key Largo, you'll be at mile marker 110 or so. The miles count down as you go south, until you reach mile marker zero in Key West.

At mile marker 102.5, you'll see the entrance to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. There is a popular beach and marina here, but the real appeal of this decades-old marine preserve lies seaward. As you head offshore, you'll pass uninhabited mangrove islands, winding creeks and shallow reefs. These areas provide marine nurseries for the large coral-reef formations offshore.

Porkfish and grunts gather at the World War II Benwood wreck.

Pennekamp State Park ends three miles offshore, which is where the 2,700-square-mile Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary begins.

There are dozens of terrific dive sites along the 26 miles of spur-and-groove coral reef off Key Largo. Most of the sites are marked by convenient mooring buoys.

A good way to start your vacation might be by arranging a dive trip to Molasses Reef. This reef is known for its high-profile coral heads, consistently clear water, and abundant marine life. There are plenty of buoyed dive sites along this reef, and one of my favorites is Fire Coral Caves. Here, schools of blue-striped and small-mouth grunts decorate the top of the coral ridge. Atlantic spadefish and copper sweepers swim through caverns and ledges.

Next, you might visit the Benwood wreck, a victim of World War II that now rests in just 25 to 45 feet of water. The ship's twisted and scattered wreckage provides a refuge for massive schools of goatfish, grunt, and porkfish.

More advanced divers might want to tour the world-famous Spiegel Grove, sunk in June 2002. This 510-foot former U.S. Navy transport ship, called a Landing Ship Dock, is the largest vessel ever intentionally sunk to cultivate a coral reef. It's now a marquee destination for wreck divers. Since this is a deeper dive, the Spiegel Grove should be the first dive of a day spent off Key Largo.

Sunday - A good way to spend Sunday morning might be with a dive to the Christ of the Abyss statue found at a reef area known as Key Largo Dry Rocks, which is lies offshore from Pennekamp Park. This 9-foot-tall bronze statue of Christ was sculpted with its arms outstretched, as if to beckon divers and snorkelers to this underwater world. The statue has become the most famous symbol of the Pennekamp Park area but the reef surrounding the statue is just as fascinating for its friendly marine life.

Next, you might visit the Elbow, an area noted for its clear water and combination of natural reef and wrecks. A good choice would be to explore the City of Washington wreck, where local dive operators have handfed barracuda and moray eels so often that they are now tame photo subjects.

An angelfish fills the field of view at Molasses reef.

Monday - You might be ready to tackle something a little different. Try the thrill of a dive to the Eagle wreck off Islamorada. The local community sank this 287-foot freighter as an artificial reef in December, 1985. The Eagle settled on its starboard side in 110 feet of water. In the years since, the Eagle has acquired a colorful cloak of encrusting sponge and coral, while her holds are filled with tomtate grunts and sardines.

Davis Reef is a perfect second dive, not only because its 25-foot depth is a safe counterpart to the deeper, multi-level profile of the Eagle, but also because it is so rich with marine life. Here, schoolmaster snapper and goatfish intermingle with grunts in clusters so thick the reef is nearly obscured. Nurse sharks are found beneath the coral ledges and green morays make willing photographic subjects.

Tuesday - Driving south brings you to Marathon, the small city at the mid-point of the Florida Keys island chain. The waters off Marathon are home to the wreck of the Thunderbolt, a 188-foot cable layer that later served as a research vessel. The local dive community purchased the Thunderbolt and sank it in March of 1986 in 115 feet of water. The Thunderbolt sits perfectly upright with large angelfish patrolling its decks and barracuda standing watch in its wheelhouse.

Marathon boasts plenty of high-quality shallow reef dives, but I especially like Coffin's Patch. Here, a series of six reef formations lies at depths of 15 feet to 28 feet. In one area, majestic elkhorn corals are easily explored by both scuba divers and snorkelers. In another area, robust pillar corals extend their polyps in an unusual daytime feeding ritual. And through it all, a diverse population of tropical-reef fish hides amid the coral canyons.

Wednesday - No trip to the Florida Keys would be complete without a visit to the stunning Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary off Big Pine and the Lower Keys. Established as a National Marine Sanctuary in 1981, the Looe Key reef is now part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It comprises just 5.3 nautical miles square, but amid this underwater paradise is a virtually complete reef ecosystem. This reef has been protected for decades from spear fishing and lobstering, and so marine life abounds. The fore reef offers a spur and groove coral formation with deep sand surge channels and high profile coral canyons rising to within 10 feet of the surface. There are sea grass meadows here, as well an intermediate and deep reefs. This jewel in the crown of the National Marine Sanctuary certainly merits at least a two-tank dive.

Wreck-dive enthusiasts might also want to visit the Adolphus Busch. This 210-foot island freighter was sunk intentionally off the Lower Keys on December 5, 1998. It now reigns as one of the most popular sites in the region.

Thursday - The dive opportunities off Key West will surprise and delight. A 500-pound jewfish is occasionally sighted in the holds of the 180-foot Cayman Salvager, a retired buoy tender intentionally sunk in April of 1985 in 100 feet of water. Green moray eels are found here. Amberjacks and barracuda commonly parade along the outer decks.

The shallow spur-and-groove formations of Nine Foot Stake permit divers to observe individual tropical reef fish, as well as schools of grunt and blue tang swimming among pristine brain and star corals.

Friday - On this last day of your dive holiday, it might be best to return to the area of the Keys you most enjoyed earlier in the week. Maybe you'd like to stay in Key West to dive the wreck of Joe's Tug or dive the shallow reef along Western Sambos.

Looe Key would definitely deserve a return visit off Big Pine and the Lower Keys.

Off Marathon, there are fascinating dives like Sombrero Reef and the Duck Key Wreck yet to be enjoyed.

From Islamorada, you could dive the drop-off known as Conch Wall or dive around the Aquarius underwater research habitat that now attracts schooling fish and barracuda as if it were an artificial reef.

Back in Key Largo, you might dive on the wrecks of the U.S. Coast Guard cutters Bibb and Duane. A return visit to the massive Spiegel Grove is definitely in order.

Wherever you choose to spend your final day in the Keys, I'm certain you'll leave wishing for more bottom time.

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Show me diving/snorkeling in:
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