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The Top Ten Reasons to Dive the Florida Keys

Text and Photography by Stephen Frink©

Coral Reef Diving

Diving Florida Keys
Year after year the Florida Keys draw huge numbers of visiting scuba and snorkel enthusiasts from all over the world to experience their gorgeous coral reefs, shipwrecks, and tropical ambiance. Since the very beginning of the recreational dive industry, the Florida Keys have been revered as one of the world's most popular dive destinations. The reasons why are as myriad and diverse as the fish on their reefs, but here are ten excellent reasons to consider the Florida Keys when planning a future dive holiday:

  1. Accessibility - The Florida Keys are affectionately known as The Islands You Can Drive To, an appellation that speaks to the obvious fact that the main islands are connected to the Florida mainland by a system of roadway and bridges known as the Overseas Highway. Historically the highway, also known as U.S. #1, evolved from the old railroad bed of Henry Flagler's "Railroad That Went to Sea". The Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway connected 30 of the 200 islands that comprise the Keys, operating for 23 years until a horrendous hurricane in 1935 wiped it out. The railroad was never rebuilt, but by 1938 the bridges and embankments were critical components of the new highway and the era of automobile tourism to the Florida Keys was launched.

    The Overseas Highway has been renovated continuously since that time, and today it is safe and scenic. The southbound motorist can look out the left window to see the turquoise expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, and from the right view the emerald green of Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Engineering wonders like the Seven Mile Bridge connecting the Middle and Lower keys make this one of America's most unique drives.

  2. Christ of the Abyss
    Climate - A variety of climactic phenomena conspire to make the Florida Keys warm and appealing the year round. In terms of location, the Keys are situated just 70 miles to the north of the Tropic of Cancer, the line of demarcation for the "tropics". This southerly setting provides temperatures ranging from 80 to 90 degrees in the summer, and an average of 72 to 84 degrees during the winter. While much of the country is gripped in the icy embrace snow, sleet, and slush; palm trees, warm breezes, and watersports are the order of the day in the Florida Keys.

    Other factors that make the weather here among the most favorable anywhere in the United States include the minimal land mass and the effects of the Gulf Stream. Because the islands are relatively small, they don't attract the inclement weather that might be found farther up the Florida mainland. Even Miami gets far more rain than the Keys, making weather forecasts broadcast from Miami fairly inaccurate for gauging daily conditions along these emerald isles. The Gulf Stream is a massive offshore current that brings warm and clear water past the Keys from the Caribbean and the Bahamas. The prevailing onshore wind helps keep the air temperatures consistently balmy, and the cleansing current of the Gulf Stream helps maintain the crystalline water clarity for which the Keys are famous.

  3. Children Snorkeling
    Familiarity - Even though the "Conch Republic" likes to think of itself as a separate entity from the rest of the United States, the reality is that passports are not required, the language is English, the currency is the U.S. dollar, and the electric current is the same 120 volts/60 cycles found everywhere else in North America. In many comforting ways the Florida Keys will feel like home, but in the significant way of a tropical dive getaway, these islands are like none other.

  4. Marine Conservation - The Florida Keys have long set the world standard of marine conservation and ecological concern. In the late 1950s, when too much spearfishing and coral collection began threatening the wondrous coral reef off Key Largo, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was created to preserve this amazing resource. Then in 1975, the area of protection was enhanced with the creation of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. By 1981 one of jewels of the Lower Keys reef tract was protected under the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary legislation, and then in 1990 the entire Florida Keys, including 2,600 square nautical miles of ocean, was established as a marine preserve under the direction of the Florida keys National Marine Sanctuary.

    Specific zones of use are designed to assure maximum recreational access to the coral reefs off the Keys. In some areas it will still be possible to spear fish or engage in other "consumptive" activities, but other areas will be set aside as marine nurseries and "no-take" refuges. Mooring buoys help eliminate the hazard of misplaced anchors dragging through the fragile corals, and staff aboard charter dive boats do their best to assure that scuba divers look but don't touch. All of which will help assure that the continental United States' last remaining coral reef can still be enjoyed by our children's children.

  5. Snorkeling the coral reef
    Marine Life - It is a corollary of a conservationist mind set that marine life has flourished along these coral reefs. Whereas many countries have sold out their future to foreign fishing fleets and the desperation of destructive practices like fish traps and gill nets, in the Florida Keys gigantic schools of grunt still cluster under the branching arms of elkhorn and curious angelfish swim ever closer to peer at their reflection in the camera's dome. The fish population is both diverse and plentiful. For an underwater photographer, the fact that these fish are used to divers and tolerate a close approach is another tremendous advantage.

  6. Shipwrecks - As astounding as the coral reefs may be, they are not the only reason to come dive the Florida Keys. Shipwrecks abound, both of a historical nature and those sunk more recently to serve as artificial reefs and dive attractions.

    Wreck being sunk
    The shallow reefs off the Keys have long been the bane of careless mariners, and while many of the remnants of the era of wooden sailing ships left little behind but piles of ballast (and of course significant treasure as in the case of the Atocha), more recent wrecks like the World War II casualty Benwood are steel hulled, providing an enduring refuge for marine life and a point of attachment for coral and colorful sponge. There is also an ever-increasing fleet of ships sunk purposely to entertain visiting divers. The Eagle off Islamorada, the Thunderbolt off Marathon, the Cayman Salvager and Joe's Tug off Key West, and the U.S. Coast Guard cutters Bibb and Duane off Key Largo each host thousands of visiting divers each year. Each ship has its own fascinating history and offers exciting and unique dive potential.The 510-foot Spiegel Grove was sunk off Key Largo in May of 2002 at a cost of more than $1.25 million and 8 years of hard work by the local dive community. On May 27, 2009 , the ex-military missile-tracking ship, the USNS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg that once tracked space launches off Cape Canaveral, Fla., and monitored Soviet missile launches during the Cold War, was added to the list of military vessels purposely sunk off the Florida Keys to become artificial reefs, thus preserving a bit of U.S. history. The ship is now the second largest vessel in the world ever purposely sunk to become an artificial reef. The sinking marks the southernmost addition to the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail.

  7. Resort Infrastructure - A tremendous variety of lodging options has evolved to care for the huge number of tourists that visit the Keys each year. Familiar chain hotels (although imbued with a distinctive Keys character), upscale waterfront resorts, intimate guesthomes, campgrounds, condominiums, and small motels all cater to the specific needs of the traveling diver. In fact, so great are the options, a call to the local dive shop might be prudent to see if a dive/lodging package might offer significant savings in terms of price and convenience.

  8. Dive Professionalism - The dive shops of the Florida Keys are among the best in the world. Their boats and captains are U.S. Coast Guard certified to assure optimal safety for the four to six mile ride offshore to visit these reefs and wrecks. All levels of dive instruction are offered, from resort courses and basic open water certification all the way through specialty courses and advanced training. It is even possible to become a dive instructor here in the Florida Keys. The shops offer all the latest, including Nitrox and rebreather technology, and their retail offerings are comprehensive and eclectic.

  9. Southernmost Point in Key West, Florida
    Activities for non-divers - Unlike many destinations where non-divers are relegated to tedious hours ashore, here in the Florida Keys non-divers can shop, lounge on the beach, visit museums, fish, sightsee, enjoy nature walks, or participate in a huge variety of other watersports, including waverunners, parasails, or ocean kayaks. Given the quality of the shallow reef, there are wondrous opportunities for snorkelers. And given the quality of the dive instructors here, this is a perfect place to try scuba for the first time in resort course, or even take the plunge for full certification. Just because you arrive as a non-diver, there is no reason you have to go home that way.

  10. Special Events - Throughout the year the Florida Keys hosts a variety of special events of interest to traveling divers ranging from the Underwater Music Festival at Looe Key to the Digital Shootout in Key Largo. Ask your local dive operator for a schedule of events, or click on the on-line Calendar of Events at the top of this web page. You can also dial (800) FLA-KEYS for more information.

 


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