Florida Keys Diving & Snorkeling
Articles by the Experts
The Top Ten Reasons to Dive the Florida Keys
Text and Photography by Stephen Frink©
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.