Diving in the Keys and Southeast Florida

By: Greg Johnston

The waters of the Florida Keys and southeast Florida are home to beautiful natural and artificial reefs, ideal for diving or snorkeling.

The Florida Keys are our islands - a place where you can hang out in paradise and still feel at home.

Here you'll find a blue-green kingdom of water breaking on the reefs, shadows of big fish cruising over a sugary-sand bottom and the ghosts of Bogart and Hemingway still present. And because you're in our islands, you'll find creature comforts like great resorts, restaurants and nightlife. Though I am quite convinced they pump more compressed air here than they do gasoline.

If I had an opportunity to organize the perfect dive trip, it would begin at Key Largo and end in Key West with an excursion to the Marquesas and over to the Dry Tortugas. In the Florida Keys, with Caribbean-like reefs, tongue-and groove coral reefs, and the Florida Keys Shipwreck Heritage Trail, one is inclined to jump out of the parade and fill a dive log with sites yet to be named.

Coral Reefs and Shipwrecks off Key Largo

Nearly a million annual visitors explore John Pennekamp State Park, part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. On my recent visit to Pennekamp, I questioned why I don't spend more time here. Too much of a good thing isn't bad. As always, I couldn't wait to get wet.

On reefs such as Molasses and French off Key Largo, I saw coral architecture that rivaled curvy art deco and great schools of fish hanging like cumulus clouds in a clear sky. I had forgotten how serene the ocean could be, but was reminded of its intensity when a big barracuda with jagged jaws appeared and the reef exploded, then subsided, fish hanging motionless once again.

Unless you've been here, it is hard to understand how fishy these waters are. The most frequently dived areas of Pennekamp are seldom deeper than 25 feet with corals rising more than 15 feet. There is a deeper side to Pennekamp including two former Coast Guard cutters, the USCG Bibb and the USCG Duane. The two vessels rest only 100 yards apart, their depths ranging from 90 to 130 feet. On Carysfort Reef and The Elbow, I found several historic shipwrecks with coral covering every available inch of the massive wreckage.

There were shallow grooves eventually falling into deeper ones, cutting into the sandy floor that gave way to a deep ocean and sweeping currents. Located east-northeast of the lighthouse is the “Carysfort Trench,” a wall of corals that slopes to nearly 80 feet and a sandy bottom. Here, large barrel sponges lie atop each other like an undersea straw market.

Later that same evening at the Christ of the Abyss statue, I made a night dive that was simply spectacular. Everywhere my night light shone, small caves came alive with curious eyes and splashes of brilliant color – hidden observers in an undersea jungle. (These reefs and the statue are adjacent to the park, just outside its boundaries.)

Diving the Thunderbolt and Sombrero Reef near Marathon

The following morning, after a good breakfast, I began the slow, winding drive along the 124-mile arch of the Florida Keys, finally stopping in the middle near Marathon. This part of the Florida Keys always seems seductive with its dazzling shades of blue, green and deep indigo.

In the shallows of the Atlantic, I imagined Spanish galleons loaded with silver and gold, emeralds and diamonds, sailing north from Havana. All but a few of these ships driven onto the reefs by unpredictable hurricanes remain hidden treasures throughout the Keys. Even with the immense deep-water ocean offshore, the captains of the Spanish armadas continuously dared the Keys' treacherous reefs.

After settling in, I joined a group of divers for a trip out to the wreck of the Thunderbolt, a 189-foot cable layer that later served as a research vessel to explore the electrical energy in lightning strikes. The local dive community purchased the Thunderbolt, originally named Randolph, and sunk it intentionally as a dive attraction on March 6, 1986, in approximately 120 feet of water, 5.5 miles south of Duck Key Channel in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Sometimes the current of the Gulf Stream meanders in and out, and when it's in, visibility can be impressive. Diving on this site is always a thrill and even on a day with poor visibility, the shipwreck is a truly striking sight.

On this day, my dive was near-perfect. The ocean was at high tide and the wreck was visible from the surface. As I finned down to the intact superstructure, surveying the wheelhouse at 75 feet, clouds of baitfish glimmered in the blue. I slowly made my way towards the ship's bow where the huge cable spool sits prominently on the foredeck. At the stern, two bronze propellers sit idle half-buried in the sandy floor.

Our second dive was planned at Sombrero Reef, a spur-and-groove coral reef with coral canyons and archways, easily visible by the high lighthouse that marks the shoal. In passages formed by large walls of star coral, I finned over thick brain corals, orange sponges and heavily encrusted purple sea fans.

Big Pine Key and Key West Deep Reefs

The following day I drove to Big Pine Key where I planned to dive at Looe Key, a National Marine Sanctuary Preservation area. This protected underwater ecosystem is reminiscent of reef structures found throughout the Bahamas. It was named after the HMS Loo (later became Looe), a British Man O`War that ran aground in 1744. Although the wreck no longer exists, the pristine reefs that lie within the sanctuary hold clues to a fossilized coral system. The larger section called the fore reef is a high profile spur-and-groove coral configuration. The deeper reefs are an impressive collection of most every type of sponge and soft coral found in the Florida Keys.

South of Big Pine, the drive on the Overseas Highway is simply spectacular. Low-lying mangrove islands scatter into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

At Key West, the atmosphere changes. It's as if you made an unplanned turn off a rural road and landed in Times Square. And it comes at you head on.

Few divers know these waters. The reason is that the area just isn't dived that much. Many dive operators will tell you that much of their business comes from snorkelers. The day I dived Sand Key, of the 20 passengers on board our dive boat, only six (including me) were divers. When the reef seemed lonely, I only needed to look up to see a dozen snorkelers looking down at me.

Most of the Key West dive sites are much like Sand Key. Depths range from less than 5 feet on the leeside to as much as 60 feet on the seaward side. The reef consists primarily of coral fingers and deep sand gullies. In many places like Western, Middle and Eastern Sambo reefs, staghorn, elkhorn and brain corals are predominant.

One special dive site is called Ten-Fathom Ledge. Located about seven miles from Key West near Sand Key, the ledge isn't typical of the deep reefs in the Florida Keys. It starts in about 30 feet of water and drops for more than 115 feet. Visibility is often exceptional here, with sightings of eagle rays and sharks commonplace.

Artificial Reefs off Miami and Fort Lauderdale

Dive below the surface along the outer reefs off Miami and Fort Lauderdale and explore a variety of artificial reefs from U.S. Army tanks to an obsolete oil platform, from concrete pyramids to a parade of ships called "wreck trek" that form a sort-of-condominium for homeless fish and their guardian, a concrete mermaid named Nikki. Like ghost ships adrift on a sea of sand, these sunken freighters quietly rest, awaiting discovery.

The Mercedes is perhaps the best-known ship sunk on purpose to begin the artificial reef building process. She rests in 90 feet of water and is always a popular dive.

Most ships sunk as artificial reefs by Dade and Broward Counties allow safe and easy penetration for divers. Remember that diving on any shipwreck requires experienced dive planning and a good knowledge of sea conditions.

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