My buddy, the author, G. Buck Manning, turned the big 5-0 this weekend, and we celebrated it with a dive trip to Big Pine Key. The fall is such a great time to visit the Keys. You feel like you have the entire place to yourself. So, on Friday afternoon, the four of us--Teresa, Melissa, GB and me--hopped in a jeep and made the trip down across the Overseas Highway, loaded down with dive gear to meet up with several other good friends at Parmers Resort.
Our ladies were so excited. Both have been certified SCUBA divers for a little more than a year, and the dive plan called for three tanks in the Looe Key Sanctuary Protected Area (SPA), in the "spur-and-grove" section of the reef. This type of reef system consists of coral-covered ridges of reef, divided by narrow sandy areas.
We dove with Inner Space Dive Center, which caters to small groups of no more than six divers, plus the dive guide. Corey Embree, the dive master who certified Melissa and Teresa, was part of this birthday/reunion. He helped Teresa and Melissa figure out how much weight they'd need for such a shallow drop. First dive, we descended slowly through the balmy Atlantic to the bottom, enveloped by fish, waving sea fans, and colorful stony corals.
Though there are parts of the reef that drop off into deeper water, the most spectacular coral formations are in the shallows, where there is the most light. The deepest we found ourselves was 20 feet, where Teresa hovered over the sand while she worked on her buoyancy, as well as the skills of clearing her mask and ears.
For new divers, or for divers that haven't been diving in a while, Looe Key is an ideal place to practice your skills. It's shallow, so you can easily return to the boat for more or less weight. And the sandy strip between the reef spurs are a great place get your trim down without fear of damaging of the corals.
It's also a great place to practice your underwater navigation skills. The spur-and-grove systems bascially run northeast to southwest, and are linear. If you pay attention to the current, the angle of the reef, and your compass, it's easy to find your way back to the boat and gain confidence.
Most importantly, it's a spectacular dive. Looe Key is celebrated as one of the most biologically diverse reefs in the Keys. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary lists, "62 taxa of stony corals," and "42 species of octocorals," which are soft corals such as sea whips and sea fans.
Some 500 species of fish swim in the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary. Among those I noted on these dives were two species of the wrasses known as hogfish, seven species of snappers, and three species of groupers, including a goliath grouper. Others identified were at least seven species of grunts, lots of damselfish, and myriad small wrasses.
I even found a a cleaning station, a point on the reef where the larger fish come to have small wrasses pick off their parasites. There was a large dog snapper and and a modest-sized black grouper getting a "bath" inside a hollowed out coral head. Oh, and I forgot to mention the curious barracudas and the reef shark that checked us out.
Whether you're a new diver, a diver needing experience, or an expert focused on adding marine life to your photo/video library and life list, put Looe Key on the must-dive list. We had a blast. And after diving, we let loose at the legendary No Name Pub. Big Pine Key has no shortage of great restaurants and watering holes.
See you soon in the Keys.