I am always amazed, even after dozens of snorkel and dive trips in the Florida Keys, how putting my masked face into the water transports me to a different world. Ambient noise dissolves into self-contained silence. Human life disappears, and I submerge mind, body and spirit into a surreal world where nothing is as it exists above.
Even atop the water line – now that I think about it – the islands manage to take you somewhere entirely out of context with the day-to-day. It all has to do with the water everywhere. Thousands of acres of submerged coral reefs and sea-grass flats surround the Keys’ curved trail, so much like ellipses of a thought unfinished … what was I saying?
Oh right, all that water. It translates into underwater sightseeing, fishing and boating unequaled anywhere else in the United States. Literally hundreds of guides, charters, tour boats and dive shops stand ready to help you explore this amazing water world.
Snorkeling and Diving
Whether you breathe through a snorkel or regulator, you can count on enough sites to see for a lifetime. Of course, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which protects the world’s third largest barrier coral reef, is the place most visitors head to first. Bright formations of brain and staghorn coral, thousands of fish so colorful they look neon, super-sized sea turtles, moray eels and Caribbean spiny lobster keep you company as you watch from above or dive into their world.
Manmade structures add to the intrigue. At John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, the
9-foot-tall Christ of the Deep statue is a divine draw. The park offers snorkeling and diving trips to the reef, home to 40 of the 52 species of coral found in the Atlantic Ocean.
Divers find added intrigue in the Keys’ wreck dives. San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve State Park near Islamorada protects one of oldest. The 90-foot-long Spanish fleet ship sank in a 1733 hurricane; its remains and informational plaque lie in 18 feet of water.
On the Keys’ bay side, a habitat of sea grasses and mangroves hosts a much different ecosystem, including the spiny lobsters that sport divers come to hunt from August through March. That’s when everyone with something that floats gets out on the water. Visitors find diver-friendly accommodations throughout the Keys, such as at Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo.
Marinas and Boating
Marinas are the center of the Keys universe. They’re where you’ll find some of the region’s best, most colorful restaurants: Turtle Kraals in Key West, Hogfish Bar and Grill on Stock Island, Geiger Key Smokehouse on Boca Chica Key, The Lorelei in Islamorada and Snapper’s and Sundowners in Key Largo, to mention a few.
Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada has plenty of excitement going on. To start, there’s a big school of mammoth tarpons that swarms the deck, waiting for folks to feed them sardines (you can buy the fish food for $3). Like its own little town, Robbie’s has a restaurant, craft stands, snorkel boat tours, fishing trips, nature/eco tours and kayak and boat rentals. From the marina, you can catch the only tour boat sanctioned to take passengers to un-bridged Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park. Folks also rent kayaks to paddle to nearby Indian Key State Park (boat tour service is expected to resume from Robbie’s this year).
From Key West, one of the finest boating destinations is Dry Tortugas National Park, home to Fort Jefferson. Sunny Days’ Fast Cat delivers you the 70 miles in two hours for touring the fort, snorkeling, birding and camping on Garden Key, a castaway island.
Most of the Keys’ resorts cater to the boating-obsessed with marinas and tours. Hilton Key Largo Resort, for instance, offers docking at the edge of the Everglades’ Florida Bay and is home to Caribbean Watersports & Enviro Tours, which takes you in search of the birds, dolphin and crocodiles that define the Everglades experience. The resort also rents Hobie Cats and can teach you how to sail them.
Those not stalking lobsters are out in the flats coaxing the elusive bonefish, back in the mangroves baiting snapper, or hitting the deep waters for mahi-mahi, grouper and marlin.
Islamorada claims to be the “Sportfishing Capital of the World,” so you’ll find no shortage of charter captains – specializing in everything from shark- to evening-fishing. Party boats, such as the Miss Islamorada, run full-day deepwater trips for as little as $60 per person.
In the Lower Keys (and definitely lower-key than the other islands), Big Pine Key is geared to the serious, no-frills fisherman. Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge, for instance, offers camping and motel rooms around a marina where folks eat, breathe and talk fishing – any time of the day or night.
You don’t need a boat, however, to satisfy your angling urge. Take to the bridges, such as the Spanish Harbor Bridge for great tarpon fishing.
Wacky Water Sports
Down in this other world known as the Florida Keys, even the water sports get wacky. In Key West, try
Dancing Dolphin Spirits Charters, which sometimes offers rides on a water massage board behind the boat into dolphin habitat; you can’t actually swim with the dolphins, but the board simulates the motions of the graceful creatures around you. The Kitehouse, already known for its extreme kite-board surfing, has stand-up paddle surfing, where you use an oversized surfboard and an outrigge paddle to catch some of the Keys’ smallish waves.
Snuba, a hybrid of SCUBA and snorkeling, allows you to try breathing underwater like SCUBA diving without a certification course. It, along with the entire complement of water sports activities – jet-skiing, parasailing, water-skiing and wakeboarding – makes sure that everyone gets out on the water in the Florida Keys’ “kingdom of splash.”