Where to Experience Great Scuba Diving in the Florida Keys
By Kevin Mims
The waters off the Florida Keys aren’t quite like anywhere else in the world. Consider the numbers: nearly 3,000 square nautical miles of marine sanctuary, home to 6,000 marine species, a shipwreck trail with nine historic wrecks (and, off the trail, an estimated 1,000 shipwrecks total), and the third-largest barrier reef in the world.
Whether you’re an experienced diver or a novice, have a beginner's certification or a more advanced one, whether you want to see man-made wonders or the biodiversity that comes from reefs thousands of years old, the Keys are a scuba diving paradise.
Here are seven of the best places for scuba diving in the Florida Keys.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Key Largo
No diving trip to the Keys would be complete without a day (or three) exploring the waters of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, where divers can experience the colorful, living coral reef and see the famous Christ of the Abyss, an 8.5-foot-tall replica of the bronze cast of Jesus Christ in the Mediterranean sea, submerged offshore in about 25 feet of water. Scuba diving tours and rentals are available directly through the park.
Molasses Reef, about six miles from Key Largo, is known for its abundance of living coral and tropical fish. Divers here may also come face to face with massive goliath grouper, a physically imposing yet harmless and critically endangered species. The reef’s vibrant marine life and ease of access make it one of top dive and snorkel locations in the Keys. Several dive shops, including Sea Dwellers Dive Center, offer guided dives to Molasses Reef from Key Largo.
One mile south of Molasses Reef lies the Duane, a United States Coast Guard cutter and a top wreck dive for advanced divers. The 327-foot vessel, rich in U.S. military history in times of both war and peace, rests upright in 120 feet of water. In the 1980s, prior to its sinking in 1987, the Duane served to bring Cuban refugees numbering in the thousands to Florida. Divers can spot the mast at 60 feet, the superstructure deck at 90 feet, and the main deck at 100 feet. Trips to see the Duane are available with Sea Dwellers Dive Center.
From the surface, Sombrero Reef can be spotted by its historic lighthouse that stands 140 feet high, 3.5 nautical miles from Boot Key. Under the surface, the reef is a mostly shallow, watery dreamland of color owing to a vast array of coral—elkhorn, fire, starlet, pillar, sea fans, and more—and fish species, including spotlight, rainbow, and princess parrotfish, damselfish, and angelfish. Boat trips, guides, and gear rentals are available through Tilden’s Scuba Center and A Deep Blue Dive.
Boulder coral, pillar coral, lobsters, eels, and jacks are some of the species divers can find along the group of six patch reefs that make up Coffins Patch, 3.5 miles east of Key Colony Beach. With depths of 10 to 40 feet, this area is frequented by advanced and novice divers alike. It’s also just a mile away from the Thunderbolt wreck, a deep, advanced dive. A Deep Blue Dive offers rentals and dive trips to Coffins Patch.
With depths between seven and 30 feet, Looe Key is a mostly shallow dive and brimming with life, from tiny tropical fish to goliath grouper weighing hundreds of pounds to graceful rays and fan coral swaying with the current. The Key, about six miles from Ramrod Key and southwest of Bahia Honda State Park, is entirely submerged and full of marine species. There is much to see, and visibility can be more than 90 feet. Scuba trips are available through Looe Key Reef Resort and Dive Center.
USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg
At 522 feet long, the United States Navy Ship General Hoyt S. Vandenberg is the second-largest ship ever intentionally sunk to create an artificial reef. The 13,000-ton Vandenberg lies seven miles south of Key West at a depth of 165 feet, drawing divers from around the world to explore the seemingly endless spaces within the ship, including 11 elevator and cargo hold shafts and 18 stairwells. Adventure Watersport Charters and Lost Reef Adventures are among dive shops that offer trips to the Vandenburg site.