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  • Florida Keys

The Florida Keys are a 120 mile long chain of islands that begin at the very bottom of Florida's mainland. They are often referred to as America's Caribbean. This chain of coral islands is legendary for its lore of pirates and sunken treasure, but today countless visitors have discovered the real treasure of Florida Keys lies just offshore, its world-class diving and snorkeling. The waters offshore offer some of the best diving in the world.

 

The islands are surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. The Keys offer some of the finest fishing and diving in the world and are the home of the only living Coral Reef in the Continental United States. This teeming backbone of marine life runs the length of the Keys about five miles off offshore.

 

Most dive sites are equipped with convenient mooring buoys to save the reef from anchors and make it easy for boaters to tie off. Most sites are a short boat ride from the islands, where dozens of highly professional dive operators are ready to cater to you.

 

The locals generally group the islands into five areas. Each area actually includes several islands and several small communities.

 

Key Largo is the first island south of the Florida mainland, and Key West is approximately 100 miles south of Key Largo. In between are the beautiful islands of Islamorada, Long Key, Marathon, Big Pine Key and many more. Key Largo is about a 1 1/2 hour drive from Miami Airport and Key West is roughly another 2 hours’ drive.

 

While visiting the keys, you'll quickly note that most locations are defined by a curious "MM" designation. For example, John Pennekamp park is a MM 102. The MM stands for "Mile Marker". Mile markers are the small green signs on the side of the road that represent the mile number along the overseas highway (US 1). Mile markers go lower as you go further south. The beginning of Key Largo is located at mile marker 110. Key West begins at mile marker 8.

 

  • Keys Dive Sites:

     

    Christ of the Abyss:

    Christ of the Abyss is an 8 1/2 foot, 4,000 pound bronze sculpture of Jesus Christ that stands in 25 feet of water off of Key Largo, Florida.

     

    Spiegel Grove:

    The largest vessel ever intentionally sunk is the USS Spiegel Grove, a 510-foot landing ship dock. To give a better visual understanding of the immensity of this ship, she is roughly equivalent in length to two football fields. The Spiegel Grove was named after President Rutherford B. Hayes's Ohio estate and was launched in 1955. She was later cleaned and sunk in 2002 in 130-feet of water near Dixie Shoals in Key Largo. Depths range from 60 to 130 feet with the majority of the ship lying between 80 and 90 feet. The sinking of the Spiegel Grove is an extraordinary tale. Her sinking was scheduled for Friday, May 17, 2002 at approximately 2:00pm. However, she had a mind of her own and prematurely began to sink, rolled over, and remained upside down for several days with her bow protruding from the water. A salvage team managed to fully sink the vessel three weeks later, but she came to rest on her starboard side rather than keel-up as hoped. Later efforts to right the ship failed despite the best efforts of all involved, including two very determined tugs. Then three years later, much to the surprise of the entire diving community, Hurricane Dennis righted the 510-foot ship with seas over 20 feet and a driving current. She know rests keel-up, fully dignified and ready for new adventures! The Spiegel Grove is the backbone of the artificial reef system that has formed in this area. Algae, sponges and coral mingle with 130 species of fish to create enormous biodiversity in this region. Divers may see Goliath Grouper, barracuda, large jacks, and a large colony of gobies. Mooring buoys allow divers an easy tie-in and a steady hold. The lines are attached to the ship and allow divers to travel down them until they reach the hull. This is a very popular site. Divers will need multiple dives to become oriented and it may take countless dives for one to be able to experience all that this massive vessel has to offer. This is a great dive for using multi-level diving techniques and offers an incredible opportunity for exploration and excitement.

     

    The Bibb Wreck:

    This wreck is near the Molasses reef around 6 miles offshore at MM 100 in the Florida Keys. The Bibb was built in 1937. She is 327 feet long, with a 41 foot beam. She served in patrols and convoy escort duties as well as the battle for Okinawa in WWII.  A group of dive shops and other organizations arranged for the Bibb and the Duane (the Bibb's sister ship) to be stripped and prepared as artificial reefs and dive sites. The doors were removed above the main deck and the lower compartments were sealed. Both ships were sunk in 1987.The Bibb sits on its side in 130 feet of water.  Because the current is usually very bad here and the fact that the wreck is on its side in 130 feet of water which could cause vertigo, the Bibb is not visited by local dive shops very often.  And it is imperative that only advanced divers try this dive.  It could be very dangerous.   There are 2 buoys - one at the bow and one at the stern.  Divers should always descend and ascend holding onto the line because the current is usually very strong and you could, quite literally, be swept away to sea.

     

    This dive site is for advanced or technical divers only.

     

    Molasses Reef:

    This is arguably the most beautiful collection of reefs in all of Florida! Rather than a single site, Molasses is an extensive reef complex with diving depths from about 10 feet to more than 70. At depths ranging from 10-40 feet, Molasses Reef features high profile spur and groove coral formations. At 40-60 feet down, seaward sand chutes separate a gently sloping hard flat bottom adorned by hard and soft corals, along with a variety of sponges. The "drop-off" begins in the 50-60 foot range, and extends downward at various angles to the 70-100 foot range. Excellent drift diving can be found here. Certain areas have distinct features for which they have been named, such as Spanish Anchor Winch Hole, Fire Coral Caves, hole in the Wall and many others. Snorkelers will enjoy the shallow spur and groove formations typified by Elkhorn and Boulder Corals punctuated by seafans. Divers will find plenty to occupy them as well. Visibility is generally excellent on this reef as it is "rinsed" by the currents of the nearby gulfstream. This is probably the most visited site in the Florida Keys and possibly the United States. Because of this, Marine officers generally patrol this area. These officers make sure that divers understand that even touching coral reef can kill these beautiful organisms. This site houses massive brain coral, star coral, and other large barrier corals. Caves and ledges provide homes for lobsters, crabs, moray eels, parrot fish, angelfish, filefish, turtles, rays, and sometimes nurse sharks. Divers will be able to come fairly close to these creatures. Sandy patches divide areas of coral and create an amazing sight. An old ship winch and an eight-foot anchor help to create the unique and interesting nature of this dive. Boaters must tie off to one of the 40 mooring buoys surrounding the large tower marking the reef.

    This area was harmed when the freighter, Wellwood, ran aground here in 1984. Damaged areas are marked and should be avoided. Part of the remaining rubble from Wellwood is contained in the .3 square nautical mile Sanctuary Preservation Area (SPA) which reaches down to 60-feet. This is a dive not to miss for anyone traveling to the area. Those looking to snorkel should stay to the northern, shallower end of the reef while divers will want to explore the southern end. This is also an easily accessible and highly used night-dive site. Local legend suggests that Molasses is named for a barge that grounded here many years ago carrying a cargo of molasses barrels, but much of the strewn wreckage is probably from a wooden hulled Austrian ship named Slobodna, run aground here in 1887.

     

    The Eagle: 

    This 287-foot ship was intentionally sunk in 110 feet of water as a dive attraction and rests on her starboard side cloaked in a colorful patina of encrusting sponge and coral, populated by huge schools of grunt, tarpon, and jack.

     

    Alligator Reef:

    Now marked by a 136-foot-tall lighthouse, on this spot in 1822 the USS Alligator grounded and sank while protecting a convoy from pirates. Now all that remains of the wreck are the twin piles of ballast stones, but the coral reef - in just 25 feet of water - is vibrant and alive.

     

    Conch Wall:

    Offering an exciting change of pace from the normal spur-and-groove profiles of most Keys' reefs, Conch Wall presents a precipitous sloping wall and captivating concentrations of barrel sponge and gorgonia punctuating the seafloor.

     

    Pickles Reef:

    For macro photo enthusiasts, Pickles provides a wonderful opportunity to encounter the reef's minutia, from flamingo tongue cowries to banded coral shrimp, all amid a dynamic coral reef in only 15 to 25 feet of water. Named for a wreck found here that was carrying several pickle barrels, Pickles Reef is a site not visited very often by the dive local dive shops.  That makes the area more pristine and enormous schools of fish and nurse sharks are common at this site.  Pillar Coral Forest, one of the largest pillar coral formations in the Keys, can be found at the North end of the reef.

    Pickles Reef is about 2 1/2 miles Southwest of Molasses Reef.  This dive site is no deeper than 25 feet and is excellent for beginner or advanced.  There are 3 mooring buoys and a red temporary marker marking the reef. 

     

    Carysfort Reef:

    Located off the coast at MM 116 is the first dive site of the Upper Keys - Carysfort Reef.  It's easy to find, just look for the 100 foot tall steel lighthouse tower.  There are approximately 10 mooring buoys at the reef and the depth range is from 3 to 70 feet.  Carysfort Reef is located inside the SPA are Sanctuary Preservation Area) so there is no fishing or lobstering allowed there. Carysfort Reef is named after the British Ship, H.M.S. Carysfort, which grounded here in 1770. Almost 80 years later, the first lighthouse on a reef in the Florida Keys was built at this site. Divers and snorkelers can expect to see Elkhorn gardens, staghorn coral, and varieties of sponges, lettuce coral and brain coral.  There is a steep drop to 65 known as "Carysfort Wall".  At the foot of this wall lies a wide channel which is covered with fine sand. This sandy channel separates this main reef from a second reef that rises up to 35 feet below the water surface.

     

    French Reef:

    French Reef is located about 1 mile northeast of the Molasses Reef tower.  There is a black piling there and 17 mooring buoys with the letter "F". This dive site is remembered by divers that have been here for its limestone cliffs and its many swim-throughs/caves and crevices.  The caves lie at depths ranging from 25 to 35 feet and are named for their unique appearance.  About 50 feet inshore at the F1 buoy , you'll find the "Hourglass Cave" which oddly enough, resembles an hourglass.  Enormous groupers are often found around this cave.  At F3 there is the "Christmas Tree Cave".  This cave is about 50 feet from the buoy and is about 4 feet high by about 20 feet long.  It was named for the hundreds of beautiful Christmas tree worms that cover the cave. There is a small swim-through at F6.  At F7 there is an old anchor about 100 feet northwest of the coral covered ledge under the buoy.  It may be a little difficult to make out because it's overgrown by corals so look carefully.  At the center of French Reef is the largest of all the caves.  This is called the "White Sand Bottom Cave". At the South end of the reef there is a series of narrow swim-throughs that are called the "Five Caves". Moray eels, lobsters, crabs and sting rays are often found on the reef.  The shallow areas of the reef are covered with golden brown elkhorn coral.  You'll see old mounds and boulders of brain coral and star coral a little deeper.  There are a variety of colorful tropical fish that make this reef home. The French Reef is in an SPA area.  No fishing or lobstering allowed.  Beginner, intermediate and advanced divers will all enjoy this dive site.  This is an excellent site for snorkeling as well.  The depth ranges from 5 to 100 feet.

     

    Sombrero Reef:

    Sombrero Reef is about 4 miles off Boot Key at the South end of Marathon and is marked by several buoys and a 160 feet tall lighthouse.  The Sombrero Key Lighthouse was built in the 1850's and was forecast by its building supervisor, US Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, Lieutenant George Gordon Meade, to last for 200 years.  It is still fully functional and in service.  Sombrero Reef is your classic "spur and groove" formation with large fingers of hard coral, rimmed with sea fans and soft corals separated by narrow sandy areas.  You'll find yellowtail snappers, parrotfish, squirrelfish, nurse sharks and stingrays all around the reef.  The best dive area is South of the Lighthouse (Oceanside).  The depth ranges from 5 to 35 feet making this dive site excellent for beginner to advanced divers and also snorkeling.

     

    The Thunderbolt Wreck:

    The Thunderbolt Wreck is located about 5 miles southeast offshore from Marathon.  In the 1980's researchers from the Florida utility company used 2 jet engines to blast ionized gas into the upper atmosphere to attract large number of lightning strikes on this 200 foot research vessel.  That's how she got her name - "Thunderbolt".  She was to start her new career as an underwater surveyor vessel but sank in the Miami Harbor.  Members of the Middle Keys diving community bought her inj1986 and prepped her as an artificial reef. The Thunderbolt lies upright in 115 feet of water.  The current here is often fierce, making this dive for advanced or technical divers only.  There are entry points around the wreck for divers certified in wreck diving.  This dive is very exciting for the experienced diver.  The wreck is heavily encrusted with a variety of sponges and corals and there are always lots of tropical and barracuda around.

     

    Adolphus Bush Wreck:

    The Adolphus Busch wreck is located about 5 miles off shore of Cudjoe Key and 3 miles west of Looe Key.  The Adolphus Busch was cleaned and prepared for divers with large holes cut for nice swim through and was sunk December 1998 as an artificial reef.  The ship is 210 feet long and the maximum depth is 110 feet, a very good dive for nitrox. Because of the depth of the

    wreck, this dive is for the advanced or technical diver only.

     

    Joe’s Tug:

    There seems to be a mystery as to how this 65-foot steel hull shrimper came to sit in 68 feet of water just off Key West.  The hull is now starting to break down after Hurricane Georges was here.  You will see schools of Grunts, Bar Jacks and sometimes Elvis (the Jewfish) has been seen hanging out here.

    The tug lies SSE of Key West in a depth of 60 to 65 foot. This vessel's remains are surrounded by soft and hard coral formations and large sponges. This wreck is home to some very friendly moray eels and inquisitive fish. Joe’s Tug is an easy and rewarding dive for both beginners and experienced divers.

     

    Alexander’s Wreck:

    This wreck is usually dived when the conditions in the Atlantic are not good.  The wreck is an old U.S. Navy Destroyer Escort that sank in 26 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico 9 miles from Key West.  The wreck is now in 2 sections, which sit bout 150 yards apart on her side.  There are schools of fish that hang out under the starboard side of the forward sections and sometime you can hear a Jewfish bark form deep inside the wreck.

     

    Dune Wreck:

    This wreck is usually dived when the conditions in the Atlantic are not good.  The wreck is an old U.S. Navy Destroyer Escort that sank in 26 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico 9 miles from Key West.  The wreck is now in 2 sections, which sit bout 150 yards apart on her side.  There are schools of fish that hang out under the starboard side of the forward sections and sometime you can hear a Jewfish bark form deep inside the wreck.

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