Grab your fins and dive, dive, dive
By Andrea Sachs
By Andrea Sachs
The Florida Keys might not have the Great Barrier Reef, but the area does have a Pretty Great Reef — the world's third-longest barrier reef. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary encompasses all of the waters surrounding the archipelago, from south of Key Biscayne to 90 miles north of Cuba. Which means: If you had unlimited oxygen (and time), you could start diving off North Key Largo (Carysfort Reef) in the Upper Keys and not stop until you hit a World War I submarine off Key West — or beyond, in the Dry Tortugas.
Here's what you need to know about getting a grouper's-eye view.
WHEN TO GO:
Summer is ideal, since it's off-season (no underwater crowds) and water temperatures are in the high 80s (no wetsuit). Visibility is clear, and the ocean is calm. During the winter high season, temperatures are in the mid-70s, so you might need a wetsuit for longer, deeper dives. The seas also might be a little choppier.
Key Largo-based underwater photographer Stephen Frink suggests morning dives, because sea breezes can kick up in the afternoon and churn the water. Or go morning and night. For the latter, start at dusk, so you can be underwater when the light changes from purplish to pitch dark.
WHERE TO DIVE
Key Largo is the most frequently cited island for its exceptional diving — both reefs and wrecks. Because of its proximity to the Gulf Stream, the area teems with vibrant marine life. Visibility is high, and the area has benefited from conservation efforts as well as its curved land shape, which protects delicate aquatic life.
Some Florida Keys sites recommended by divers, tourism officials and underwater professionals:
The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park — (305) 451-1202, (305) 451-6300, www.pennekamp park.com — has more than 400 species of tropical fish, 80-odd species of coral and 47 tent and RV sites. The park also has scuba tours — from $45, not including equipment, (305) 451-6322 — and equipment rentals. The bronze statue "Christ of the Abyss" is tucked between coral formations on the Key Largo Dry Rocks reef.
Conch Reef, off Key Largo, was named after its residential queen conch and attracts swarms of tropical fish and larger critters such as turtles. Go deep (90 feet) to explore the drop-off called Conch Wall, or swim in the shallows to see 5-foot-tall barrel sponges.
The 3-to-40-foot-deep Molasses Reef, off Key Largo, is a virtual aquarium, with goatfish, jacks, blue tangs, barracuda, sergeant majors, moray eels, turtles and sponges. Ideal for beginners to intermediates.
Named after the brew company patriarch, the Adolphus Busch Sr. wreck sits shipshape about eight miles off Big Pine Key and 100 feet below the surface. Look beneath the wheelhouse for the resident 350-pound jewfish.
Dry Tortugas National Park (305-242-7700, www.nps.gov /drto) 70 miles west of Key West and accessible by boat or seaplane, has seven islands surrounded by shoals, reefs, turtles and shipwrecks.
Dive centers and tours operate throughout the Keys, and some hotels have on-site dive shops and trips. Check each key's tourism office for a list of outfitters and charters.
Prices vary according to the number of dives per day, type of dive sites and equipment rental. Florida Keys Dive Center (in Tavernier, 800-433-8946, www .floridakeysdivectr.com), for example, charges $72 for two dives, tanks and weights. Looe Key Reef Resort and Dive Center (on Ramrod Key, 800-566-3539, www .diveflakeys.com) charges $70 for a full-day reef or wreck trip (three dives, with tanks and weights). For bed-and-dive accommodations, stay at a dive resort, such as Amy Slate's Amoray Dive Resort (800-426-6729, www .amoray.com) in Key Largo, where you can sleep (from $85) and dive ($60) in one location.
WHAT TO BRING
Most dive trips include tanks and weights. It is advisable to bring your own mask, fins and snorkel, but dive shops rent all equipment. Also, remember to carry your PADI or NAUI certification card and dive log.
Information: Monroe County Tourist Development Council, (800) 648-5510, www.fla-keys .com. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, (305) 743-2437, www.fknms.nos.noaa.gov. For a list of dive sites: www.flkeys diving.com. For dive associations with Florida Keys info: PADI, www.padi.com, and NAUI, www.naui.org.