What do you call seven eagle rays gliding over the reef like slow-motion Stealth bombers? A squadron? Perhaps a fleet? While unsure of the correct terminology, I knew the exhilarating encounter with these rays on my last dive in the Florida Keys was no fluke. In fact, I've seen eagle rays on several recent dives here.
From the creation of the nation's first underwater park (the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park) in the 1960s to the national marine sanctuary that encompasses the entire Keys today, a lot of effort has gone into preserving the region's cherished coral reefs. But divers can be most thankful for the Sanctuary Preservation Areas. Nineteen of these no-take areas were set up around the Keys' most popular reefs in July 1997. The result has been a dramatic increase in fish populations.
Best Bets Underwater
Since 1852 the historic Carysfort Lighthouse off north Key Largo has stood watch over two beautiful reefs, Carysfort and Carysfort South. The tops of both reefs come right to the surface, and the main reef slopes off steadily into deep water. Fragile elkhorn and antler corals along the reef crest have taken a beating from storms in the past few years, but fortunately these are the fastest-growing corals and signs of recovery are already evident.
For experienced Florida Keys divers, the Elbow is synonymous with clear water. The name "elbow" comes from the fact that it sticks out from the rest of the reef line. Because this reef is placed near the edge of the Gulf Stream, a continuous supply of clear water flows over it much of the time.
North North Dry Rocks is not a typo, it's the next reef north of North Dry Rocks. Although the deepest part of the reef is only about 30 feet, North North features tall coral ridges that rise 15 feet or more straight up from the sandy bottom. For some reason there seems to be a surplus of angelfish here, so if you want to get the vivid colors of a queen angel or rock beauty on film, head for North North.
Back in 1966 when Ellison Hardee, the first superintendent of Pennekamp Park, put the Christ of the Abyss statue on a concrete pedestal in 15 feet of water at Key Largo Dry Rocks, he couldn't possibly have known how popular it would become. The statue continues to attract both snorkelers and divers, but the rest of the reef is very nice, too.
French Reef has always been a paradox for me. Some days the water is a beautiful clear blue and the top of the reef seems alive with fish and coral; on other days the reef is bathed in a gloomier green and the coral ridges look a bit threadbare. Regardless of what face the reef is wearing, it is a fascinating dive because of its caverns, arches and swim-throughs. It's like a three-dimensional puzzle for divers who can easily burn off an hour's worth of air wandering from one chamber to the next while marveling at the reef-building ability of tiny coral polyps.
What diver hasn't heard of Molasses Reef? This reef is the most frequently visited spot in the Florida Keys. So why would you want to join the crowd? Simply because Molasses has a magic all its own. Like the Elbow, the fortunes of fluid dynamics often bless it with a remarkable clarity. Add to that an interesting reef structure and an incredible fish population and you can see the reason for its popularity.
The reef crest at Pickles looks like a sea fan farm. Hundreds of them sway gently with the swells, a living field of purple and brown. I've always had good luck observing larger animals here, too. Once five big tarpon followed me around the reef like robotic sentries, their shiny silver scales flashing in the sun. On another occasion, I witnessed a fracas under a ledge involving two nurse sharks and a pack of jacks.
Sombrero is Marathon's reef, another of the large outer bank reefs with a historic lighthouse. The alternating coral ledges and sandy channels that form the main reef provide a variety of dive sites, ranging in depth from about 10 to 40 feet. From 40 feet to around 70 feet, the coral profile is flatter and sponges begin to dominate the scene.
Looe Key is a classic Florida reef: a back reef of sand and sea grass, a shallow crest, a spectacularly developed fore reef with tall coral spurs and white sandy grooves and a deep reef dominated by giant barrel sponges. It's more than you can see in a long day of diving.
Take it slow at Nine Foot Stake, otherwise you may miss the good stuff -- like the brilliant colors of juvenile French angelfish or the distinctive pattern of a flamingo tongue. With a maximum depth of 20 feet, the whole reef is like one big safety stop with countless ledges and cuts to explore.
My sense of direction keeps me out of trouble most of the time, but wandering around Eastern and Western Dry Rocks can get anybody lost. These extensive Key West reefs have many little paths and mini-canyons that will lead you along a never-ending maze.
Many divers think the Florida Keys begin in Key Largo and end in Key West, but they're missing something at each end.
North of Key Largo is Biscayne National Park, which includes a big stretch of reef along the ocean side of Old Rhodes Key and Elliott Key. A deep wall, shallow reefs and some nice wrecks can be visited from the park's headquarters, located off Florida's Turnpike between Miami and Key Largo.
West of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park awaits the adventurous. Accessible from Key West by private and charter boat, sea plane and ferry, the park has everything from pristine deep reefs to the shallow wreck of the Avanti, an iron-hulled sailing ship. A land tour of massive Fort Jefferson on Garden Key is amazing. The snorkeling is superb all the way around the fort's moat.
When you add it all up, the Florida Keys are one of the best deals in diving. Getting here is easy -- just fly to Miami or Key West and rent a car. There is no charge for the superb sunsets over Florida Bay while you're cruising the Overseas Highway with the top down.
The Keys first gained notoriety as a hazardous region for mariners. Today divers can visit more than a dozen wrecks spanning centuries.
Definitely one of world's best wreck dives, the Duane is a 237-foot Coast Guard Cutter sitting upright on the sand in 115 feet of water just beyond Molasses Reef on the edge of the Gulf Stream. The bad news is that the Duane is often subject to strong currents. The good news is that those currents bring superb visibility. The position of the wreck also means lots of big fish. Jacks, permit, barracuda, angelfish and parrotfish surround the ship's masts and superstructure.
Duane's sistership, the Bibb, lurks on the bottom in slightly deeper water not far away. Although the ships are virtually identical, the Bibb lies on her side. With everything oriented sideways, it's a different dive altogether. Both ships were sunk in 1987, so they've had time to cultivate colorful mantles of coral and sponges. Since the Bibb and Duane are both deep dives with the potential for a strong current, expect to be asked for your advanced open water card and maybe even evidence of recent deep dives.
The Benwood is an option for less adventurous wreck enthusiasts. The watchwords for this wreck are "fish" and "night." Since it sank in 1942, the wreck has been reduced to the crumpled bow, the bottom of the hull and scattered metal plates -- interesting enough, but the fish are the real draw. If you have one of those waterproof fish ID books, this is a good spot to give it a test.
The Eagle was sunk off Islamorada in 1986 and gets more interesting every year. It recently split in two during a storm, creating a wide gap between the bow and stern sections.
If you're interested in marine archaeology, visit the remains of the USS Alligator near the lighthouse with the same name.
I can never dive the Thunderbolt without imagining what her crew went through. Before she became an artificial reef, the Thunderbolt was used for research involving lightning strikes. Can you imagine sailing into a storm and pumping ions into the sky to attract lightning? It's blissfully quiet on deck now, and although nothing remains of her days as a lightning rod, the cable reel on the foredeck is a reminder of the ship's original purpose as a cable layer.
The 210-foot freighter Adolphus Busch is a recent addition to the bottom off Big Pine Key. It sits upright and ghostly in 100 feet of water, waiting patiently as the ocean paints it with coral.