Dive Time: What You Need to Know

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Florida Keys might not have the Great Barrier Reef, but the area does have a Pretty Great Reef -- specifically, the world's third-longest barrier reef and North America's only living coral barrier reef. The 2,800-nautical-square-mile 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 feasibly 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, to the Dry Tortugas.

Here's what you need to know about getting a grouper's-eye view of the region.

WHEN TO GO: Summer is ideal, since it's off-season (no underwater crowds) and water temperatures are in the high 80s (no wet suit). Visibility is clear, and the ocean is calm. During the winter high season, temps are in the mid-70s, so you might need a wet suit 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: Of the islands, Key Largo is most frequently cited for its exceptional diving -- both reefs and wrecks. Because of its proximity to the Gulf Stream, the area is a dumping ground for vibrant marine life. Visibility also is high, and the region has benefited from concerted conservation efforts as well as its curved land shape, which protects delicate aquatic life.

Here are some specific Florida Keys sites as recommended by dive masters, tourism officials and other underwater professionals.

· Upper Keys: Six miles off Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Spiegel Grove is the largest ship in the world to be intentionally sunk and is the playground for 160 species of fish. The 510-foot Navy boat started off on its starboard side, but Hurricane Dennis helped right the ship last year, so it now lies flat on the ocean floor, 130 feet down. However, less experienced divers can explore its upper decks at 45 feet.

For the perfect blend of land and sea, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (Mile Marker 102.5; 305-451-1202 or 305-451-6300, http://www.pennekamppark.com/ ) offers 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 per person, not including equipment; 305-451-6322) and equipment rentals on-site. At the park, the bronze Statue of Christ of the Abyss is tucked between coral formations at 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 five-foot-tall barrel sponges.

The three- 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.

· Middle Keys: Sombrero Reef, about five miles south of Marathon, is good for divers of all levels; marvel at honeycomb cowfish, nurse sharks, stingrays and arches made of coral. The Thunderbolt wreck, in 120 feet of water about seven miles off Marathon, features coral and sponges and such brag-worthy critters as nurse sharks and rays. Expert divers can float up the staircase.

· Lower Keys: The Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary , about six miles off Big Pine Key, offers a complete reef ecosystem and is the stomping ground for spiny lobsters, tropicals, nurse sharks and eagle rays. Perfect for beginners who feel safer in the shallows, but there is also a sloping reef for more advanced divers.

Named after the brew company patriarch, the Adolphus Busch Senior 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.

· Key West: Joe's Tug , a harbor tugboat that rests about 4 1/2 miles south of Key West and 60 feet deep on the sandy floor, is mostly intact -- minus its wheelhouse and propeller. Morays, barracuda and jacks call the vessel home. With more than 10 miles of reef, Sand Key, part of a 10-mile reef tract about five miles southwest of Key West, wins the popularity contest. However, Rock Key Reef , one mile east of Sand Key, is less visited and has equally impressive marine life. A half-mile east of Rock Key, Eastern Dry Rocks offers a 19th-century cargo-carrying shipwreck primed for underwater exploration.

Dry Tortugas National Park (305-242-7700, http://www.nps.gov/drto ), 70 miles west of Key West and accessible by boat or seaplane, offers seven islands surrounded by shoals, reefs, turtles and shipwrecks.

DIVE COMPANIES: Dive centers and tour operators are located throughout the Keys, and some hotels have on-site dive shops and trips. Check the specific key's tourism office for a list of outfitters and charters.

Prices vary according to the number of dives per day, type of dive sitesand equipment rental. Florida Keys Dive Center (Mile Marker 90.5 in Tavernier, 800-433-8946, http://www.floridakeysdivectr.com/ ), for example, charges $72 for two dives, tanks and weights. Looe Key Reef Resort and Dive Center (Mile Marker 27.5 on Ramrod Key, 800-566-3539, http://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 (Mile Marker 104.2, 800-426-6729, http://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.

INFO: Monroe County Tourist Development Council , 800-648-5510, http://www.fla-keys.com/ . Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, 305-743-2437, http://www.fknms.nos.noaa.gov/ . For a list of dive sites: http://www.flkeys%20diving.com/ . For dive associations with Florida Keys info: PADI, http://www.padi.com/ , and NAUI, http://www.naui.org/ .

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