At 45 feet underwater, while gliding above reefs strewn with the eerie wreckage of a World War II cargo ship, it is easy to see what Hurricane Irma has done to this area of the Florida Keys — and it is spectacular.
Sea life is in abundance: angelfish, yellow jack and ungainly trumpetfish, all in iridescent shades of neon blue and taxi yellow; silvery shimmering grunts and red snappers by the thousands; an enormous turtle whose barnacled shell is the size of a child’s wading pool. Not to mention a vast variety of coral.
The storm has heaved sand up from the sea floor, dashed it against the reef and scoured away harmful algae, enhancing the environment for the diverse sea life surrounding us. It also has uncovered artifacts such as a decades-buried, man-size anchor and opened up new swim-though passages in arches of coral.
North America has only one living coral barrier reef, the third-largest such system in the world, running some 220 miles from Key Biscayne to the Dry Tortugas. Government conservation efforts came late to these reefs. It wasn’t until 1963 that America’s first underwater national park was established with the opening of the 80-square-mile John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which put Key Largo — about an hour and a half’s drive from the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area — at the epicenter of American reef conservation.
Although there is still some ongoing cleanup from Hurricane Irma, Key Largo got off easy. And for all of the destruction Irma caused on land, at least it benefited some of the reefs. These storms often do much to rearrange the underwater topography, making familiar dive sites new again. If that isn’t a good enough reason to go, consider that although Irma has brought critical breathing room to some reefs, the overall bleaching and deterioration of the reef is continuing.
We chose Key Largo because we wanted a dive trip of near-Caribbean quality at a less-than-Caribbean cost. When I polled my friends who dive, Key Largo came up repeatedly, even among those partial to exotic overseas locations.
Key Largo is a tourist town, and lodging isn’t cheap. We scoured the Web, considered resorts, hotels, even houseboats. My companion Linda is a sucker for “old Florida” charm and chose the Bay Harbor Lodge, a collection of small, scattered structures. The history is a bit obscure, said owner Peg Laron, but it was partly built in the early 1950s, most likely as a fishing camp.
Tucked back on a meandering driveway lined with gnarled gumbo-limbo trees and an elaborate garden, the lodge has grottoes with seating and a small private beach with kayaks for guests. Our room was snug, with its own kitchen, tile floors and patio where we could dry our dive gear. There was just a hint of tropical decay, with some peeling paint in the bathroom along the baseboard of the clothes closet. And the closet was in the bathroom.
That trifling shortcoming was offset by the on-site food truck, which provided coffee and fresh scones each morning. The mango scones were just right, with succulent chunks of mango. We were tempted to take seconds.
To choose a dive operator, we relied on my dive friends again. The thing to avoid is what the industry calls “cattle boats” that load up as many divers as possible, then hustle them out to the reef and back as quickly as they can.
Most diving operations offer two trips a day, each trip visiting two dive locations. The cattle boats carry 15 to 50 divers at a time. If you seek underwater tranquility, you won’t enjoy 49 finned friends churning up the reef around you.
We looked for outfits that limit the number of divers to six or so. These boats will often go out with as few as two divers (or four snorkelers) at about the same cost as the cattle boats. The top recommendations were Quiescence Diving Services and Island Ventures.
But the small operators tend to book up quickly. Island Ventures, which will carry up to 10 divers, was sold out days in advance. Quiescence Diving Services had immediate openings. Not only that, we had a damaged regulator that needed attention and the most commonly recommended repair shop — ScubaTech of Key Largo — couldn’t promise to squeeze us in that day. Jason at Quiescence said to just drop by. He made our repair on the spot for less than $10. We signed up for the next morning’s trip for $90 each, including tanks and weights.
We boarded one of Quiescence’s three Delta Puma 25 diesel dive boats, a spartan vessel captained by Tim Shaw, who took five of us to the Christ of the Abyss. Perhaps the most photographed underwater site in the Keys, it is an eight-foot-tall bronze statue of Jesus in 25 feet of water. Shaw gave a thorough pre-dive briefing including reef navigation, safety procedures and a dryly comical and detailed history of the statue, although a line about Linda’s beauty fell flat with me. He is known for concluding each briefing with, “I say this with all of the love that I can muster . . . get off my boat.”
Humor aside, it was a safe and professional operation. We had planned to try other dive companies, but don’t fix what ain’t broke.
The next day, with Dave Montgomery at the helm, we asked to go to the wreck of the SS Benwood, a World War II cargo ship that went down in 1942. It was running without lights to avoid U-boats when it collided with another blacked-out ship. The Benwood sank in 45 feet of water and now serves as an artificial reef. Many dive operators keep a set schedule (sorry, Friday is Benwood day, not today), but after a show of hands, off to the Benwood we went.
My reef biologist friend Josh, who has logged thousands of dives, confirmed our impression of Quiescence, calling it one of the best outfits he has worked with.
If you want to add a little eco to your tourism, you can volunteer with the Coral Restoration Foundation. With a half-day’s training, you can do two dives to help maintain, grow or plant new reefs. There is a $30 to $65 CRF fee, and you’ll pay full fare for the dive. Although, if you are an experienced diver, have the right certifications and have three weeks to dedicate to volunteering, your dives are gratis.
As a novice diver, my most critical lesson was on seasickness. Experienced divers said to take precautionary Dramamine an hour before getting on a boat, per the instructions.
It did not work. The boat captains said about 60 percent of divers get ill, and the trick is to take it at least a day before. Jim Chimiak, medical director for dive safety organization at the Divers Alert Network, agreed. “One dose mightn’t get you to therapeutic level,” he said. In fact, he said to try a seasickness medicine before your trip. “If you are taking medication for the first time, see how it affects you in a benign environment,” he said. “Take it and walk around the house.”
If Dramamine makes you too sleepy, try Bonine (which Chimiak generally recommends) or scopolamine. In the case of Dramamine and Bonine, generic versions cost about a tenth of the name brand.
If your stomach is untroubled, dining options are many and various, mostly casual. We found many of the well-known spots to be ordinary at best, the food coasting on vacation charm. But there were also bona fide standouts.
One highlight was the Fish House. It is the kind of place that kooky theme restaurants try to be. It has an authentically kitschy charm. The windowless dining room is enlivened by scattershot paintings, photos, maps and novelty string lights — illuminated fishes, tikis, classic cars, seashells and such — that dangle from the ceilings. The restaurant’s reputation rests on its fresh, local seafood; whole fish are sold at a market counter. The tripletail Matecumbe was excellent, served in a sauce of salt, pepper, olive oil, onion, capers, shallots and fresh basil leaves, a little reminiscent of a puttanesca. The key lime pie was the real deal. The filling was creamy and subtly tart, not the biting, gelatinous and overly sugared filling common to lesser pies. It was properly topped with meringue, not whipped cream.
The Pilot House has a Margaritaville vibe, including a gathering of gray-bearded men in aloha-style shirts. Situated at a marina, the restaurant deck has clear panels so you can see the fish swimming underneath, and serves drinks with environmentally responsible paper straws. It features the Harvey sandwich, reputedly named for its one-time fish cutter Harvey Rosean, who made a sandwich of leftovers that caught on locally. The modern version is fried grouper, still tender inside a crunchy crust, with melted cheese and tomato on toasted whole-wheat bread. It’s just a fish sandwich, but a very good one.
The Hiddenout is not a place to go for the ambiance. It looks like a converted rancher, and a parking lot obscures the water view. Our waitress spoke rapturously of the chili-cheese omelet and the pancakes, which were indeed thick, fluffy and delicate. Linda’s Lobster Bisque was not the usual puree, but a creamy base with chunks of lobster. The “lobster bites,” which are like lobster-stuffed hush puppies, had plenty of lobster and not too much breading.
Our luxe meal was dinner at Chef Michael’s on Islamorada, about 12 miles south. Michael’s is a white-tablecloth establishment with a New Orleans-influenced menu, underscored by the jazz background music.
We liked the tripletail Juliette style, which was a healthy portion of seared fish, topped with shrimp, scallops in chardonnay butter and toasted almonds. The scallops had a light char that gave them a meaty taste, and the butter flavor was deliciously pronounced.
We didn’t reserve much time for shopping — don’t bother with the sandal “outlets” unless you crave pricey tourist T-shirts. But a stop at the big-box Divers Direct gear store was worthwhile. The newly renovated store is cavernous, with the most gear to see in one place outside a diving mecca, at online prices.
The area offers lots of inland activities. To name just three: The Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park has six miles of hiking trails; the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail offers 90 miles of trail for walking, running or cycling; and you can see more than 100 types of birds at the Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary. But the central attraction has been, and still is, the reef.
Go while there is still plenty of it to see.
More from Travel:
Bay Harbor & Coconut Bay Resort
97702 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo
Possibly a former fishing camp, with blocky 1950s cottages spread around the property, this resort has an elaborate garden and small private beach with kayaks that are free to guests. Rooms from $185.
The Fish House
102401 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo
Fresh local fish served in enjoyably kitschy surroundings. Don’t miss the Key Lime pie. Dinner entrees average about $26.
The Pilot House
13 Seagate Blvd, Key Largo
Clear deck panels reveal the fish swimming below and you can enjoy a sandwich with provenance. Dinner entrees average around $29.
47 Shoreland Dr., Key Largo
Open for breakfast and lunch only, except Fridays when there is an evening fish fry. Breakfast served until 2 p.m. Entrees from around $7.
81671 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada
New Orleans-influenced food, and a bit less casual than your typical Keys establishment so wear your best Tommy Bahama. Entrees average about $35.
91865 Overseas Hwy., Tavernier
Airy coffee shop that serves French pastries, sandwiches, cheese plates and flatbreads. Food runs from $8.50 to $17.
Quiescence Diving Services
103680 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo
The dive shop makes repairs on the spot and takes requests for specific dive sites, with a maximum of six passengers. Dive trips from $89.
51 Shoreland Dr., Key Largo
With a 10-passenger maximum, Island Venture also promises a dose of “dry British Humor.” Dive trips with two locations from $85.
Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park
County Road 905 & Mile Marker 106, Key Largo
Home to many protected plants and animals, this park has many wheelchair-accessible trails. Entry fee is $2.50 per person.
Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail
3 La Croix Court, Key Largo
Paralleling Route 1, the longest contiguous paved segment of this 90-mile hiking and biking trail runs 34 miles from Key Largo to Islamorada. Free.
Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary
93600 Overseas Hwy., Tavernier
A sanctuary where you can see hundreds of birds, and permanent guests like Leopold the barred owl. Free.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
102601 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo
The first undersea park in the United States, Pennekamp has camping, fishing, swimming and picnic areas, a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium, snorkeling, scuba and glass bottom boat tours. Adult snorkeling tours from $29.95; scuba tours from $75; glass-bottom boat tours from $24.