Best dive spots in the Florida Keys, Miami and Fort Lauderdale

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Original version of story which appears in this month's Diver Magazine (http://www.divermag.com/v2/index.php)


Florida Redux
Battered, Shaken and Baked, But Still Going Strong
By Stephen Weir


Bleeding ankle – rusty spur lurking inside a sunken tanker. Sliced shin – rogue wave hits while seal-hopping onto bobbing stern platform. A divine blessing – but no miracle cures – from a reef bound Jesus. From Key West to Pompano Beach, field-testing an underwater camera is a full contact sport.
There is a scuba highway that stretches from the tip of the Florida Keys to the hyper-busy Greater Fort Lauderdale Airport. More than 650,000 snorkelers and divers travel this route every year, making it the most popular dive destination in the world.
Accessible. A rich variety of dive sites. Government regulated boats. North America’s biggest scuba stores. Relatively cheap places. No wonder the southern tip of Florida is the place to dive, dive, dive. And, if you are testing a camera, the place to dive shoot, dive shoot, dive shoot.
Nothing much is permanent in the Florida Keys. Hurricanes, fetid mangrove swamps, sand blasting prevailing winds and punishing waves are big reasons why people don’t build to last. Everything is so temporary … except underwater.
The 221-mile coastal reef is the third largest reef system in the world. It is also the only living coral reef in the continental US.
This ribbon of coral is far from pristine. Battered and bruised from pollution, habitat fragmentation, warming waters, construction, boaters, fishing, snorkelers and clumsy diving photographers, the Florida Reef limps along.
What has kept the reef just barely off life support has been a strong government driven conservation movement. It started in 1963 off Key Largo, with the making of the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. This was the first undersea park created in the United States. A decade later the Feds moved in to create the 2,800-acre Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, and the Fort Jefferson and Dry Tortugas National Park. Two years ago the US Congress designated the remaining 2,800 sq nautical miles surrounding the Keys as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. All of these areas permit and encourage controlled diving, and snorkeling.
For the past two decades one of the keys (pun sort of intended) to limiting diver damage to the reef has been to develop new sites to visit and photograph. In Miami and Fort Lauderdale, ships, army tanks, and even oilrigs have been sunk to create the world’s biggest collection of diveable junk! The Florida Keys has artificial reefs and hopes to soon add a famous warship to its underwater inventory.
Early in 09 Diver Magazine made a number of trips to southern Florida to dive and test a new Tough 8000 Olympus underwater camera. The sheer number of different dive sites and the variety of diving available make south Florida the best place to try out equipment and take pictures of really neat underwater things!
The Tough 8000 is a new generation of camera, which doesn’t need a housing to 33 feet. You can drive a van over it. In a lecture to students I have slammed one onto the concrete and then took a picture (I am not crazy, it was a loaner). Put inside a housing for deeper diving, the camera is safe even if there is flooding – something that I have done to cameras more than once.
South Florida is divided into three distinct areas. Key West and Fort Jefferson are at the bottom of the chain, followed by the upper Keys and, Miami /Fort Lauderdale.


Key West / Fort Jefferson

The Dry Tortugas are a group of seven islands that lie 70 miles west of Key Largo in the Gulf of Mexico. Construction on Fort Jefferson began in 1846, and although never finished, the massive brick structure has always remained an important part of Florida life.
Now a National Park and an underwater ecological reserve, the area is known for its colourful healthy reefs, clear visibility, abundant fish life (250+ species) including the photographer’s dream, the large Goliath Grouper. The islands have campsites, empty sand beaches and good snorkeling close to shore.
There are half a dozen Key West dive boats that offer daylong trips to island. There are also live-aboards, including the newly repositioned Spree (a popular Texas live-aboard) that have 2-4 night trips to waters around Fort Jefferson.
The lively reefs start close to the surface and roll down to a depth of 140 ft. Most of the dives are in the 30 to 80 ft range and, because of current many of the dives are drifts.
The Fort Jefferson charter is a dawn to dusk commitment. However, there are other Key West options. The waters around the city are shallow. The reefs roll across the bottom, with sand canyons and swim throughs puncturing the underwater landscape. There is a harbour full of dive boats ranging in size from six packs to large group charters ready to take divers to oft-visited sites.
Most dive shops take divers to one of two shipwrecks near the port. Photographers ask for Joe’s Tug, a wreck that sits at 75ft. What makes her so photogenic is a hurricane that almost turned the coral encrusted tug inside out.
Joe’s Tug and the deep wreck of the 180 ft. Cayman Salvager are about to lose their luster. After 8-years of trying (funding problems, partner bankruptcy, and ecological concerns) a mammoth 520 ft. long steel hulled warship named the US Vandenberg, will be scuttled to create North America’s second largest artificial reef. (The 911ft aircraft carrier Oriskany lies on the bottom near Pensacola, Florida).





Looe Key to Biscayne Park


Diving is just one small part of what makes Key West tick. It is a party-town, a military base, and a cruise ship port and home to the best restaurants south of Miami. Experienced travelers looking for more dive-centric accommodations tend to stay farther north, beginning with the Looe Key district.
Looe Key is a reef, not, a town – land is five miles away and the closest civilization is a number of hotels and dive shops on Big Pine Key and the Bahia Honda State campgrounds.
British divers chuckle at the name, but the “Looe” moniker comes from an 18th century shipwreck named the Looe. It now refers to a large U-shaped groove and spur reef (Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary). Photographers looking for unblemished staghorn and elkhorn corals, growing close to the surface make a trip to the Looe.
Eleven years ago, the 210ft long freighter, the Adolphus Busch was sunk to create an artificial reef nearby. A 250 lb grouper now lives in the ship’s wheelhouse and will usually hold still for photographers. The deck starts at 80ft, the keel of the ship is below 100ft.
One of the strangest annual events takes place at Looe Key Reef. Held in July, boaters, divers and snorkelers head out to the reef to take in a six-hour underwater musical concert. Giant underwater speakers are hung beneath boats and divers in strange costumes (from Elvis to the Little Mermaid) mime to the music. Its purpose? To promote marine preservation and let people dive in drag!
The Thunderbolt is another popular wreck for photographers. Usually current free, She sits perfectly upright in 115 feet of water. After 23-years on the bottom her superstructure is coated with colorful sponge, coral, and hydroid.
The 188ft wreck is close to the small city of Marathon and the Seven Mile Bridge (it is that long long bridge that Hollywood moviemakers like to drive cars off of). The city of 10,000 straddles 14 small islands, has a hospital for sailors and a veterinary clinic for rescued Sea Turtles. Continental services Marathon’s airport.
If the Keys are the world’s most popular dive destination, then the city of Key Largo is the epicenter of all things underwater. In fact most of Diver Magazine’s camera testing took place in the waters around Key Largo. Deep-water wrecks, croc-infested mangroves, an underwater hotel and the world’s most photographed underwater statue are just a few of the reasons why the scuba industry is so embedded on the northernmost island of the Keys.
Diver Magazine spent hours underwater in Key Largo’s protected John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. We dove and took pictures on shallow reefs 6 mi off the east coast of the Keys. High seas and cold water (70 – 72 degrees in the winter months)) kept us off the deepwater wreck of the Spiegel Grove, a 510 ft Navy ship intentionally scuttled in 2002. We were able to dive the 72-year wreck of the Benwood at a depth of 40ft.
Now that isn’t very deep. Most snorkelers can free dive close enough to take a snapshot of the disintegrating iron hulled Victory Ship. But, even at depth many of the colours of the spectrum can’t be seen. On the Benwood the only way to capture the blood red sponges that are affixed to the deck, is by illuminating the animals with a strobe.
The sandy bottom around the stern of the wreck is a zone of quiet from waves and current. However, seeing divers setting up a photo shoot with a shipwreck is of never-ending fascination to the dozen divers in the water that day.
It’s hard to take fish and wreck pictures with spectators swimming into the frame and waving at the photographer (me!). But, it got better, possibly thanks to some help from the Creator? On a freakishly cold, grey February day we were able to miraculously have the world’s most popular dive site to ourselves!
Most divers and snorkelers make at least one underwater pilgrimage to the planet’s most famous works of art - the Christ of the Deep statue. Created by Italian sculptor Guido Galletti, the statue stands on a 20-ton concrete base in 24 ft of water. 9 ft tall, the bronze statue has become the most photographed subsurface site in the world and is a to-drown-for spot for underwater weddings.
The Saviour stands amongst the living coral with His hands raised towards Heaven. When the sun is high overhead a natural halo of light appears around His head. Visited daily by snorkel and dive boats, it is not unusual for people to describe their swim to the statue as inspirational and uplifting.
Christ’s shoulders are covered in fire coral. The ship’s captain from the Quiescence Dive Shop says that it is divine intervention against drunken boaters who regularly swim down and straddle the head of Jesus. Life is tough for the sculpture -- a second casting of Christ of the Deep was sunk in Italian waters – scuba vandals cut off His arms early in ‘09.
Where else in America but the Keys will you see more dive flags at the side of the highway than golden arches? Despite the traffic there are a couple of secrets that divers can still discover.
Secret #1 Jules’ Undersea Lodge in Key Largo. The name says it all, to enter the 2-unit hotel you must scuba dive 21 feet down to the structure’s “Moon Door” in the floor. Jules -- short for Jules Verne -- is the world’s only completely submerged hotel, and, not surprisingly offers unlimited diving in the surrounding waters of the mangrove lagoon in which Jules' is located. Tropical angelfish, parrotfish, barracuda, and snappers peek in the windows of the habitat, while anemones, sponges, oysters and feather duster worms seem to cover every inch of this underwater world. One night’s stay is about $400 US - tanks and weight belts provided.
Secret #2 - Best place to hide a world-class dive site within sight of downtown Miami. The Biscayne National Park is located north of Key Largo a few miles south of Miami on Biscayne Bay. But, because of a dearth of roads it is a long haul from both the city and Key Largo. Divers have to drive through the community of Homestead near the Everglades to get into the park. It is worth the trek, the reefs in the Park are as pristine as one is going to find in South Florida.
There are virtually no roads within the park – it is meant to be explored by boat. A dive service operates in the Park and offers the only wall dives in the Keys. Their "Shipwreck Trail" includes six wrecks spanning a century of history.

Miami to Pompano Beach


You shouldn’t pick a dive site by its airport but ... it is faster and easier to fly in and out of Greater Fort Lauderdale (GFL) than it is to the mammoth Miami International. In April it took 30 minutes to get from the GFL luggage carousel to a Pompano Beach dive boat. And since one of the shops, the South Florida Diving Headquarters, operates 2-tank dives in the morning and afternoon and a 1-tank night dive, you can fly in almost anytime and dive the jetlag away in the waters off the coast of Florida’s two biggest population centers.
Even though there are about 7-million people living in the two cities – the region is the 4th largest urban area in the US – the waters abound with sea-life. A steady northbound current of clean warm water hugs the coastline feeding and nurturing a healthy band of coral reefs, which in turn spawns a healthy community of both reef and oversized pelagics.
South Florida's Greater Fort Lauderdale area is acclaimed for its underwater attributes. Its spectacular three-tiered natural reef system, offering, in many locations, quick access from the city's numerous beaches, is difficult to match.
Here diving is a huge part of the tourism industry. Divers of every level are catered to. Spear fishing. Lobster hunting. Sport divers. Tech, rebreathers all get a seat on the more than two dozen charter boats operating in GFL.
There are a variety of swimming and diving festivals in the region. As well there is an annual lobster hunt. The 2-day July lobster hunt is a frenzy of activity as hundreds of divers jump into the warm coastal water looking for lobsters. An almost equal number of divers exit the water too (dive fatalities are not unusual during the mini-season frenzy) … most carrying a bag of bugs!
In Fort Lauderdale a newly relaunched Pro-Dive teaches divers from around the world how to become commercial and professional divers. And, in Pompano Beach, the centre of the city’s dive industry, Martin Stepanek, who has set a world’s free diving record (since broken), has a school you have to hold your breath to get in.
In addition to the reef dives there are now more than 80 artificial reefs created in Fort Lauderdale and a further 12 permanent sites off Miami. These reefs have been created to enhance the growth of marine animal and plant life in the region and to foster their growing dive industry.
In recent years the two cities combined have sunk everything from a margarita bar, a 435-ft freighter to a 94-ft DC-4 airplane.
As the self -proclaimed "Wreck Capital of the United States”, Greater Fort Lauderdale enhances the in-water experience, with a number of annual special events such as the Ocean Fest Dive & Adventure Sports Expo and Pompano Beach’s April three day Seafood Festival held right on the sand.
Highlights at this year’s Pompano Seafood Festival? Aside from the beach-bound food stands, and dive shop booths was a demonstration by free-diver Martin Štěpánek in a traveling DEMA demonstration tank.
The Austrian free-diver held his breath for over 7 minutes to a small crowd of divers and Diver Magazine’s cameras. Lesson learned? Holding your breath for more than 40-seconds hurts. Taking pictures of breath holders isn’t tough … even when you are using a Tough.


Cutlines: Top: fund raising licence plate seen in a Key Largo dive shop parking lot. Top right: Dive shop dog loves to breath in compressed air. Waits in this Pompano Beach dive shop for the owner to crack a tank. Top Middle: Key West Harbour - stock picture supplied by tourist board. Two Middle: Underwater near Key Largo testing Olympus cameras. Above: Key Largo ray. Left: Martin Stepanek holds his breath of 8-minutes in a demonstration at Key Largo's Oceanfest beach food and diving expo.

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