Florida Keys Scuba Diving: Best Reef/Wreck Pairings

FLORIDA KEYS SCUBA DIVING: THE DOUBLE DIP

 

 

From wrecks to reefs, deep dives to shallow dives, here are the perfect dive site pairings for your next scuba trip to the Florida Keys.

“It is an underwater cathedral,” says Capt. Travis Ice of Emocean Sports during our surface interval. “If you are going to dive any wreck in the Keys, the Spiegel Grove has to be one of them.”

He tells me that I’d need to stay for a month to truly see all of the great diving the Keys has to offer. Since I’ve got only a week, I mentally begin reworking my itinerary. My solution for each dive day: a double-dip dive that combines a deep wreck with a shallow reef.

USS SPIEGEL GROVE AND CHRIST OF THE ABYSS

Measuring an impressive 510 feet long, its size alone makes Key Largo’s Spiegel Grove feel like an underwater monument. Rumor says that it takes six separate dives to circumnavigate the wreck in its entirety. More interesting than the rumor is its history: In 2002, it was scheduled for sinking as an artificial reef but accidentally went down on its own hours earlier and ended up on its side. A few years later, Hurricane Dennis rushed through and knocked the wreck back where it belonged — upright.

Submerged for more than a decade, the Grove is now covered in coral from its shallowest point at 60 feet to its deepest at 134 feet. With so much bottom time, the wreck couldn’t help but attract a ton of marine life. After my fiancé, Jamie, and I head down the mooring line, we fin to about 90 feet in order to view the wreck from below. Capt. Travis was right; this wreck is one massive beast. Moving on, we encounter a pair of grouper, a gun mount covered in hearty pink and green corals, and an American flag perched on the wheelhouse. Despite the wreck’s somewhat unstable history, its structure is strongly intact with ample, well-lit swimthroughs. We make it through two passageways before it’s time to head back to the mooring line. If the rumor is right, I’ve got one dive down and five more to go.

One iconic dive calls for another, making the Christ of the Abyss a fitting follow-up to the Spiegel Grove. With a depth of only about 15 feet, the site isn’t just a huge draw for divers; snorkelers flock here too. Just as at any popular site, finding the right charter can be the difference between enjoying a killer dive and ending up tangled in a crowd of fins. Knowing the importance of timing, Capt. Travis uses his briefing as a way to keep us entertained while we wait for the crowd to clear. By the time Emocean Sports’ 45-foot Corinthian is moored up on one of the outlying buoys, the pool is open. The only thing left for us to do is find the statue. Lucky for us, these guys have their navigational skills down to a science.

“Think of the reef as the back of your palm, your wrist as the shallow portion where the snorkelers can get a great view of the reef, and in between your fingers as sand channels for divers,” says Brian “Mazz” Marzorati, PADI master scuba diver trainer with Emocean Sports. “In one of these sand channels is where you’ll find the statue.”

He doesn’t steer us wrong. Four spur-and-groove formations from the mooring line, we make a right turn to a clearing where the Christ of the Abyss waits with his arms extended toward the surface, sunlight beaming down from the sky, and clouds of fish swirling everywhere. No matter how many dives you’ve logged, underwater Jesus never gets old. Soon enough, our peaceful moment comes to an abrupt halt as a crowd of snorkelers arrives, each one taking turns diving down to touch the statue. Note: It is covered in fire coral.

“Our running joke is not to dive down and kiss Jesus on the feet because he is covered in fire coral, and you will have a truly religious experience — and not of the good kind,” says Mazz.

Finning back to the boat, we pass a handful of miniature barracuda and an inquisitive lobster before an eagle ray glides through the shallows. This shallow dive site certainly knows how to impress.

Post-dive, I’m starving for a carb fix and a cool cocktail — calories don’t count after diving — and we’re in the perfect spot for both. The Keys are filled with kitschy restaurants and waterfront bars where you’re almost guaranteed to make a new friend (or more, depending on how many drinks you order).

From our temporary home at Key Largo Bay Marriott Beach Resort, Jamie and I walk the five minutes to Sundowners for a sunset cocktail, conch fritters and fried green olives before heading across the street for dinner at the Fish House Restaurant and Seafood Market, which is so good they had to open up a location next door — appropriately called the Encore — to make room for their overflow. The house specialty: the catch of the day served up Matecumbe-style.

No matter what you have for dinner, you must leave room for the homemade Key lime pie. As we eat our meal at the bar, we watch five pies fly out of the cooler almost as quickly as they’re stocked. We take one to go — we’ll need our energy for tomorrow, when we gear up for the USCG Duane.

USCG DUANE AND PICKLES REEF

Key Largo’s Duane is a fickle wreck, known for change – able conditions and potentially unforgiving currents. Sitting at 120 feet and measuring 327 feet long, this former U.S. Coast Guard cutter is one of 10 wrecks that make up the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Shipwreck Trail (which also includes the Spiegel Grove).

This isn’t my first time on the Duane — I’ve attempted this wreck before, but as a rookie diver. Back then, my brand-new dive skills conspired with some killer current, and our divemaster called the dive. So here I am again.

At the foot of the mooring line, the bow is pumping with chaotic waves of baitfish and a giant goliath grou – per, who swiftly leaves as our group clumsily lands on his turf. The current pulls us to the navigation bridge and its resident barracuda while a school of bar jacks undulates in the open blue.

After five minutes of cruising with the current down the top of the wreck, Jamie realizes this is not a drift dive and signals for us to head back to the mooring line. From there, we blow through about 1,000 psi. Back at the surface, we can’t help but commiserate over our embarrassingly low air reserves.

“The current can be unforgiving, but I’ve also seen it change from hour to hour,” says Kell Levendorf, lead PADI instructor at Divers Direct/Ocean Divers/ Emocean Sports. “I’ve seen it go from ripping mad on the first dive to completely calm after the surface inter – val. You never know what the Duane is going to deliver.”

Today we don’t have the luxury of waiting out the conditions for a double-dip dive — Ocean Divers’ typi – cal way to offer back-to-back dives on the wreck in one outing. Next on the agenda we’re going for something a little lighter: Pickles reef.

A sharp contrast to the Duane, Pickles is only about 15 to 25 feet deep and delivers zero current. At depth, we’re in a barrel-sponge breeding ground; every few minutes I stumble upon another one of the empty un – derwater vases. Thick schools of yellowtail try to hide under the coral overhangs. In a sandy patch, an angel – fish tries the opposite approach and goes straight for its reflection in the dome port of my camera. After an hour, we surface — this time with at least 1,500 psi left in our tanks. After the Duane, we had to redeem ourselves.

For this evening’s food sesh, we head to Castaway Waterfront Restaurant & Sushi Bar, recommended by a fellow diver on the Duane. Her description of the joint: It’s got a Florida Keys vibe with some of the best hogfish around. One thing she failed to mention was their kick-ass honey buns — fried bread with a side of honey. As with last night’s Key lime pie, we end this day on a sugar high, just the extra kick we need for our two-hour road trip to our next destination: Key West.

USNS GEN. HOYT S. VANDENBERG AND SAND KEY

Checking into the Marker Hotel we’ve found our own little corner of Key West. The posh hotel has a South Beach vibe, with all-white decor and a swanky pool. It’s not a hang-yourdive-gear-over-the-balcony type of place, but the bathrooms are so big that you won’t mind. We love that it’s within walking distance to the energy of Duval Street, where we keep the sugar rush going that evening with a bag of kettle corn from one of the food carts at the Sunset Festival in Mallory Square. Every evening at sundown, the square hosts eccentric local entertainment, including everything from psychics to tightrope walkers to fire jugglers, and all the junk food you can stomach.

Before we let loose on Joe’s “Pretty Good Popcorn” or some Jamaican patties, we rein ourselves in and head back to the hotel. No one needs a food coma before a wreck dive, and the next day we have a big one planned: a visit to the Shipwreck Trail’s newest member, the USNS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg.

Located just 7 miles from the continental United States’ southernmost point, the 520-foot ship sits at 140 feet and is the world’s secondlargest purpose-sunk wreck. The Conch Republic couldn’t be prouder, even placing their very own flag next to the American one on the wreck.

“When the Vandenberg sank, we posted a Conch flag and an American flag,” says Joe Weatherby, the president of Artificial Reefs International. “We had such a great reaction from people that on the Fourth of July, some guys came down from Illinois and replaced our worn-out flag with one from a 9/11 memorial in their hometown.”

The American flag hangs at the top of the superstructure at about 40 feet, a prime piece of realty. Depending on which of the six mooring balls you descend on, the Stars and Stripes is one of the first and last things you’ll see on the wreck. As we hit the top bridge, it’s hard to miss the giant flag. We miss it completely. Instead, we head for the crow’s nest and then move on to explore the coral-covered bridges and a weather-balloon hangar hiding a grouper or two. A nonchalant barracuda follows us throughout the entire dive. At the dive’s end, we make a slow ascent to the top of the superstructure where we thankfully rise right in front of the flag, suspended in the nonexistent current.

After the wreck, and true to our mission, we hit a local reef. Similar to the Key Largo’s Christ of the Abyss, Sand Key boasts shallow profiles, making it attractive for divers and snorkelers alike. With an average depth of 35 feet, the site is marked by a 110-foot light tower on the surface, and is home to grouper, barracuda and even the occasional turtle. We catch glimpses of two of the three. The reef itself is covered in elkhorn coral, which harbors banded coral shrimp, big-eyed angelfish and the elusive flamingo tongue snail. I’m a sucker for flamingo tongues. When it comes to marine life, finding one of those delicate pink critters under a fallen sea fan is right up there with a shark encounter or a big tornado of horse-eye jacks.

And that’s what’s so great about the Keys. Whether you’re after an adrenaline rush on the Shipwreck Trail or searching for smaller subjects in the shallows, there’s a perfect pairing of dive profiles to fit any type of adventurer.

For our last night in Key West, we give in to the lure of the food carts at the Sunset Festival before searching for a dive of a different kind: a hopping local bar with live music. We manage to find five. When we finally make our way back to the hotel, we pass the Key West Key Lime Shoppe, and I remember what Mazz told us on our surface interval on the Duane.

“From the fresh fish to the Key lime pie, the Keys have certain foods that taste completely different when they’ve never been frozen,” Mazz said.

With Mazz’s words lingering in my head and another imminent sugar buzz, I order up two, to go.

Special thanks to Emocean Sports, Ocean Divers, Horizon Divers, Sea Dwellers, Dive Key West, Key Largo Bay Marriott Beach Resort and the Marker Hotel.

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