Warmed by the sun, both the southern Atlantic and the Gulf are radiantly clear, making the Florida Keys subtropical waters ideal for scuba diving and snorkeling. North America’s only living coral reef parallels the Keys’ 126-mile chain of 31 is-lands and is home to an undersea world filled with a myriad of natural wonders, shipwrecks and buried treasure. When you’re ready to take the plunge, here are some of the Keys’ not – to – be -missed spots.
1. USS Spiegel Grove
Located just six miles off Key Largo, the 510’ Spiegel Grove is the largest ship ever intention-ally sunk as an artificial reef. Resting on a flat sand plain 130’ deep, the massive size of this 84’ wide wreck is a sight to behold. The highest point starts at around 60’, with a maximum depth of 134’. Some favorite spots on the wreck include the crane area, the coral-covered gun mount and the American flag, waving proudly in the current.
2. Christ of the Abyss
Located in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, this 4,000 pound, solid bronze statue stands 9’ tall and with a depth of just 15,’ the site is great for both snorkelers and divers. Easy-to-navigate tongue-and-groove coral formations teem with angelfish, barracuda and even the occasional turtle. This site makes for some spectacular photo ops. However, as tempting as it may be, do not touch the iconic statue because it’s covered in fire coral. Unless you want to take home a painful souvenir, keep your distance.
3. Eagle & Alligator Reef
Just a few miles offshore from Islamorada lies another spectacular dive site: Eagle and Alli-gator Reef. The Eagle, a 287’ freighter that was sunk in 1985, lies about 110’ down. Explo-ration begins at about 65’ to 70’. The ship is heavily covered by marine growth and attracts schools of tarpon and permit, two of the Keys’ premier game fish, as well as angelfish and dozens of tropical species.
Marathon, which is midway between Key Largo and Key West, is the site of this 188’ military ship sitting perfectly upright in 115’ of water. Sunk in 1986, the wreck is covered by a thick coating of colorful sponges, corals and hydroids. Angelfish and jacks swim around the super-structure and a jewfish estimated to weigh 500 pounds stands guard near the bow.
5. Sombrero Reef
Marked by a 140’ lighthouse, world famous Sombrero Reef is one of the most magnificent coral reefs in the Middle Keys. With depths ranging from 5’ to 35’, this protected marine
preserve is perfect for divers and snorkelers of all levels.
6. Adolphus Busch
Featured in a 1957 Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth flick titled “Fire Down Below,” this 210’ long ex-movie-star freighter was sunk in 1998 and sits majestically upright in 110’ of water off of the Lower Keys. The ship now plays host to a new cast of characters, including a pair of approximately 400-pound jewfish, hovering trumpetfish, large permit and colorful tropicals. Adventurous divers can swim inside the ship to experience the thrill and mystery of a penetration dive.
7. Looe Key
Looe Key, a 5.5-square-mile protected underwater ecosystem, is actually named after a frig-ate which sank here in 1744. Although the wreck no longer exists, the coral here creates an unrivaled undersea oasis. Often cited as the most beautiful coral reef in North America, Looe Key showcases an incredibly diverse population of tropical fish, corals, sponges, hydroids and shellfish. A wide variety of depths ranging from 1’ to 30’ makes for easy snorkeling and diving.
8. Joe’s Tug
Located just off of Key West, this 75’ tug boat sank under mysterious conditions. At just 65’ below the surface, it’s an easy and rewarding dive for both beginner and advanced divers. Soft and hard coral formations along with large sponges surround the tug which is inhabited by friendly moray eels, impassive grunts and curious snappers. Visibility is also generally good, making it a magnificent locale for photos.
9. Alexander’s Wreck
Just a few miles from downtown Key West and 30’ down in the Gulf of Mexico, is Alexan-der’s Wreck. This 300’ long destroyer escort lies in two sections, about 150’ apart, but after 30 years of being underwater, it looks more like a reef than a wreck. Oysters shroud its hull while nurse sharks and nudibranchs, corals and crustaceans add to this diverse ecosystem.
10. West Sambos
Four miles south of Boca Chica lies one of the prettiest reefs in the world. The site is part of a strictly protected ecological reserve and boasts the greatest habitat diversity in the Lower
Keys. At the west end, in just 25’ of water, grow large fields of coral. In slightly deeper wa-ter, large stand-alone coral heads dot the sea floor. Each coral head supports a community of sea creatures — fish above, shrimp on the edges and lobsters in crevices.
11. Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg
Located off of Key West, this former 520’ military troop transport is the world’s second largest purpose-sunk vessel and home to a healthy population of marine life. Sitting 140’ below the surface, most of the massive wreck lies 40’ to 50’ down which makes it a great dive for both novice and experienced divers. Check out the dish antenna, weather-balloon hangar, crow’s nest, 20’ smokestack and bridges covered in corals.
12. USS Wilkes-Barre
Built in 1942, this former 608’ long, 10,000pound WWII cruiser is by far the largest ship to be reefed in the Florida Keys. Located off Cudjoe Key, the ship rests in two separate pieces in 140’ to 250’ of water and serves as an artificial reef. Each half is a separate dive. This is one of the Keys’ deepest dives and is only recommended for very experienced decompres-sion divers. If you can manage it, this is a must-see site and one of the most impressive wrecks in the area.
What’s your favorite place to dive?