The Florida Keys: A Diversity of Dive Sites
The Florida Keys has everything a scuba diver could ever want. Not only can you dive the Keys year round, but the area caters to all skill levels. New to diving – that’s fine; the Florida Keys have shallow reefs which allow for extended bottom time. Wanna explore a shipwreck – take your pick from the Florida Keys Wreck Trek. About the only thing the Florida Keys doesn’t have is good shore diving.
Still not impressed? Well listen up my American friends; the Florida Keys is home to the only living coral reef system in the continental United States. Suck it rest of the country. In fact, the Florida Keys Reef Tract is the third largest barrier reef system in the world, and runs the entire length of the Keys. Spur and groove reef structure provides fascinating topography for exploration. Ridges of coral (the spurs) are separated by channels of sand bottoms (the grooves).
While prices vary, expect the following rates while diving and snorkeling the Florida Keys:
Scuba Diving – Average Prices
Half day dive trip, with tanks and weights included.
(BCD, Regulator, Mask, Snorkel, Fins and Wetsuit)
Snorkeling – Average Prices
Half day trip with mask, fins and snorkel included.
Get to the Reef
Wherever you are in the Florida Keys, the reef can be found only 2-6 miles offshore. Naturally you have to take a boat to reach the dive sites, and travel time to the reef averages half an hour. You can rent your own small boat (expensive), hire a private guide (more expensive), or go out with a group on a dive boat (most common).
Make your way down the Overseas Highway in the Keys and you’ll pass a healthy number of professionally outfitted dive shops, all of whom are ready and willing to take you out to the countless number of dive sites. Most shops typically offer two dive trips a day, with two dives in the morning (8am), and two in the afternoon (1pm).
Sample Dive Charter Schedule
Some shops offer a more private experience, running small 6-pack boats, while other operators will take you out with a large group of other divers and even snorkelers, depending on the dive site you are visiting. Once you are done diving, rest your tired fins at one of the many resorts catering to divers, such as Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo.
Weather & Ocean Conditions
I think we can all agree that Mother Nature is a crazy, unpredictable bitch. The dive shop captains know this, and they act accordingly. While dive shops do have a schedule of regularly visited dive sites, the captains will take you to whatever dive site they deem has the best conditions. This is for your own safety and enjoyment.
You will have different conditions dependent on several factors, including time of year, if you are diving an inner or outer reef, if you are in a sand channel, and if you are diving on the front or backside of each individual reef. Winds coming out of the south and southeast make for the worst ocean conditions. The relative location of the Gulf Stream provides excellent visibility for the majority of dive sites, with the outer reefs having especially clear waters.
The ocean is at its most calm in the summer and into fall, with the winter bringing strong winds, and in turn rough conditions. But no matter the time of year, be aware that the weather can change by the drop of Poseidon’s Trident. In the morning you can have rough seas, and then it can flatten out and clear up for a beautiful afternoon. Make up your mind, Mama Nature.
In the summer, expect afternoon thunderstorms to pass through, but don’t let it scare you off for the day. Also, be aware of hurricane season which runs from the beginning of June to the end of November. If no storms are threatening, be sure to visit between August to November. This can be some of the best diving in the Florida Keys.
What to Wear
Water temps range from the lower 70s in the winter to the lower 80s in the summer. You can get away with diving in just your bathing suit in the summer, and a 3mm – 5mm shorty or full in the winter, depending on your preference. Some divers wear a 1mm in the summer to protect from jelly fish and other critters.
We can’t have a guide to scuba diving the Florida Keys without at least mentioning snorkeling. The Florida Keys is a snorkeling mecca, and to be honest that’s what the majority of tourists do on a visit here.
The great thing about the Keys is the fact that you can have divers and snorkelers on the same boat, snorkeling and diving side by side on the same reef. Snorkelers can explore the top of reef ridges, while divers can dive down and cruise the grooves (sand channels) for critters in between the ridges.
Wildlife & Marine Conservation
The reef line in the Florida Keys is home to an amazing array of flora and fauna. Underwater wildlife is abundant throughout all of the dive sites in the Keys. Even the artificial reef sites attract an absurd amount of life. One dive on the USCG Duane wreck in Key Largo and you will understand the importance and purpose of an artificial reef.
The Florida Keys has been hailed as one of the “fishiest” dive locations in the world, and this didn’t happen by accident. The area has a rich history of marine conservation, with the creation of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in the 1960s, and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in the 1990s.
photo copyright Kim Eldridge
Authorities recognize the importance of this fragile ecosystem, and have fought to protect it. You can see the results of these efforts while diving any site in the Keys. The decades of protection have caused wildlife to become desensitized to the presence of humans. This allows divers and snorkelers to get up close and personal with much of the fish life. Check out contributor Allison Estape hanging out with a resident turtle.
photo copyright Carlos Estape
In order to protect the coral reef from damaging boat anchors, mooring buoys have been installed at dive sites throughout the Florida Keys. Genius!