By sinking wrecks as artificial reefs and protecting sea creatures in marine parks, the Florida Keys is going out of its way to appeal to divers
The Overseas Highway runs through the Florida Keys like a seam, stitching the string of tiny islands together with the mainland, from Largo Key in the east to Key West.
At times barely wider than the highway itself, the Keys are an archipelago of coral cays that stretch in a crescent from the mainland of Florida 120 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. There are 1,700 islands in all, though most are very small, and the highway connects 43 of them, hopping from one to the next by bridge, over turquoise channels.
But it’s a place best seen and explored by boat, not car. Fishing and diving are popular here, and each house, situated on a channel, has its own boat and little dock.
The waters around the Keys form a National Marine Sanctuary with an area of 2,900 square nautical miles, from south of Miami to the Dry Tortugas west of the Keys. The sanctuary's aim is to protect this area, which is the world's third largest barrier reef, along with its corals, mangroves, seagrass beds and the more than 6,000 marine species.
The Keys have a long history of sinking ships to create artificial reefs and playgrounds for divers. These artificial reefs also benefit natural ones by easing some of the diving and snorkelling traffic. One of the latest additions to the seabed is the massive Vandenberg wreck off Key West. Others date back to the 1980s and have become established reefs. There are plenty of 'natural' shipwrecks here as well; from Spanish treasure galleons to Second World War navy ships. The possibility of lost treasure has enticed divers here too; Art McKee, nicknamed the father of modern treasure hunting, made the Keys his home and treasure hunter Mel Fisher spent decades searching the waters off Key West for the wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. When he located it in 1985, its $400 million cargo of silver and gems made him and all his family millionaires. There's a museum dedicated to the story of this wreck and other finds by the salvage company that Fisher founded in Key West.
If the history of diving is of interest, head to the excellent History of Diving Museum in Islamorada. The museum, which started as the personal collection of Joe and Sally Bauer, is well laid out and has an incredibly large collection of diving helmets from around the world. It's also got a particular focus on the history of diving in South Florida and the Florida Keys. So take a trip with us down Highway 1 and we'll find the best places to dive along the way…
Key Largo is the first stop for any diver. At 33 miles long, it's the largest of the Keys, and the closest to the rest of Florida. Considered the diving capital, there are plenty of dive operators here to take you out to the many dive sites scattered along the barrier reef on the southwest side of the island. While the shallow reefs are interesting, for the more adventurous diver the wrecks offer more of a challenge. The largest and most famous is the Spiegel Grove.
The USS Spiegel Grove was a dock landing ship, launched in 1956. At 155m long, the ship was used to transport landing craft and helicopters, and when it was decommissioned, the ship became the largest artificial reef in the world at the time. But sinking the ship in 2001 wasn’t plain sailing. Just hours before she was due to be scuttled, the ship capsized and the stern of the helipad came to rest on the seabed, with the bow out the water. The authorities got a salvage company to turn the wreck onto its starboard side, so it was fully submerged. But that’s not the end of the story; during hurricane Dennis, three years later, the wreck was turned again, and now sits upright on the seabed.
Though the wreck has been rolled around a bit, there’s still plenty of recognisable features to orientate you. Its cranes and gun mounts provide hidey-holes for marine life, and the wreck attracts barracuda and Goliath grouper. It’s a huge wreck; it’d take a couple of dives to see the whole site, especially as the depth limits dive times (130ft/37m to the sea bed).
The wreck of the Duane lies on the seabed at around 40m, with its deck around 30m deep. The 100m-long coast guard cutter was built in 1936 and was sunk where it lies today to form an artificial reef in 1987. Sitting upright on sand, the wreck has attracted a lot of sea life. It's covered in encrusting corals and sponges, and schools of snapper and grunts hang around the superstructure. This is a blue water site, and it’s well worth looking out for larger predators; the great barracuda are impossible to miss, but keep an eye on the blue for bull sharks too. Earlier this year, a small group of divers on the Duane spotted a great white shark as they descended the shot line – and caught the encounter on video. A dramatic start to a dive! Sitting as it does in open water, the wreck can be subject to some pretty strong currents. But it's possible to dive in the lee of the wreck, and there are a number of swim-throughs and places to shelter.
A popular second dive after the Duane, Molasses Reef lies close to the wreck and within John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park – a protected zone that extends around 25miles along the shore of Key Largo. It's really a network of reefs, too large to see in a single dive. The reef has a spur-and-groove formation, which is typical of Key Largo reefs. Sandy channels run into the reef proper, which divers can follow until they become too shallow. There are plenty of soft corals on the reefs here, though the hard corals are fewer and not in such good shape. On Molasses Reef, you can see the occasional reef shark or nurse shark and smaller reef fish. If you've dived the Duane, you might want to stay fairly shallow – my maximum depth was around 10m – and it's possible to snorkel too. Along the edge of the reef you can dive deeper, to around 30m, and there can be currents here too, so expect a drift dive.
From Key Largo, the next town down the Overseas Highway is Islamorada. More a collection of villages, spread over six islands, it's known for its sport fishing, but there are dive centres here too and the History of Diving Museum is worth a look. Though I dived the Eagle from Islamorada, it's close enough for Key Largo dive boats to reach too.
Another purposely sunk wreck, The Eagle was a freighter built in the Netherlands in the 1960s. Sunk in 1985, the wreck was split in two by Hurricane George in 1998 and there's now a clear breach in the middle. The wreck lies on its side at around 30m, and is well covered in sponges and corals. There are plenty of little critters to find – including nudibranchs, octopus and scorpionfish – if your bottom time allows, but keep your eyes on the blue as well, as there are plenty of larger predators to be spotted. Giant barracuda are everywhere, and there may be bull sharks to see too.
An easy, shallow dive to follow on from The Eagle. Arnos is a circular reef with an average depth of around 8m. There are few hard corals, but soft corals are profuse - and so are the fish. Schools of snapper and grunts hang around the reef, rays lay on sandy stretches of seabed and there are turtles around too. The reef itself is full of holes – like a Swiss cheese, my dive guide explains – and these make excellent hidey-holes for shy sea creatures. I saw plenty of spiny lobster, their antenna poking out from crevices low down on the reef. During lobster season, you can take a dive trip specifically to catch lobster - there are restrictions on the size of lobster you can remove, and how many can be taken per diver in order to keep stocks healthy. Another frequent visitor to Arnos reef are nurse sharks. Snoozing in a sheltered spot, these shy sharks can be disturbed by divers, and tend to leave when you turn up.
The destination on the Overseas Highway is Key West - the end of the road. Before you reach it, however, is Bahia Honda State Park, which is worth a quick stop. With its white sand beaches and camping plots, the park is an out-of-town getaway for Key Westers. There's snorkelling and kayaking here – or it's a good place to stop for a picnic before you continue west.
It's worth spending a couple of days in Key West, to dive the massive wreck of the Vandenberg and to see the town. There's a real mix of people and cultures here. Historic houses line the streets, looking prim with white wooden boards, verandas and tropical gardens. There are art galleries and museums. But Key West is also a place to let your hair down, and the main drag of Duval Street is dominated by busy bars, tacky souvenirs and shops selling cheesy T-shirts. The town is pretty eccentric, rather isolated from the mainland more than 100 miles away. There's a large gay and lesbian community here, and lots of artists too. Key West's most famous resident was author, journalist and sport-fishing enthusiast Ernest Hemingway. You can still visit the house he lived in, home to about 30 six-toed cats, descended from the cats Hemingway had as pets. Or - in a more apt tribute - you can drink in Hemingway's favourite bar.
The USNS Gen Hoyt S Vandenberg was a missile-tracking ship, used to monitor space launches from Cape Canaveral as well as Soviet missiles during the Cold War. Sunk in May 2009 to form an artificial reef, the wreck is 160m long - the second largest ship to ever be sunk for this purpose (the largest is the Oriskany off Pensacola, Florida).
The distance from the bottom of the keel to the highest point of the wreck is a massive 30m. The deepest point of the wreck is around 44m. You can explore the radar dishes, the communications rooms and the crows nest, all within the 20-30m range. Four years after its sinking, the wreck is attracting a fair amount of marine life - and this should continue to increase as the reef gets older. The wreck also eases the pressure on local reefs of large number of divers.
It'll take a couple of dives to get round this ship. Bring a torch, because there are plenty of openings to peer into. Many openings were cut with divers in mind, but aren't always swim-throughs and lead into the maze-like interior of the ship. Best not to venture inside unless you're qualified to do so.
Need to know
Many thanks to: Amy Slate's Amoray Dive Resort | www.amoray.com
Ocean Divers | www.oceandivers.com
Islamorada Dive Center | www.islamoradadivecenter.com
History of Diving Museum | www.divingmuseum.org
Chelsea House, Pool and Gardens | www.historickeywestinns.com/the-inns/chelsea-house
For information on diving in the Florida Keys | www.fla-keys.com/diving