Diving the Upper Keys in Florida

Annette Robertson explores a portion of the artificial reef Spiegel Grove Wednesday, May 16, 2012, in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, off Key Largo, Fla (Stephen Frink/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO)

Diving the Upper Keys of the Florida Keys may not have the high profile of many international destinations, but it is still very good diving. In fact, the locals call Key Largo the dive capital of the world. Sometimes it is hard to argue with the locals. The Florida Keys are a long narrow archipelago of around 800 islands that stretch over 120 miles. They separate the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west. The northern portion of the keys are just off the Florida mainland. The southern most key is consider Key West. Key West is the southern most point of the continental US. Additional isolated keys extend to the west of Key West, however, there are no population centers. Most of the keys are within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). The Florida coast is protected by the third largest barrier reef system in the world. The Florida Reef Tract is nearly 150 miles long and about 4 miles wide extending to the edge of the Florida Straits. The FKNMS includes most of the Florida Barrier Reef.

Florida Keys Photo couristy of National Ocean Service of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of U.S. Department of Commerce

There is one main highway in the Keys, that is US 1 also locally called the Overseas Highway. Most destinations in the Keys are located by mile markers along the highway. Mile marker zero (MM0) is located in Key West. The Lower Keys extends to MM47 which is the southern point of 7 mile bridge. Yes, the bridge is seven miles long and is one of 42 bridges of the Overseas Highway. Some people show Key West as being separate category from the Lower Keys. They consider the Lower Keys starting at the north tip off Key West. The Middle Keys includes the City of Marathon and runs to Craig Key at MM75. The Upper Keys starts at Lower Matecumbe Key and go north pass Key Largo. It is a hours drive to Miami airport from Key Largo.A great place to start your diving the Upper Keys. Biscayne Bay which is formed between the Keys and the mainland is outside of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and is it’s own National Park.

Location

What is So Special About Diving the Upper Keys

There are many things that make diving the Upper Keys special. Most divers can probably tell you how the diving is in the Bahamas and you hear many rave about diving Bimini Islands. The conditions in the Florida Keys is very similar to most of the diving in the Bahamas and they are often called “America’s Caribbean”. Bimini Island and Key Largo are only 48 miles apart. Diving the Upper Keys is much like diving the Bahamas but easier to change dive destinations, just drive.

Snorkeler Katherine Wieland examines the Christ of the Abyss statue in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary off Key Largo, Fla. This nine-foot-tall, 4,000 pound replica of a similar statue, located in the waters off the coast of Italy, is submerged in 25 feet of water at Key Largo Dry Rocks. Photo by Stephen Frink/Florida Keys News Bureau

Key Largo is the home of the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Established in 1963 it was the first undersea park in the United States. The park is home of what is called the most dived dive site in the world, Christ of the Abyss. The state park falls within the boundaries of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The park extends out three miles from the shore, the limit of state waters and is 25 miles long. The visibility is generally very good and many sites have little or no currents. The park has dozens of moored dive sites among the coral. Most of the dive sites are in the lagoon created by the barrier reef. As a general trait of a barrier reef, the land side between the edge of the reef and the shore is called a lagoon. It is protected water of a shallow depth when compared to the water of the deep side of the reef. Most of the reef sites are less than 60 feet, and a number are around 30 feet. Many of these are protected by the barrier reef from everyday currents so they are excellent for open water divers. Diving the Upper Keys brings you to some sites that are in deeper water and some have currents for great drift dives. Drift dives and wall dives are common along the face of the barrier reef and out into the Florida Strait.

Do you like Shipwrecks?

If you like shipwrecks, you will love the Keys. The city of Key West grew and made many a man rich as a salvage center in the 1800s. Along the Keys are over a thousand ships sunk either by being careless or pushed off course by storms. Most have not been found. The Upper Keys has it fair share of wreck sites for divers to explore. Most by nature but a few with the help of man. Ten of the most popular shipwrecks make up the shipwreck trail.While diving the Upper Keys, Here are some of the wrecks you find around Key Largo:

  • If you are a history buff, the remains of the The San Jose & the El Infante will be an interest to you. These were two members of the 1733 “Silver Plate” fleet. Twenty one ships left Mexico with a stop in Cuba headed home to Spain. The ships carried gold, silver, jewelry and other high value cargo. They cross the path of a hurricane and all of them sunk. Only fifteen including these two have ever been found. While they are protected so you can not search for treasure, you can see the remains of these early ships.
  • The USS Spiegel Grove is considered one of the finest wreck dives in the world. She was a Landing Ship Dock (LSD-32). At 510 feet long and 84 feet wide she is one of the largest artificial reefs in the world. There are eight different mooring buoys around the wreck and it would take a number of dives just to see the outer structure of the ship. This is considered a advanced dive as the depth ranges from 60 feet to 130 feet. The majority of the diving is done between the 60 foot deep superstructure and the100 foot deep main deck. She was sunk as the focal point of a artificial reef project in 2001. Unfortunately the planning sinking did not go as planned. She sunk earlier than planned and in the processed rolled over. The stern was upside down but the bow was 65 feet out of the water. A salvage company raised her stern so she could be rolled to her side and sunk back down. Three years later, a hurricane rolled her upright as she is today. Mother Nature has also helped make her popular with the fish over 130 species are found in and around the wreck.
  • The USCGC William J. Duane and the USCGC George M. Bibb are sister ships that were sunk be an artificial reef program near each other. They are Treasury class US Coast Guard Cutters that are 327 feet long. The Duane sits upright in 120 feet of water with the superstructure at 65 feet. After she was sunk in 1987, she became the most visited wreck in the United States. The Bibb went down the day after the Duane, however, she is on her side.

Sleeping with the Fish

Not a line from a old style gangster movie, but a hotel only for divers. While there are a few hotels around the world with underwater rooms, only one requires a dive to enter. Key Largo is the home of the Jules’ Undersea Lodge. The lodge is the former La Chalupa research laboratory, which was the largest and most advanced underwater habitat in the 1970s. It was converted in 1986 to become the first underwater hotel. The hotel has only two rooms for sleeping and the guest share a common area. There is a common wet room with a wet porch also known as a moon pool. Guest scuba dive down to about 30 feet swim below the habitat and enter by the wet porch.

This is just a short overview of all that is diving in the Upper Keys, It is a place that must be experienced to fully understand the diving.