When I settled in South Florida 3 years ago, I felt a bit like a pilgrim who’d finally reached Xanadu. Ocean, ocean everywhere. Miami, home to Pipin the godfather of freedivers. Wild dolphins in abundance, surfing the bow wave and frolicking in the great Biscayne Bay. My previous address had been in Haiku, Maui. I think I imagined South Florida would be kind of a Hawaiian megalopolis, and that the aquatic portion of my life would go on more or less unchanged.
South Florida has a great deal to offer as a freediving destination, but I’ve come to appreciate the importance of tuning one’s expectations, and therefore, one’s plans and even one’s equipage to the region’s special challenges and opportunities. Having by now greeted and dived with many dozens of visiting freedivers, I’d like to pass along what I, as a slightly more experienced newcomer, have learned about getting the most out of what can be a fantastic venue.
First, the matter of climate. South Florida is not quite tropical, although for much of the winter it does a pretty good imitation of it. There are, however, cold snaps. Writing this, on February 1, near Fort Lauderdale, I can recall a couple of recent nights when the mercury dipped to around 40 F / 4 C, but today I was toasting in 82 F /28 C sunshine in the afternoon. The Atlantic long the East Coast, from Palm Beach to Miami, has been around 73F / 23 C.
Here’s the thing: many true Floridian locals consider these conditions too cold for swimming, diving or boating ! We’re busy all winter hosting the millions of tourists who flee the frigid North American and European climes, but many of us are slightly bemused by the sight of their pale bodies sunning in what seems to us rather chilly weather.
Yes, we’re spoiled.
The summer, you see, is very, very hot and humid in these parts. Believe it or not, those who can afford it have taken to installing cooling systems for their swimming pools, which otherwise, in summer, are so warm the water is almost indistinguishable from the humid air.
Winter is drier, cooler and windier, so freedivers visiting in this season should come equipped with serious thermal protection for water and dry land. I personally am happy in winter with my 3mm Picasso hooded fullsuit, but some of my friends like a little more. To/from the dive site, I’m generally covered from head to toe. Sweats, windbreakers, that sort of thing. Be prepared. It isn’t like Finland or anything, but it isn’t equatorially hot, either.
Ah, yes: to/from the dive site. There are places in this world where freedivers get to the dive site in automobiles. Kona and Cayman come quickly to mind, as do certain Red Sea spots. It is a lovely thing when serious depth is just a short swim from shore. South Florida, though, is not like that.
You need a boat. If you’re really a tough guy, like some locals, a kayak will work, but let’s get real: you need a boat.
There are a few spots along the coast where a swim of a few hundred meters gets you to some interesting reef in 30 -70 feet / 10 -20m of water, but all shore entries quickly acquaint one with another feature of our locale: current.
On, yes, the currents. Variable, to be sure, but often quite strong. The shore diver desirous of returning to his/her parked car at session’s end is likely either to face a strenuous workout, or, if lazy, can carry taxi fare in a dry box. My preferred mode in these parts is to motor out to the upcurrent sector of the area I want to dive, and then drift. This means, of course, that somebody has to stay with the boat. Sometimes a non-diver is happy to do this duty, lazing and enjoying a day on the water, but when there’s none available a political settlement amongst the divers must be reached.
The reef systems between Key Largo and Palm Beach are well worth the effort and modest expense involved in getting there. Boat and divers drift along, parallel to the shore, over a world-class underwater environment with abundant wildlife and numerous wrecks. Spearfishing is very popular and generally productive. Visibility varies, especially in winter, but sometimes is superb. Once out there, I’m a happy freediver indeed.
For serious depth, training and the like, we’ve got to adopt a slightly different strategy for living with the currents. Once we start pushing past 100 ft / 30m and, for some of the top divers who call South Florida home, getting down to the extreme depths in constant ballast and no-limits, our priority is a straight descent line. A strong surface current, common inshore, yields a steeply angled line and imposes additional physical and psychological burdens on the divers.
A little further offshore, with the hard bottom at 300 -500 feet / 90 – 150m, we frequently encounter midwater currents which deform the descent line into the shape of the letter "C", or yank the bottom weights aside to form an "L". This is a both a nuisance and a hazard. The last thing a freediver needs to see when making a turnaround at 70 meters is a bottom plate receding into the distance as a deep current whisks him/her away.
For deep freediving with a straight descent line, we head way, way out. We need a homogenous current, with respect to speed and direction, from surface to bottom plate. To get this on a reliable basis, for descent lines of 165 – 330 feet/ 50 -100m, we think in terms of going 7-10 miles offshore, where the bottom is 1,000 feet / 300 meters below the keel. The dive rig drifts on its own, with the boat orbiting at a safe distance and monitoring shipping and pleasure traffic. This, people, is the big blue at its biggest and bluest.
No discussion of South Florida freediving would be complete without mention of the fabled Keys, the chain of islets curving to the south and west from Florida City to Key West. Key Largo is a thriving dive destination with innumerable dive shops and boat operators. The coral reef system is protected, as well as one can reasonably hope for given the huge number of visitors, by a designated nature preserve in which hunting and collecting are strictly forbidden. Most of the commercial boat traffic moors in relatively shallow 30-50 feet / 10 – 15m water. I often take visitors from the North to Key Largo, and while nobody’s going to set world depth records or even personal bests in these waters, the beauty and vitality of the coral formations never disappoints. I don’t think I’ve ever failed to treat my guests to at least one largish animal there, rays and sharks mostly.
Since visiting freedivers in South Florida are most likely to book passage on commercial dive boats ( although boat rentals are readily available for those competent and independent enough to choose this option) a word is in order about interacting with captains and crews. Most are not accustomed to serving freedivers. Scuba is their bread and butter, and they are very, very good at accomodating that market. Freedivers booking spots on scuba boats should make certain to attain clarity with the operator, the skipper and crew with respect to their activities and capabilities. Some operators have a hard time getting their heads around the idea that you really do want to ride out to a wreck in 120 feet / 36m and dive it without scuba gear. They may resist, and gently try to divert you to their other boat, the one taking 60 tourists to snorkel in waist-deep water. And, once you manage to make your intentions clear, the next thing that occurs to many operators is the most recent media coverage of freediving to which they’ve been exposed. Here in South Florida, sadly, that is likely to have been the Audrey Mestre tragedy. Be prepared to congenially assuage the operator’s concerns with a presentation which includes any agency qualifactions you may have earned, courses completed, and emphasis on the safety systems you, as a responsible freediver, are bound to adhere to.
South Florida is home to many world-class freedivers from all over the globe, hosts ranking competitors on a year-round basis, and can be a winning destination for the recreational freediver as well. It is also an urbane, modern American metro area with plenty of reasonably-priced accomodations, cheap car rentals, and infinite dining and nightlife possibilities. I live here, among other reasons, because I can do any kind of freediving I want pretty much any time I want. Yes, there will be those winter days when winds and seas will keep the boats at dock – but that is what windsurfing was invented for! Come on down. I’m at home here, and if you have specific questions or need detailed info, I’m happy to respond to your emails addressed to me at [email protected]