The skyscrapers lining the coastline shrink in our peripheral vision as our dive boat heads toward the Atlantic in the dim, early morning light, and the divers on board twitter with excitement, and with good reason. We're about to dive the M/V Sheri-Lyn, a Dutch-built steel freighter that was intentionally sunk more than 20 years ago, just 3.5 miles east of Key Biscayne, Fla., an island community in the Miami area. The 235-foot wreck rested comfortably in an upright position for five years until Hurricane Andrew hit Florida's southeast coast in 1992. The storm tore the Sheri-Lyn in two, slamming her back down on her starboard side in the sand, at a depth of 105 feet. Her two halves now sit about 75 feet apart, allowing divers a clear view of the exposed bowels of her lower decks.
The inanimate metal remains have since come alive with an array of sea life. Old winches line the deck, providing lots of areas for growth. Large groupers lazily swim along the sand while barracudas hover overhead, as though on guard. Small sergeant majors protectively circle around barrel sponges and corals growing on the deck, darting in and out as we pass by. The Sheri-Lyn's size and depth allow us plenty of bottom time to explore her completely, but before we know it, it's time to return to the surface. At our safety stop, we can still see the ship's eerie, faint outline, beckoning us back. But it'll have to be next time.
Luckily for us, this wreck and more than 45 others--including steel boats (some seized by the United States Customs Department), tugboats, houseboats, barges, ferries, schooners, sailboats, freighters and even an old Boeing 727 airliner--are accessible, within reasonable depths and just a few miles and minutes from Miami's shores. In fact, with more artificial reefs in this part of South Florida than anywhere else in the United States--including an interconnected cluster of intentionally sunken vessels in Miami Beach called the Wreck Trek, many operators here proudly label these waters America's "wreckreational" diving capital.
The Sheri-Lyn is in the federally protected waters of the Key Biscayne Special Management Zone, under the jurisdiction of the Miami-Dade Department of Environmental Resource Management. And if you're good with your buoyancy and air conservation and have the right conditions, it's possible to explore as many as a half-dozen other wrecks on a single dive, as we did. The intentionally sunken barges and tugboats we dived are all in depths between 60 and 76 feet and connected by a well-marked underwater trail, safely guiding divers from one vessel to the next. A ban on spearfishing safeguards the marine life that lives here, including the highly prized goliath grouper, and each site has its own unique wreckage and marine life.
Belzona II and Belcher Barge
We start at the Belzona II by descending on this 90-foot iron tugboat, sunk in 1991. It took only 25 pounds of dynamite to send her to the bottom, and now it's home to a variety of damselfish, yellow spotted eels and blueheaded wrasses. Christmas tree worms that poke out of the tug's coral growth suddenly disappear as my dive buddy and I swim past. While this is entertaining to watch, we realize that if we want to see all seven wrecks, we have to keep moving.
So we head about 50 feet northwest, to the Belcher Barge. When the 195-foot vessel was sunk 23 years ago, it came to rest upside down, and from overhead, its soft coral overgrowth makes it look more like a reef than a wreck. The open holes in the Belcher's bulkhead allow divers to swim inside, using dive lights and reels. But having neither, we only poke our heads inside, searching for a well-known goliath grouper we hear frequents this site. Instead, we find barracudas lurking in the shadows.
H.A.V. Parker III and Schurgar's Barge
We leave the Belcher, check our computers and gauges, continue following the rebar trail approximately 100 feet and then reach two more barges, the H.A.V. Parker III and Schurgar's Barge, which join together to form an odd L-shape. As we approach, we watch for elusive spotted eagle rays in the open water and southern stingrays buried in the sand. A large shadow catches my eye in a deep recess of the H.A.V. Parker III, a 120-foot steel barge. It's a goliath grouper, which, at about 175 pounds, easily earns its name. It's curiously eyeing me, as if to size me up. With that look, I can feel my heart loudly thumping as I swim down to get a closer look at the monster fish. But it casually turns and lethargically swims away, appearing as if it's unimpressed by my relatively small size.
Belzona III and Belzona
After doing our own turning away from the mighty goliath, we swim about 100 feet southward, to the Belzona III, a 100-foot long tug, and then west to the Belzona, an 85-foot tug. Both were sunk in the early '90s after being donated by the Belzona corporation. We're happy to find easy access to the Belzona's naturally lit pilothouse, which, after exploring, marks the end of the trek. As we're heading back to the mooring line to begin our ascent, a small school of tarpon passes overhead, blotting out some of the sunlight glowing down on us from the surface. It's a memorable scene for my dive buddy and me to absorb, guaranteeing that one day soon, we'll return.
Boats depart from both Key Biscayne and Miami Beach. RJ Diving Ventures and Tarpoon Diving Center are both located at the Miami Beach Marina, 300 Alton Rd., Miami Beach, Fla. From downtown Miami, take Interstate 95 South to Interstate 395 East to Miami Beach. Turn right on Alton Road, then turn right, into the marina. The Diver's Paradise shop's boat is docked in the Crandon Marina, 4000 Crandon Blvd., in Key Biscayne. From downtown Miami, take Interstate 95 South, then take exit 1A for SW 25th Rd. toward the Rickenbacker Causeway. Go left at SW 26th Rd., then take the causeway, which becomes Crandon Boulevard, and follow signs to the marina.
Temperatures vary from the low 70s in winter to mid-80s in summer. Visibility ranges from 30 to 100 feet. Currents are occasional and mild.