You think you know the Florida Keys? Maybe, maybe not. There are five major dive areas in the Keys--Key Largo, Islamorada/Tavernier, Marathon, the Lower Keys and Key West--and each is unique in its temperament and attractions, not to mention diving. We asked several locals--the Conchs who call the Conch Republic home--where they like to dive, eat and hang out in each of these five regions. Longtime Key Largo resident and photographer Stephen Frink told us his favorite dive sites, arguably among the best in the world thanks to the protection of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which encompasses the waters surrounding the entire archipelago. Dive shop owners and staff pointed us to the places where you can eat freshly caught seafood, watch the sunset and have the most fun in the fun-loving Florida Keys.
The jumping-off spot for diving in the Keys, Key Largo is only an hour's drive from Miami's glitzy rush and has earned the title Dive Central USA. You want service? There are a plethora of dive shops to choose from. Selection? There are more easy-to-get-to and easy-to-dive reefs than anywhere else in the Keys, plus spectacular shipwrecks. Key Largo is the largest landmass in the Keys, a substantial barrier that prevents Florida Bay's turbid water from washing onto its offshore coral reefs. Plus, the Gulf Stream passes very near the island, washing its reefs in spectacularly clear waters.
City of Washington. The scattered remains of this wreck lie in only 25 feet of water--a hazard to navigation, it had to be blown apart. You'll find impossibly abundant marine life. Look under the hull to find sheltering snappers and grunts.
The Elbow. This site is where the reef juts out into the Gulf Stream like, well, an elbow. It's also where the City of Washington and the Civil War Wreck are located. One of the inner spur-and-groove reefs, North North Dry Rocks, hosts crowds of angelfish.
Christ of the Deep. Don't pass up this classic Key Largo site, located in just 22 feet of water at Key Largo Dry Rocks. Head for slightly deeper water and meander up and down coral spurs and sand grooves.
Spiegel Grove. The Grove is so massive (nearly two football fields long and eight stories high) that it has eight mooring buoys. Divers can happily spend the better part of a week exploring the entire superstructure. Barracudas patrol the decks. Depths range from 85 feet to about 100.
Benwood. The only thing left of this 285-foot freighter, about six miles south of The Elbow, is the somewhat intact bow, but the remains are a major fish factory. Look for porkfish and schoolmasters. Great night dive.
Fire Coral Cave. This site on the south end of Molasses Reef is a pelagic paradise, with eagle rays and turtles commonly gliding by and mobs of permit crowding the site.
USCGC Duane. Resting upright on the bottom in 120 feet of water, you can touch superstructure on this 327-foot Coast Guard cutter at 55 feet; the weather deck is at 90. The Duane is plastered in corals and sponges, and almost always hosts hawksbill turtles.
Snapper Ledge. A small linear ledge in beginner-friendly depths that draws thick curtains of fish including goatfish and the ubiquitous blue-striped grunt. Nurse sharks and hogfish are almost certain to be on the scene.
Sharky's at Ocean Divers • MM 100, Oceanside. On Key Largo, Sharky's is a great local hangout. It's also a diver's bar. You would have to search very hard to find someone who is not a diver. --Kenny Wheeler, manager, Ocean Divers
Jim and Val's Tugboat Restaurant • MM 100, Oceanside. It's unassuming and inexpensive, and it's the best place for cracked conch on Key Largo. You can eat indoors, outdoors or on the patio. --Kenny Wheeler
Fish House Encore Restaurant • MM 102.4, Bayside. They have a drink called Berry Infusion, which is high on my list. They put cut-up berries in a big glass vat and fill it with vodka. Then they sugar-coat a martini glass and ladle the vodka and berries in. It's best to get a cab after a few of those, as your legs won't work quite right. --Capt. Gary Mace, co-owner, Conch Republic Divers
Islamorada & Tavernier
The fish found in the shallow flats surrounding this cluster of keys--mighty sailfish, voracious king mackerel, massive tarpon--are the stuff of legend for anglers who come here to do some serious fishing. But Islamorada also offers divers a chance to get on dive sites that are legendary. Departing from Tavernier Creek, dive boats head for sites in both directions, to the reefs at the southern edge of Key Largo and to sites south of Islamorada.
Eagle. There is plenty to keep divers busy on this 287-foot freighter. The crow's nest is beautifully adorned, and makes a great photo op. Divers can easily penetrate the cargo holds and aftercastle. Keep an eye out for a resident Goliath grouper. Depths range from 70 to 110 feet.
Conch Wall. This mini wall drops sharply for 60 to 90 feet and is a nice counterpoint to the traditional spur-and-groove reefs found here. The deep section offers plenty of barrel sponges and bunches of gorgonians, and butterflyfish, which are rarely seen in the shallows.
Davis Reef. The iconic resident on Keys' reefs is the bluestriped grunt, and Davis Reef has clouds of them. Green morays are also found in good numbers. The north/south ledge that rises like a backbone some five to six feet off the ocean floor is a refuge for thousands of fish.
Alligator Reef. The coral ridges at this shallow site (20 to 50 feet) form low ledges covered in sponges and is a favorite hangout of arrow crabs and spiny lobsters. Grunts are everywhere.
Islamorada Fish House • MM 82, Bayside. Great cracked conch. My favorite dish is the blackened grouper. They also make a grilled lobster that can't be beat. They get freshly caught seafood off the boats next door. And their key lime pie is some of the best you'll have in the Keys. --Capt. Gary Mace, co-owner, Conch Republic Divers
Island Grill at the Snake Creek bridge • MM 85.5, Oceanside. Ask for "beach" seating--then kick off your shoes, wiggle your toes in the sand, check out the pelicans and seabirds in the mangroves, and watch the boats go by. --Tom Stack, photographer, Tom & Therisa Stack Photography
Marker 88 • MM 88, Bayside. Absolutely marvelous place to have a drink, enjoy great food and watch the sunset. --Tom Stack
Viewing this community at 55 mph while rolling down the Overseas Highway does not do it justice--the trappings of suburbia hide the quiet beauty of the canals and beach on Marathon's seaward side. Sombrero Beach, in the heart of Marathon, is probably the best beach in the Keys. It's lightly visited, and a hidden jewel for any visitor to the Middle Keys. Bonus: Delta Airlines now offers regular service between Atlanta and the Florida Keys Airport in Marathon.
Samantha's Reef. It has been more than a decade since I first dived with the friendly nurse sharks of Samantha's Reef--friendly because they were accustomed to being fed. Today, resident nurse sharks still show up as soon as divers splash in. A long, winding ledge runs from about 15 to 25 feet in depth, where schools of Bermuda chub intersperse with smallmouth grunts.
Thunderbolt. There are several shipwrecks off Marathon, including Flagler's Barge (used in the construction of the Flagler Railroad). The queen of the Marathon shipwreck fleet is the Thunderbolt. It sits upright on a sand bottom at about 120 feet, with the wheelhouse topping out at about 75 feet (look for barracudas here) and the cable wheel is at 85 feet. Unless you want to see mostly buried propellers, there's little reason to drop below 100 feet on this wreck.
Delta Shoal. A very pretty, shallow (you'll be hard-pressed to get deeper than 15 feet) spur-and-groove reef that serves as a nursery for lots of reef tropicals like rock beauties and queen angels.
Sombrero Reef. Marked by the Sombrero Key Light. An extensive spur-and-groove reef system with a maximum depth of about 30 feet. Conch beds can be found in the sand and grass.
Seven-Mile Grill • MM 47.7, Bayside. Try the great conch chowder. This is a small restaurant that's open for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Old-fashioned garage-type doors make it very quaint. --Bob Brayman, owner, Hall's Diving and Career Institute
Cabana Breezes at Key Colony Beach • MM 53.5, Oceansideside. Right on the beach, this is the place to go for cocktails--it's a fun place to have happy hour--and maybe something to eat. I really like the tuna here, but all their seafood is great. If you're in the mood for a hamburger, you don't have to spend a lot of money. --Bob Brayman
Hurricane Bar & Grille • MM 49.5, Oceanside. This is the best late nightclub with live music. Plus they have Taco Tuesday and on Thursdays 25-cent wing night. Lots of TVs for watching sports, dart boards, a pool table and video games. --Amy Schuhmann, manager, Tilden's Scuba Center
The pace is a bit slower here than in much of the Upper Keys, and certainly more so than high-energy Key West. The diving on the extensive Looe Key reef system is among the best in all the Keys, and wreck aficionados will find plenty to love on the popular Adolphus Busch Sr. An added plus for visitors who like to chill: Bahia Honda State Park (MM 37) offers several gorgeous public beaches, a rarity between Marathon and Key West.
Looe Key. This is a reef structure special enough to merit designation as a national marine sanctuary 25 years ago; today, it is a Sanctuary Preservation Area (SPA) of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The reef takes its name from a 46-gun frigate that ran aground here in 1744. These days, there are nearly 50 mooring buoys within the Looe Key SPA.
Adolphus Busch Sr. The Lower Keys' most popular wreck dive, this 210-foot coastal freighter rests upright in 115 feet of water just west of Looe Key. At a depth of about 70 feet divers find the wheelhouse, typically swarmed by Caesar grunts. Barracuda patrol the decks, and several large Goliath groupers have set up housekeeping. Depth and potential currents make the Busch an advanced dive.
Square Grouper • MM 22.5, Oceanside. A great place for fish dinners. The square grouper sandwich is a sauteed grouper fillet with key lime tartar sauce. It's really good. A four-star restaurant in the middle of nowhere (Cudjoe Key). --Bill Estes, Innerspace Dive Center
Boondocks Grille and Drafthouse • MM 27.5, Bayside. Neat, tiki hut place on Ramrod Key with miniature golf, the only one we know of in the Keys. Live entertainment and every kind of drink. --Bill Estes
National Key Deer Refuge, Big Pine Key • MM 31. The Key deer (they live mostly on Big Pine and No Name) are one of the things that make the Lower Keys unique. The endangered Key deer are the smallest of the subspecies of Virginia white-tailed deer. --Bill Estes
Fish Cutters • MM 25, Bayside. Way laid-back fish market on Summerland Key with picnic tables inside and outside. All fresh seafood, and a nice selection of beer and wine. --Staff, Looe Key Reef Resort & Dive Center
It's the end of the road, Mile Marker Zero, and for thousands of tourists, the sole reason to come to the Keys in the first place. Most visitors--bikers, hippies, artists, Parrotheads, even grandmothers--come for the fun that free-spirited Key West offers. But if you think diving is an afterthought here, think again. The reef system of the Western Sambo reserve, south of Boca Chica, serves as spawning and nursing grounds for marine life. The Upper Keys might get the lion's share of divers, but Key West diving should not be overlooked. And when the massive, 520-foot Vandenberg is put down about six miles off Key West (scheduled for spring 2008), between Western Sambo and Sand Key, it won't be.
Western Sambo. Featuring very healthy star coral colonies and stands of leathery barrel sponges, the sites here are especially fishy, including juvenile yellowtails, yellow and black rock beauties and blue tangs. A decade of protection as an ecological reserve has boosted the fish population at this extensive reef system (there are more than a dozen dive sites here, including Haystacks and Cannonball Cut). Look for spiny lobsters under ledges and hidden in small lairs--they are huge.
Cayman Salvage Master. When the Key West dive community finally sinks the 520-foot USAFS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, it will be a huge attraction. For now, the 187-foot Cayman Salvage Master is the reigning wreck dive, especially after Joe's Tug was pretty well hammered by Hurricane Wilma. The large cable-laying spool on the CSM's bow is its iconic feature (the wheelhouse was removed prior to its sinking). The ship sits upright in 90 feet of water.
Louie's Backyard • Corner of Waddell Ave. and Vernon St. We love to sip cocktails and watch the sunset from Louie's. Incredible gourmet food in a very quiet setting, so it's a great place to relax after a day of diving. --CeCe Roycraft, co-owner, Dive Key West
El Siboney • Catherine St. Authentic Cuban food--seafood, pork, homemade sangria, key lime pie--in a quiet, hidden location. --CeCe Roycraft
Michaels Restaurant • Margaret St. near Southard St. Their Third Degree martinis are pretty special--they use raspberry vodka and rim the glass in chocolate flakes. Beautiful garden dining with a little waterfall. Known for their steaks, but they also have seafood. --CeCe Roycraft
Sloppy Joe's • Duval St. A Key West institution, where everyone goes to hear music, grab something to eat and have a beer. --CeCe Roycraft
The Green Parrot Bar • Whitehead St. Legendary jukebox and really good bands. --CeCe Roycraft
Sunset Celebration • Mallory Square. After a day of diving, I like to make my way down to Mallory Square for the best sunset in the U.S. Followed by a trip to Don's Place on Truman Avenue or Irish Kevin's on Duval Street for some great drinks, music and the sport of people-watching. --Michael O'Connor, manager, Subtropic Dive Center
Two reef structures are found throughout the Keys. Shallow patch reefs start about one mile from shore and are dominated by sea fans and soft corals. Between three and eight miles offshore are the spur-and-groove formations of the fringing coral reef that draw most divers. Most of the commonly dived reef sites lie in less than 40 feet of water, with clusters of brain, star, pillar and elkhorn coral rising 10 to 15 feet from the bottom. Some deeper portions of the outer reef, however, feature mini-walls that drop off to 80 to 100 feet.
There are more than 600 varieties of fish in Keys waters. Many of the reefs are literally crawling with spiny lobster and crabs, and it's not uncommon for divers to encounter stingrays, nurse sharks and spotted and green moray eels.
For detailed information on Florida Keys dive operators, go to our Travel section.
www.divekeys.com; www.fla-keys.com/diving; www.divecapital.org.