It seems like everyone I meet in the Florida Keys has a story to tell. Dive boat briefings are like campfire stories, part truth and part myth, with an emphasis on the latter. Woven into the usual briefing — a reef or wreck profile with info on depth, current and vis — are stories that give the Keys and their dive sites a distinctly quirky flavor. Take the briefing by Capt. Gary Mace at Spanky's Back, a site near Davis Reef, three-and-a-half miles south of Tavernier Key. "The story," Capt. Gary says, "is that a local dive captain used to take out his dog Spanky on his boat. When Spanky died, the captain buried him at sea." Capt. Gary gestures toward the water with a broad sweep of his arm. "Put him to rest at this very spot. A while later, a group of divers watched in disbelief as the dearly departed Spanky bobbed past them." By now, we are in disbelief too.
According to Capt. Gary, one of the divers exclaimed, "Spanky's back," giving the site its name. We're still groaning as we giant-stride off the AquaticDiver. Spanky's Back is shallow — you'd have to burrow into the sand to get your depth gauge to register deeper than 25 feet. The entertainment on this narrow spine of low-profile reef is staged by the local marine life: A stingray looking for crustaceans creates a ferocious sandstorm, a school of Atlantic spadefish scavenges like shorebirds in the green clumps of seagrass, and at least five spiny lobsters strut next to coral heads. When I dive Spanky's Back, my weeklong stay in the Keys is about to end, but not before I've gathered a notebook full of stories that collectively seem to define these islands.
The Florida Keys archipelago is the sum of its parts: 42 islands and countless islets, thick tangles of mangroves, meadows of seagrass, miles of patch reefs and the 107-mile-long Overseas Highway, a ribbon of road and network of bridges that connect it all. The chain begins at the southeastern tip of the Florida peninsula, about 15 miles south of Miami, and curves in a southwest arc toward Key West, the westernmost of the inhabited islands (the uninhabited Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West, are also part of the chain). The islands lie along the Florida Straits, dividing the Atlantic Ocean to the east from the Gulf of Mexico to the west. In short: it's a place dominated by blue sky and blue water; the chunky limestone islands are mere intersections.
My first day of diving, off Key Largo, is Easter Sunday. I've joined Capt. Spencer Slate in his annual underwater Easter egg hunt. Proceeds benefit KISS, Kids in Special Situations, a local Rotary Club nonprofit. Slate's ex-wife, Annette Robertson, hatched the idea — Slate remembers the night Annette came home with the cotton candy-pink bunny suit, complete with tail and ears. "I'm not getting in the water in a bunny suit," he declared. In the end, he did. That was five years ago, and Slate is recalling the story as he pulls on the costume. Now Slate clearly enjoys the role: "Where does a nearly seven-foot-tall, 250-pound bunny hide his eggs? Anywhere he wants to."
Slate is a master storyteller, but in reality, he and a handful of other dive pioneers in the islands are the story. Slate has been in the Keys for nearly 30 years, since the time when there was only a handful of dive shops in the chain. "I wanted to dive after watching Sea Hunt in the early '60s," he says. In 1963, when he was 15, he bought a mail-order reg, scrounged up a tank and dived in a rock quarry near his home in North Carolina. After getting certified in 1972, Capt. Slate quit his job as a schoolteacher and moved to Key Largo. "It's changed a lot since then," he says, "but I still love the climate and the reefs." Spend a couple of days diving with Slate, and you realize that in many ways, he is still that 15-year-old boy, smitten with diving.
The Coral Princess IV is a full boat, packed with divers and snorkelers, adults and kids, all chattering. As we tie up at Horseshoe Reef, Slate grabs a basket of colorfully decorated hard-boiled eggs and jumps in. A few minutes later, we're chasing Slate's soggy cottontail, plucking eggs off the bottom. A host of reef tropicals flits in and out of coral heads, including a stoplight parrotfish that twitches its body, trying to shake off a pesky, hitchhiking juvenile remora.
It seems appropriate that on Easter Sunday we make our second dive at Christ of the Deep ("unless it's risen," Slate jokes), a nine-foot bronze statue donated in the 1960s by Italy's Cressi family, of dive gear fame. In 1966, the statue was placed in about 25 feet of water on a concrete pedestal at Key Largo Dry Rocks. While the snorkelers happily splash above and around the statue, the divers fan out over the reef and head out to slightly deeper water, meandering up and down coral spurs and sand grooves.
Horseshoe and Christ of the Deep are in Key Largo's John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater state park designated in the U.S. Today, it's part of the 2,800-square-nautical-mile Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which protects the waters surrounding the entire archipelago. Key Largo is also home to six Sanctuary Preservation Areas (SPAs), which give added protection to popular shallow reefs (no take, no touch and no anchoring).
That afternoon, we leave Key Largo's shallow reefs behind to dive the Duane, a 327-foot former Coast Guard cutter in 115 feet of water near Molasses Reef. As we drop down the line, the Duane comes into view, cloaked in corals and sponges. I swim over the deck rails and find a squadron of barracuda resting on the bridge like fighter jets just returned from a mission. I feel like a lumbering cargo plane. I spend the rest of my precious bottom time checking out the dense population of fish that hug the hull.
The next afternoon, I join a group headed for the Spiegel Grove, roughly five miles offshore near Dixie Shoals. Capt. Joe Thomas can't tell where we'll be diving on this massive 510-foot wreck until we arrive at the site. Tying up on one of the former Landing Ship Dock's eight mooring buoys is, says Capt. Joe, "a little like looking for a parking spot at the mall just before Christmas."
We end up tying off on the bow. You could spend a week in the Keys and dive nothing but the Grove, visiting a different part of it on each dive. There is enough current this afternoon that I find myself relaxing with the flow and inspecting a fairly small section of real estate; other divers hurry to drop deeper. With its ladders and railings, this part of the ship reminds me of a swimming pool, except the swimmers are upper-tier predators like barracuda and jacks. I swim through one diver-made opening and encounter a football-shaped Bermuda chub, and then, looking like it had lost its mother, a small smooth trunkfish. I drop down over the Grove's side and look down the colossal hull to the sand bottom and — voilà! — I'm on a jaw-dropping wall dive.
The next day, I've packed up my vehicle with still-wet gear and jumped back on U.S. 1 — this legendary road starts in Fort Kent, Maine, and ends its 2,000-mile journey in Key West at Mile Marker 0, which is where I'm headed. Tourists flock to Key West's fabled attractions, from the Hemingway House (Papa Hemingway penned some of his most famous works at 907 Whitehead Street) to the Hog's Breath Saloon (motto: "Hog's breath is better than no breath at all") to Mallory Square and its daily sunset celebration (begun by hippies in the late '60s). You can't spend time in Key West and not hear a story.
The story behind the mysterious sinking of Joe's Tug, for example, is still circulating 20 years after the event in question took place. This 70-foot steel tugboat was sunk six miles south of Stock Island in 1986 — and, depending on whom you're diving with, either a rum-soaked fisherman or a local pirate put it down. Whatever happened, the final chapter occurred during the 2005 hurricane season when Joe's Tug was pretty much obliterated.
CeCe Roycraft and Bob Holston, active in the Keys' diving community since 1972, were on the fundraising campaign for the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. Roycraft, a Key West native, and Holston are a two-person cheerleading squad for Key West and its diving."I love the ocean," Roycraft says, "and I believe in reaching out to educate people about it."
I get an education diving with Holston, first on the extensive outer reef of Western Sambo and then on the inner reef. The sea is pancake-flat when we jump in at the Arch. The site is populated by healthy stands of leathery barrel sponges and is especially fishy, from juvenile yellowtails sporting bright blue spots to dramatic yellow-and-black rock beauties, blue tangs and a mottled scorpionfish that I mistake for a rock. Holston nearly stumbles onto a sleeping nurse shark under a ledge. The shark hightails it to open water as I swim over for a closer look.
Our second tank is at Haystacks. The site gets its name from the colonies of mountainous star coral found here, some rising 15 to 20 feet off the bottom like bales of Kansas hay. Holston really knows this section of reef, and the smile on his face when we're back on the boat says it all. I can only imagine what it's like to have your backyard reef be as familiar as the back of your hand. The next morning, as a red sun rises over the water, I drive to Big Pine Key, about 30 miles north of Key West. I've come here to dive Looe Key, an SPA within the sanctuary. Looe has two parallel limestone ridges that support healthy populations of coral.
As we head out to open water, divemaster Phil Ward points out Little Palm Island. "That's where PT-109 was filmed," Ward says. "Legend has it that Joseph Kennedy had electricity installed because he wanted his son to be comfortable when he came down to watch the filming [in 1962]." Turns out, that part of the story is myth. But it's easy to see why this sleepy island was chosen as the location for the famous wartime story of Lt. John F. Kennedy, who in 1943 was taking part in a nighttime raid near the Solomon Islands. When his Navy patrol torpedo boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, Kennedy, despite an injured back, towed a wounded crewmember three miles to a remote island, where they were later rescued. On the big screen, Little Palm could be taken for an isolated Pacific island.
The characters on Looe Key today, however, are of the piscine variety: a couple of spotted eagle rays sail by us and the biggest midnight parrotfish I've seen all week are on nearly every coral head. The HMS Looe, a 46-gun frigate, ran aground here in 1744. If you have a guide with you (necessary for finding it!), you can snoop around the remains of this wreck in about 25 feet of water.
Just south of Key Largo, Islamorada is a major dive area encompassing a handful of small keys, including Plantation, Windley and Upper and Lower Matecumbe. One of my last dives in the Keys is here, on the legendary Eagle, and it's a slam-dunk favorite in my logbook. The Eagle lies outside the reef on a flat sandy bottom six miles off Lower Matecumbe Key, resting on her starboard side in 110 feet of water. On the night of Dec. 19, 1985, while waiting to be sunk as an artificial reef, the Eagle broke from its moorings. Its port anchor was dropped to prevent further drifting in the current and she sank in 120 feet of water.
I've just rounded the beautifully encrusted crow's nest when I see a diver in our group flagging my buddy, photographer Stephen Frink. In fact, he's practically jumping up and down. In a second, we see why. A trophy-size (that's my story, and I'm sticking to it) goliath grouper, five feet long, maybe 400 pounds, is tucked into a large opening, its linebacker's bulk completely blocking access to the interior. These big boys — goliaths can reach eight feet and tip the scales at more than 800 pounds — like underwater structures. For a moment or two, the big fish hovers motionless, and then with a mighty twitch of its fins, retreats deep into the wreck. We turn our attention elsewhere, just in time to spot a free-swimming, impossibly long green moray eel, thicker than Vin Diesel's biceps, whip past us. Everyone is high on adrenaline. I check my computer. We've been down all of five minutes.
It's the ideal end to a week of diving picture-perfect reefs and wrecks that deliver big-time action. The Keys may be offbeat, laid-back and free-spirited — and they attract all kinds of visitors. But the diving faithful know what lies beneath this storied island chain. And they've got a few tales to tell.
Where to Watch the Sun Go Down
Keys residents and visitors have raised sunset-watching to an art form, with the end of every day an excuse to gather and marvel at the light show. A few prime vantage points:
Key Largo & the Upper Keys
You'll Love >> A sunset dinner on the dock at Sundowners on the Bay, Key Largo, MM 104. For an appetizer, try the crab roll and for dinner, the herb-crusted mahi-mahi. Don't leave any Florida Keys restaurant without sampling its key lime pie. The Spanish first introduced key lime trees to the Florida Keys in the 1500s, and since then, key limes have been used in this regional dessert favorite. Every restaurant has its own version. Sundowners' web site (www.sundownerskeylargo.com) has a recipe for its key lime graham cracker crust and filling.
You'll Love >> The Monday-through-Friday happy hour (5 to 7 p.m.) at the Zane Grey Lounge, MM 81.5, part of the Islamorada Fish Company complex (www.islamoradafishco.com). On weekends, you can listen to music from the verandah and see the sunset. Seafood here is caught locally and brought daily to the on-site marina. If you're a sushi fan, try the ahi tuna poké, which is garnished with hiyashi wakame seaweed, bermuda onions and a wasabi cream sauce.
Key West & the Lower Keys
You'll Love >> The sunset celebration at Key West's Mallory Square, MM0. This event even has its own web site (www.sunsetcelebration.org). Food vendors, artisans, street performers, locals and tourists gather two hours before sunset each night to eat, drink and be merry. The street performers lend the whole affair a circus feel. By the time the sun disappears into the Gulf of Mexico, you'll absolutely know you're in the Keys.
Water Conditions: Diving is year-round, though the best conditions are from May to September, with relatively calm seas and good vis--except during tropical storms and hurricanes. On clear days, visibility soars to 120 feet, but average vis is in the 60- to 80-foot range. Winter storms can stir up chop, and along the shallow reefs visibility can drop to 30 feet or less, but when the storms pass, visibility can improve with just a couple of tidal shifts. Water temperatures range from the 70s in mid-winter to 80s in summer. For the latest dive conditions, check the National Weather Service buoy reports at www.ndbc.noaa.gov/Maps/Florida.shtml.
For More Information: (800) FLA-KEYS; www.fla-keys.com/diving.