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Scuba Diving The Florida Keys & Key West

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Scuba Diving The Florida Keys & Key West

Paradise without passports is what this coral island chain is to American divers who flock to this unique destination, which has also beckoned pirates, poets and performing artists. Key Largo, Islamorada and Tavernier, Marathon, the Lower Keys and Key West - are five distinct regions that constitute what locals affectionately call the "Conch Republic," and all offer a great blend of wrecks and reefs.

Key Largo
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, bathing its reefs in spectacularly clear waters.

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.

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.

Lower Keys
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 offers several gorgeous public beaches, a rarity between Marathon and Key West.

Key West
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.

Weather: Temps are mild year-round with hot, humid summers and mid-winter lows in the 50s to 60s.

Average Water Temp: High 70s to low 80s in summer; low 70s in winter.

Average Vis: Typically averages 40 to 75 feet, with 100 feet on calm days, but wind and waves can reduce vis dramatically.

Travel Savvy: Drive the whole Overseas Highway for an ideal introduction to the Keys. You can fly into Miami or Key West and drive the length of the highway from either direction.