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Hen and Chickens

By Scuba Diving Partner | Authored On January 12, 2023
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Hen and Chickens

Female diver swimming toward pink fan coral

Hen and Chickens Sanctuary Preservation Area (SPA) is located in the middle of Hawk Channel just off of Plantation Key.

David Benz

Lore gets poured on thick as sunscreen on a hot Florida day any place you adventure in the Florida Keys, whether you’re discussing still-missing treasure with a salty-dog sailor who’s been in the islands for decades or listening to ghost stories during a tour inside a historic fort in Key West.

It seems there’s a fascinating story to go along with every shipwreck, gingerbread-trimmed Victorian house and atmospheric island haunt you happen upon in these parts. And that, of course, puts plenty of joy in the journey as you drive and dive your way through the Florida Keys, ticking off some of the nine wrecks along the Florida Keys Wreck Trek as you make your way from Key Largo to Key West.

Divers new to the sport who would delight in the chance to see a boatload of fish life on one of the shallowest wrecks and reefs in the Florida Keys should make sure to stop in Islamorada to dive the Hen and Chickens Sanctuary Preservation Area. Here, in just 10 to 20 feet of water off Plantation Key, a mind-boggling array of marine life awaits, not to mention more Florida Keys lore.

Said to be named for the distinct coral formations in the area that resemble chicks clustering around a mother hen, the stretch of seafloor comes with its own rust-ridden shipwreck and tales to tell. Washed by clear warm waters, the ribs of an old iron barge are still visible among the lush coral reef that proliferates around it.

“According to Florida Keys lore, the wreck was a brick barge on its way to Key West to build a house with a bunch of bricks in tow when it went down in 1949,” says Eric Billips of Islamorada Dive Center, which visits the site regularly.

Since she’s been down so long, not a whole lot of the former barge remains, he says, although you can make out the ship’s steel ribs and tell she was a seaworthy oceangoing vessel at some point. The combination of an extremely healthy and vibrant coral reef and the surprise of the shipwreck makes for a brilliant underwater sight, Billips says.

Two divers swimming towards orange fan coral and pink coral formations

The protected coral reef known as Hen and Chickens Reef is a popular diving location in Key Largo.

David Benz

“There are huge brain corals and other very healthy coral heads all over the place. Then, all of the sudden, you have this foreign object (the wreck) within all this colorful coral,” he says. “It’s one of the most beautiful reefs in all of the Florida Keys. And when you can see it with good visibility, there’s nothing like it.”

Huge schools of reef fish—mostly yellowtail snapper and grunts—crowd the wreck and reef, parting like curtains as you fin through them only to cluster back together again once you’ve moved on.

Billips says barracuda also love to gather around the wreck, in addition to a slightly more surprising sight: Huge tarpon tend to like the Hen and Chickens wreck for some reason, too. And while eagle rays are generally more commonly sighted on the reefs of Key Largo compared to around Islamorada, Billips says he’s noted an exception at the Hen and Chickens reef and wreck. “It’s a good place to spot eagle rays, too,” he says.

Photographers love Hen and Chickens for its bright red and orange corals and shallow conditions that pop in the sunlight. And the fact that you’re in only 20 feet of water here means it’s easy to stay down on the wreck for hours, if you’re so inclined.

For shallow wrecks and reefs that deliver fish life and beautiful corals in spades, Hen and Chickens is not to be missed.