The Keys to Learning to Dive
Courtesy Sascha Zuger
A student earns her PADI Open Water Diver certification in Key Largo.
Whether motivation from a New Year resolution to spend time outside, a personal promise to try something new, or finally caving into the entreaties of bubble-happy, PADI-certified friends and family— now is a great time to take that giant stride into the world of SCUBA. Sadly, now isn’t always the ideal time for visiting every dream destination on the bucket list, due to the unpredictability of Covid-19. So where does a newbie or Open Water Diver go to gain knowledge and a heckuva great few days of diving? The Florida Keys will happily open a door to an amazing underwater escape.
Key Largo — Open Water Perfection
I was admittedly late to the Key Largo bandwagon, having often opted for far-flung reefs and distant coral-scapes when the world’s third-largest barrier reef sat right off the Atlantic Coast of the Florida Keys. Thanks to the National Audubon Society, University of Florida and the Miami Herald (helmed by then editor John Pennekamp) the first underwater park was created over 60 years ago, protecting this natural resource and making Key Largo a prime destination for the ages.
When my close dive instructor buds needed a perfect spot for their daughter, Mika, to earn her PADI Open Water (without the risk of potentially stranding her from school if Covid protocols shifted) I selfishly recommended PADI Five Star operator, Horizon Divers in Key Largo. And then joined Mika and her mom, Kristen, for the ride.
I’ve always had equal parts admiration and bewilderment at folks who learned to dive in chilly murky quarries. My dream cert checklist? Clear water, 70-100ft+ viz (ideally for stress-free comfort in spotting the instructor), warm water to cut back on overloading with extra weight and gear, a shallow reef with plenty of coral to enjoy while extending bottom time, occasional patches of sand for skills practice and to rest or regroup if things get overwhelming, and tons of sea life to distract from dwelling on the unnatural sense of breathing underwater. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but in all aspects, Key Largo and Horizon Divers blew me out of the, ahem, water.
“It’s such a magical and beautiful part of the world,” says Kristen Berger, mom to Mika and retired PADI Instructor. “I have always hoped to share the wonder that I experienced, but I never anticipated what a thrill it would be the first time I saw her underwater. It was such a bonus that the destination allowed me to dive separately off the same boat while still catching glimpses of her as she learned.”
Courtesy Sascha Zuger
Instructor Bobby Steele talks with students before a dive.
Instructor Bobby Steele was professional, patient and confident. A local aqua center offered easy practice for skills, so Mika was looking like an old hand as she dipped in the brilliant turquoise sea off Molasses Reef. Not even a surprise appearance by a Caribbean reef shark on her first dive fazed her. “I was like cool, I guess I’ll just stand still here and look at it swimming past,” says the 15-year- old. “I was a little nervous but had also heard so many shark stories from my parents and Sascha, I knew I really didn’t need to be afraid.”
Rays, turtles, barracuda, morays, three species of sharks, massive purple fans and soft corals— and So. Many. Fish. The expansive reef was so shallow our dives topped an hour each. With Horizon’s speedy, forty-minutes-or-less access to dozens of sites, it was an utter delight, despite knowing we had truly ruined Mika with such stellar diving to set her bar high.
Next Level Cert— Getting Advanced in South Key Largo-to-Islamorada
While the shallow reefs packed with sea life big and small offer prime opportunities for new divers to test the waters, Key Largo offers plenty for those with a few more dives under their weight belts. Rainbow Reef Divers offers a bevy of eight dive boats to tailor the perfect combination of dive site options for those looking to earn their PADI Advanced Certification. Wreck dives, deep dives, drift dives and unique navigation dives await with the same prime perks of clear, warm, life-filled water and coral reef to explore that make the course both interesting and comfortable — so learning new skills can stay at the top of focus. The rich variety of sea creatures and fish life is simply astounding throughout John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. This PADI 5 Star Instructor and Career Development Center offers top-notch service, dockside equipment sheds for less schlepping and that all-so-important friendly and passionate diver vibe of DMs and Instructors who have traveled the underwater world.
Where to Stay
Baker’s Cay Resort
Courtesy Bakers Cay Resort
Bakers Cay Resort
One of the unexpected perks of a trip to Key Largo, and in particular a stay at Baker’s Cay, is how close and convenient it is to visit, while giving an otherworldly Caribbean vibe. The resort is effortlessly chic and offers a unique sense of place that gives a convincing illusion of being swept away on a remote island (with the bonus of no passports and drive-to-dive reassurance in these uncertain times). Sunset champagne toasts, a freeform double-sided waterfall pool and optional transfer via Tropic Ocean Airways seaplane remind guests they can relax in luxury. Glass bottom kayaks give the option to explore both mangroves and manatees, pre-baited fishing rods for the pier, a well-appointed local-themed library with large scale board games, endless comfy nooks (try the hanging swing chairs if Wakanda, resident black kitty mascot, hasn’t claimed for a snooze) to tuck into with a book or drink.
This idyllic, once-sleepy fishing town at the southernmost point of the US is a now popular tourist destination whose streets are filled with those seeking sun, rum, and to follow in Hemingway’s footsteps (or at least spot one of his famous six-toed cats). With the inherent slow down in cruise traffic, this is the time to visit. And while some hotspots might specialize in getting patrons wrecked, we suggest heading offshore to specialize in wreck diving.
Wreck Diving is a Key West Specialty
Daily double-wreck dives with Southpoint Divers makes earning your Wreck Specialty a breeze. Dip under to explore the USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, the world’s second-largest artificial reef in the form of a 520ft long, 100ft tall wreck resting on 140ft deep sandy bottom. The shop is Key West’s oldest PADI Five Star Operation with shop and M/V Phoenix—a custom 46’ Newton dive boat—nestled in the heart of Old Town. Joe’s Tug and Cayman Salvage Master are other top Key West sites amongst the Florida Key’s estimated 1,000 shipwrecks.
Where to Stay
Southernmost Beach Resort
Courtesy Southernmost Beach Resort
Southernmost Beach Resort
Float away the post-dive day in one of three heated pools at this laidback luxury resort with an endless view of the sea. A simple stroll home from the Old Town dock, where you can sip a fresh muddled Florida pineapple boat drink in a tropical garden cabana or hop a hammock to sleep by the fishies. From their beeswax paper straws and bamboo fiber containers, care for ocean critters extends from the reef below the private tanning pier (perfect for a leisurely snorkel) to the line caught boat-to-table specialties featuring all locally sourced accents on the Caribbean-Asian fusion menu.