Scuba Diving the Wrecks and Reefs of Key Largo
If you’ve been streaming Bloodline, the Netflix drama about the Rayburn family’s dark secrets — drugs! affairs! murder! — you probably know that its seductive tropical setting is Florida’s Upper Keys, including Key Largo and nearby Islamorada.
I’m thinking about Bloodline as I cross the narrow neck of terra firma that connects mainland Florida to the Keys. The Overseas Highway (U.S. Hwy. 1), a 113-mile-long ribbon of road and bridges that connects all the Keys, is featured in every episode.
What makes Bloodline terrific are its plot twists and flashbacks. I’ve dived Largo and Islamorada multiple times, and each time, something here surprises me. This trip is no different, starting with my first dive, on the Spiegel Grove.
“I don’t know where we’ll be able to tie off,” says Capt. Mike Atwell, general manager of Ocean Divers, as he announces where we’re headed. We’re aboard Ocean Divers’ 42-foot Blue Kai, motoring out 6 miles to Dixie Shoals, where Spiegel Grove sits on her keel in 135 feet of water. Onboard is a group of divers participating in an underwater photo event sponsored by SeaLife Underwater Cameras and Divers Direct. I can’t think of a better backdrop for capturing photos and video than on the U.S. Navy’s 510-foot former dock landing ship. “The viz has been pretty poor at our shallower reefs, so fingers crossed that it’s better on the Grove,” says Atwell.
RGB Ventures/Superstock/Alamy Stock Photo
Fish swarm the Benwood, which —like some characters in Bloodline—suffered an unlucky fate.
The last time I dived Spiegel Grove, the surface current was ripping, so we used a granny line to get to the mooring line, where we made a hand-over-hand descent, and encountered a pretty intense current on the wreck. Due to conditions that can be as unpredictable as Danny Rayburn, the revenge-fueled brother in Bloodline, you need advanced experience to dive the Grove.
Today though, we arrive at the site and find delightfully calm waters.
“This mooring is the stern aft,” Atwell instructs us. He tells us to mind our computers if we’re going to drop down to the sand at 135 feet to see the ginormous twin props. Before my buddy and I splash in, we agree to stay in the 90- to 110-foot range, and stick to exploring the stern platform.
The viz is maybe 40 feet, so we concentrate on focusing on interesting things to photograph in the murky blue. The large tower structure is densely blanketed with red sea fans and yellow sponges. I film a pair of colorful, juicy-fat bearded fireworms before swimming over to pay homage to the U.S. flag affixed to a pole. Old Glory is frequently replaced by local dive groups, and is a favorite photo op. Yellow-tail snapper are our constant companions, and the deck is alive with skittish juvenile tropical fish. The enormous well door lies open; when it served in the Navy, Spiegel Grove carried amphibious landing craft, and this is where they exited and entered. For many tec divers, penetration of this massive ship is the marquee attraction, but I happily confine my diving to the external superstructure, which is a gorgeous living reef.
That the Florida Keys supports America’s only coral-reef system is due to location and climate. Key Largo and Islamorada dive sites, in addition to the Grove, include the wrecks Duane, Bibb and Eagle, and plenty of sun-dappled shallow sites. Add in a number of diver-friendly restaurants, bars and hotels, and you’ve got the ingredients for the perfect weekend getaway.
For our second tank we’re diving the shallower SS Benwood. “The viz is probably only 30 feet, but you can’t miss this wreck and you can’t get lost,” says Atwell. “When you run out of reef and metal, you’ve come to the end of the wreck. Just turn around to find the boat.”
But my buddy and I do manage to get momentarily lost — a Bloodline plot twist! After exploring the encrusted bow, we kick out into the surrounding patch reef when we spot a good-size green moray eel snaking in and out of coral heads. When we turn the dive, we can’t see the wreck’s visual cues in the lowered viz. At our shallow depth — we’re mostly exploring in about 30 feet of water — we’ve got plenty of bottom time to get our bearings, and soon spot the Benwood’s distinctive ribs, lying open like a broken-spined book. We’re back on the remains of this former Norwegian merchant freighter, which has an interesting history.
Becky Kagan Scott
Spiegel Grove's prop.
On the night of April 9, 1942, Benwood was on a routine voyage from Tampa Bay to Norfolk, Va., carrying a load of phosphate rock. The American steam tanker Robert C. Tuttle was nearby, traveling to Texas. Rumors of German U-boats in the area prompted the captains of both vessels to travel “blacked out.” Despite last-minute efforts to avoid a collision, the Benwood plowed into the other ship. While the Robert C. Tuttle suffered only minor damage, the Benwood took on water fast and sank in its current location, between Dixie Shoals and French Reef.
Just 25 minutes’ driving time south of Key Largo is Islamorada, which is not only the jumping-off point for diving the Eagle, one of my all-time favorite wrecks, but also the primary location for many scenes in Bloodline (see Itinerary below). The Eagle lies in 100 feet of water on her starboard side on a flat sandy bottom six miles off Lower Matecumbe Key. The beautifully encrusted crow’s nest is hugely popular among underwater photographers.
Another great photo op and a dive to do at least once in your lifetime is Christ of the Deep (the Key Largo site where Danny Rayburn takes guests snorkeling in the first season). Bloodline aficionados will find plenty to discuss in this scene — Jesus! Is Danny’s redemption possible? The ocean as metaphor! — but divers love the chance to stay shallow and play around on the nearby reef.
It’s been a fun weekend — I’ve revisited some old dive-site favorites and discovered some new ones. And like Bloodline, which is returning for a third season, I’ll be back in Key Largo before long.
Seven Mile Bridge
Need to Know
The network of islands, islets, mangroves and patch reefs that make up the Florida Keys begins at the southeastern tip of the Florida peninsula and ends in Key West. On either side is water, the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west. Protecting it all is the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a 2,800-square-nautical-mile chunk of real estate. For more information, visit fla-keys.com.
When to Go: Diving is year-round, though the best conditions are from May to September.
Dive Conditions: Water temperatures range from the 70s in mid-winter to 80s in summer. On clear days, visibility soars to 120 feet, but average vis is in the 60- to 80-foot range.
Day One: It’s convenient to stay at the Holiday Inn Key Largo, as you’re only a short walk to the Key Largo Resorts Marina, where many Key Largo dive boats are berthed. If you prefer more-upscale digs, book a stay at the Moorings Village & Spa in Islamorada (MM 82), where Bloodline fans will recognize the house that plays the part of the Rayburn Inn. After the day’s dive, grab a burger at Sharkey’s Pub (MM 99.7), conveniently located next to or close to many of Largo’s dive boats. It’s open seven days a week, 7 a.m. till 2 a.m.
Day Two: Plan to watch at least one sunset at the Caribbean Club (MM 104), a place where multiple Bloodline characters down beers and play pool. It’s a classic Keys joint that famously served as inspiration and a setting for the 1948 Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall film Key Largo.
Day Three: Get the day started early at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen (closed Sundays, but otherwise, opens at 7 a.m.), featured in Bloodline’s first season, episode 11 (in the opening scene that shows Danny Rayburn sitting at a bar). Have the fresh catch of the day served with grits. After diving, grab lunch at Alabama Jack’s (Card Sound Road). Famous for its conch fritters, the eatery also stars in Bloodline’s first episode; Danny is shown eating fish tacos there. It sits on two barges surrounded by mangroves.