What It’s Like to Dive in The Florida Keys Right Now
After a few years out of my wetsuit (I was pregnant twice in a row and then busy with babies), 2020 was to be my comeback to regular diving in my home state of Florida. It would also be the first time I’d get to dive with my newly certified nieces, Maddy (14) and Ella (13), who managed to log a combined 15 beginner dives while their aunt was busy changing diapers.
The author's nieces pose in front of Captain Hook's after a day of diving in the Florida Keys.
I’d been the one with Maddy when she snorkeled for the very first time on a trip to Key West when she was just 6 years old, and I never forgot her wide eyes behind the mask as she followed a parrotfish across the reef. Once you see the underwater world, you’re forever changed. And seeing people new to diving enjoy it, is the next best thing.
What I didn’t count on this year, like everybody else, was COVID-19 keeping me high and dry during winter and spring’s sparkling clear dive days in Florida, when I mostly stayed locked down with my family.
So it’s ironic that I finally got to get back in the water to dive with my nieces at the beginning of July, just as COVID-19 was really starting its full-on assault on the Sunshine State.
I’d gone down to the Keys for a family vacation over Fourth of July weekend, and with many dive shops open and boats bringing people out to the reefs, I was determined to do it safely along with them.
As we drove along the Overseas Highway through the Keys, flashing traffic signs along the road as you entered each new town made it clear that masks were to be worn in all businesses. The Keys faced one of the strictest lockdowns in Florida when the one road in and out closed to non-resident traffic from March 22 until June 1. It was clear things were being taken seriously with COVID-19 cases on the rise across the state.
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At my hotel in Marathon, Isla Bella Beach Resort, I was impressed by how I managed to check into my room at the front desk (complete with a glass partition between me and the person behind it) without touching anything that had touched anyone else. Even the pen I used to sign my credit card slip, which I pulled from a sealed plastic wrapper, was mine to keep, said the receptionist, indicating its rubbery cap could be used to press the elevator buttons to access my room.
From masked fisherman cleaning their catches on the dock at Bud n’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada to the masked driver of the Conch Tour Train narrating local history as it rolled through Key West, it was clear that businesses in the Keys were operating with care—after all, half of all jobs here are linked to tourism in one capacity or another, with scores of dive shops scattered through the islands, too.
Courtesy Terry Ward
The author and her nieces listen to the dive briefing before gearing up.
I chose to get in the water with Captain Hook’s in Marathon, where a sign at the door reminded people to wear masks inside. I grabbed my clipboard of paperwork and took it outside near the docks to sign in with the girls, then we headed to the gear shack near the boat to get our BCDs and regulators from the masked worker ( lots of folks I saw were wearing buffs, too, which work double duty by protecting you from Florida’s punishing summer sun).
When we boarded the boat, the other divers, snorkelers, captain and crew were all wearing face coverings and clearly maintaining social distance as we joked and smiled with our eyes, prepping for a fun morning out at Coffins Patch Reef.
A couple of snorkelers from Melbourne, Florida were on the boat and told me they chose Captain Hook’s after calling to inquire and being impressed by the company’s coronavirus precautions. They’d rented a condo on the water and instead of hitting the bars and restaurants like they usually do in the Keys, they put their focus on outdoor fun instead.
After a 20-minute ride out to the reef, it was time to dive in. Our dive master, David Rivera, went through some hand signals with the girls to prepare us for some of the creatures we might see —including a signal for juvenile drum, his favorite fish, he said, and a new hand signal for me to learn, too (you air drum in the water like an 80s hairband percussionist).
“If I start jerking my hands in every direction it’s because there are just so many fish,” said Rivera, as he squeezed defogger into our masks.
He pointed to the hang rope near the ladder, marked with tape at well-spaced intervals to show where we could surface and hang on while we waited to board the boat after our dive—all while remaining socially distanced from each other in the water. This of course, is a brand-new tactic, but it made perfect sense.
I helped my nieces give their gear a final check, then we swapped our face masks for dive masks and took turns giant striding into the water.
The girls were total naturals underwater, and soon enough I stopped monitoring their every move and let the experience of finally being in the ocean again, with the sounds of my breath steadying my thoughts, and forgetting all the topside stressors.
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A Hogfish is surrounded by a colorful coral reef in The Florida Keys.
We dived twice that day at Coffins Patch reef in waters that barely pushed the 30-foot mark, at a crescent-shaped reef called The Stake and another called The Donut, shaped like just that. Both were the epitome of shallow, warm, easy and fishy Florida Keys diving—perfect for beginners and relaxing for everyone else.
All the classic Keys denizens showed up, too, including a nurse shark, clouds of yellowtail snapper, gag groupers, Spanish hogfish and even a hawksbill turtle munching on a sponge.
Courtesy Terry Ward
The author and her nieces post-dive, happy as ever to be back in the water in the Florida Keys.
And I remembered the famous quote that “salt water—sweat, tears and the sea”— is the cure for everything, thinking it rings truer than ever right now.
As we surfaced together and held onto the hang rope, nicely distanced at the end of our dive, I watched my nieces rip out their regulators in a hurry and chat excitedly about a big barracuda they saw lunge for something shiny near the surface at the end of our dive.
I’d missed it entirely, down there hovering a few inches off the sandy bottom in 15 feet of water, engrossed by a tiny cleaner shrimp under a ledge, but mostly just enjoying that sensation I’d missed so much. Neutral buoyancy. Maybe that’s the cure for everything, too.