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Florida Keys, United States

Florida Keys, United States

The Florida Keys boasts numerous diving hotspots that would take a lifetime to explore. Intriguing shipwrecks and exotic marine life await the intrepid diver. Who knows, you may even stumble upon gold from a sunken Spanish galleon while scuba diving in the Keys!

Geography of the Florida Keys

Situated in the farthest southeast section of the United States, the Keys is a coral cay archipelago made up of around 1700 islands. The Keys covers a distance of 220 miles (355 km), beginning at the southeastern tip of the Florida peninsula, about 15 miles (24 km) south of Miami, and extending all the way up to the uninhabited Dry Tortugas. The arc-shaped strip of islands ends with Key West, which is situated just 90 miles (145 km) from Cuba. The Key’s total land area is mostly exposed parts of an ancient coral reef and sand, and is home to an abundance of flora and fauna. Meanwhile, its surrounding waters include a protected sanctuary called the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a body of water that contains the third largest living coral reef barrier in the world.

Islamorada

Islamorada is referred to by locals as the “village of islands”, and is known for its magical reefs and shipwrecks. The corals found in this area boast intricate structures and serve as a habitat for various sea creatures. Aside from being a major Florida Keys diving site, snorkeling and shallow diving are popular activities among tourists as a lot of its reefs have a depth of only 10 to 15 feet (three to six meters).

Hen and Chickens Reef

Viewed from above, this patch reef resembles a mother hen with her baby chicks. With a depth of only 15 to 22 feet (five to seven meters), it is one of the best places to begin exploring Islamorada. But don’t let its modest dimensions fool you. Hen and Chickens Reef boasts a nice range of topography teeming with diverse life. Giant Christmas Tree corals, purple sea fans, and schools of vibrant fish entice even the most experienced divers to take a shallow dive and snorkel.

Alligator Reef

The Alligator Reef is named after the USS Alligator, which was wrecked on the spot while defending itself against pirates in 1822. The spectacular view formed from the combination of the sunken ship, assorted corals, and 517 different species of fish makes the 25-foot (7.62 meter) dive extremely worthwhile. The reef is also one of the richest sources of fish fauna in a single location. On the surface, Alligator Reef is marked by a lighthouse which is about 136 feet (41.45 meters) from the ship’s remains.

Davis Reef

Located right in the middle of Conch Reef, Crocker Reef, and some of the Spanish Galleons, Davis Reef (or Davis Ledge) is one of Islamorada’s outer dive spots. Professional and novice divers hurry down this location to see the lucky statue of Buddha purposely placed on the seafloor back in 1989. It is believed that rubbing the figure’s head brings wisdom, while caressing its stomach promotes fertility. Even if these claims are untrue, divers are still rewarded with encounters with nurse sharks, giant turtles, eels, angelfish, and swarms of tropical and game fish.

Crocker Reef

Crocker Reef (or Crocker Wall) is a deeper dive with a depth of 40 to 90 feet (12 to 27 meters). Breathtaking spur and groove formations take center stage in this submerged paradise, and is given justice by good visibility and clear blue water. The gradual slope is also blessed with small canyons and plenty of aquatic flora and fauna. Barrel sponges, green morays, giant turtles, gorgonians, and eagle rays are among the most frequently seen lifeforms in this travel destination.

The Eagle Wreck

This dive site is an artificial reef built on the backbone of a deliberately sunk freighter ship. The 287-foot vessel (87 meters) is now home to a variety of lifeforms from humble bait fish to great barracudas. Proving itself worthy to be called the crown jewel of Islamorada, its crow’s nest and forward cargo boom delight underwater explorers with mesmerizing layers of corals and sponges. Only advanced divers are advised to visit this attraction, as its lies 65 to 110 feet (20 to 33 meters) below sea level in an area known for its strong currents. Be sure to keep an eye out for blue creatures: sawfish and bull sharks frequent this treasure as they cruise through the Gulf Stream.

Key Largo

Key Largo is the first key of the coral cay archipelago, and is located at the northernmost part of the strip of islands. Aside from being the diving capital of the world, Key Largo offers some of the best scuba diving in the Florida Keys thanks to mesmerizing attractions spread across the seabed. Old salts are constantly drawn to this paradise not only for what it has to offer as a wreck mecca, but also to experience glass-bottom boating and to get lost in its surreal sunsets.

USS Spiegel Grove

The USS Spiegel Grove is a colossal Navy transport ship that shares a similar history with The Eagle freighter, in that both were sunk on purpose to form an artificial reef. It takes six separate dives to completely circumnavigate this shipwreck, descending at depths ranging from 60 to 134 feet (18 to 41 meters), but is well worth the effort to catch a glimpse of its dreamlike view. The 510-foot (155 meter) carrier is crowned the “grande dame” of all wrecks in Key Largo, boasting a plethora of wondrous algae, sponges, and corals. Don’t miss out on exploring its crane area and coral-covered gun mount. You’d also want to see its eerie, but totally cinematic American flag, sometimes caught waving proudly with the current.

Christ of the Abyss

Known throughout the world as an iconic destination, The Christ of the Abyss statue is a true must-dive. The 8.5-foot (2.6 meters) bronze statue is the third replica from the original mold and was donated by the Cressi family to celebrate the opening of the first underwater park in the United States. It is located at a shallow reef just 25 feet (7.62 meters) below sea level, and has been a witness to many SCUBA weddings. Surrounded by massive brain coral formations and hundreds of marine life, this dive site is just the spot for a moving experience.

Molasses Reef

Molasses Reef is one of the most highly visited reefs in the Florida Keys—and deservedly so. Aside from its clear waters and stunning marine biodiversity, this tourist favorite is known for being an extensive reef complex with varying depths (6 to 90 feet, or 1.8 to 27.4 meters), making it a household name for both snorkelers and open water divers. Its outer edges typically have strong currents, making for fun drift dives for intermediate explorers. But if there’s anything the Molasses Reef is really known for, it’s the spectacular sight of what could be called a perfect example of a spur and groove reef formation.

US Coast Guard Cutters: USS Duane and Bibb

Located just a mile south from Molasses Reef, the twin coast guard cutters USS Duane and USS Bibb are longtime favorites among wreck enthusiasts and specialty divers. Both cutters served well as maritime workhorses during the Second World War until eventually submerging 130 feet (40 meters) under the sea. Each ship measures 327 feet (almost 100 meters). The two great artificial reefs are great places for encountering large marine animals such as sea turtles, barracudas, and whale sharks.

Marathon

Marathon is a lovely 10-mile long island community at the heart of the Florida Keys. It is the go-to vacation spot for travelers seeking an escape from city life due to its laid back atmosphere and delicious seafood. Much like its sister islands, Marathon boasts an array of captivating wrecks and reefs.

The Thunderbolt

Before becoming an artificial reef 120 feet (36.5 meters) beneath the sea, The Thunderbolt was called the USAMP Major General Wallace F. Randolph. The original purpose of the 188-foot (57 meter) vessel was to lay mines and cables on the seabed, but was later sold to the Florida Power and Light Company for a lightning strike research program—thus its current name. The Thunderbolt is considered to be the queen of the Marathon shipwreck fleet, blessing the eyes of advanced SCUBA divers with an unbelievable sight of a perfectly upright shipwreck. Adorned with a thick layer of corals and sponges, it’s no wonder divers and different marine life gather at the ship’s remains. When you visit this dive spot, be prepared to face medium to strong currents and keep an eye out for sharks.

Sombrero Reef

Sombrero Reef is a vibrant aquatic community featuring lush layers of lettuce, finger, and brain corals, as well as gorgonians. The reef is on the shallow side, situated only five to 30 feet (1.5 to 9 meters) from the surface and is marked by a 142-foot (43 meter) lighthouse. Divers and snorkelers of all skill levels can enjoy exploring this unique paradise to marvel at its picturesque scenery and encounter a variety of colorful sea animals including neon gobies, parrotfish, Spanish hogfish, and more.

Delta Shoal

Delta Shoal is one of the major Florida Keys scuba diving sites. It’s treasured for its clear waters and accessible depth range (15 to 25 feet or 4.5 to 7.6 meters). Aside from its glorious spur and groove formation, Delta Shoal features fascinating canyons on top of its sandy seafloor. It’s also the site of the remains of countless Spanish galleons and the great Ivory Wreck—a sailing vessel which was used largely for slave trading. With shipwrecks on one side and schools of fish swimming against a colorful backdrop of corals and sponges, this destination is great for underwater photography. While this dive site is not particularly deep, you’d need some experiencing anchoring yourself on the sandy seabed as there are no buoys around the area.

Coffins Patch

Marathon tickles the interest of treasure hunters with Coffins Patch. Its spooky name may cause some divers to retreat, but once they find out the Ignacio Spanish galleon struck the reef and left gold and silver coins scattered on the seafloor, they quickly change their minds! Even if you’re not lucky enough to find your own bit of treasure, diving 10 to 30 feet (three to nine meters) to reach this wonderland is already a priceless gem. The six different reefs that make up this dive site are filled with various sea animals playing around brain, staghorn, and fire corals. Visibility and lighting is superb, allowing you to fill your scrapbook with the best underwater photos from the Keys.

Marine Life in Maui

  • Bottlenose Dolphins - The Florida Keys is home to friendly bottlenose dolphins as a result of marine life preservation movements.
  • West Indian Manatee - Manatees can be seen cruising along the shorelines of the Keys. Also known as sea cows, these gentle creatures can actually swim at 15 miles per hour but are more than happy to slowly float along the edges of the water to relax.
  • Green Sea Turtles - These reptiles are one of the largest of their species and are named after the color of their fats and cartilage. Unfortunately, they are currently endangered because adult turtles and their eggs are constantly being hunted.
  • Cassiopea Jellyfish - This majestic jellyfish could be mistaken for aquatic vegetation because it likes to hang around upside down. While it only gives a mild sting when touched, it’s best to admire its green or blue colors from a safe distance.
  • Lionfish - Also called zebrafish, these creatures are hard to miss because of their red and white stripes and graceful fins. Because they are deemed to be a danger to the waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, divers are requested to remove as many of them as possible, even offering up cash prizes for large catches.

Other Attractions

  • Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum - This tourist spot was the home of the famous American novelist Ernest Hemmingway. It features a collection of Spanish furniture from the 17th and 18th centuries, and is an important slice of Florida’s culture.
  • John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park - This underwater attraction is located off Key Largo and is the first underwater park in the country. Head down to this spot and enjoy glass-bottom boating for a close-up look at a variety of sea life.
  • Turtle Hospital - Sprinkle your vacation with a bit of sea knowledge when you visit the turtle hospital in Marathon. This center is trying to save sea turtles from extinction through rescue, rehabilitation, and release.
  • Dry Tortugas National Park - This national park has popular sites like the Coaling Pier, Little Africa Reef, and Windjammer Wreck.

How to Get There

Depending on which island you want to visit, transportation arrangements can range from straightforward to complicated.

By Air
You can book a direct flight to Key West International Airport from many cities around the world. There is also the option to head straight to Marathon on a small charter aircraft that will land in the Florida Keys Marathon International Airport.

By Sea
Ferry services are also available. The Sea Key West Express will take you to Key West from Ft. Myers and Marco Island.

Getting Around
Taxis, shuttle services, and buses are available throughout the Keys to get you from destination to destination. Some remote areas, however, may not be part of their route so you’d have to say yes to exploring on foot.

Best Time to Visit

The Florida Keys is a famous destination for Americans escaping the frigid winter season. However, the surge in tourists means larger crowds and heftier prices. We recommend timing your trip between March and May. Though the heat may be a little more intense, there won’t be much of a crowd and you’d get to book hotels at more reasonable prices.

Required Trainings & Certifications

It’s important to have an Advanced Open Water license before exploring the Key’s deeper dive sites due to the strong currents and steeper drop-offs. In case you’re too busy to get certified before embarking on your trip, you can get certified in one of the Florida Keys dive centers.

Miscellaneous Information

Currency
As part of the United States, the Florida Keys use the US dollar for all transactions.

Language
English is the predominant language, and Spanish and Haitan Creole are also widely spoken.

Time Zone
The Florida Keys follows Eastern Daylight Time, meaning it’s four hours behind Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).

Driving Side
Driving is done on the right-hand side of the road. You can go as fast as 45mph and finding a parking spot can be a little tricky, especially during peak season.

Calling Code
If you’re calling from outside the States, you can reach the Keys by adding your country’s international prefix, followed by 1 and 305 (which is the international code for the United States and the local area code for Florida respectively).

ISO 3166 code
The ISO 3166 code for the Keys is US-FL.

Internet TLD
.fl.us is used in the Florida Keys.