Famed around the globe, the clear, warm waters of the Florida Keys attract almost 800,000 scuba and snorkel aficionados annually, and there is no better destination to learn how to get "up close and personal" with the undersea environment. The Keys' combination of vivid coral reefs teeming with exotic sea creatures and a wealth of first-rate snorkel/dive operators offers a ready-made vacation paradise for those who can't wait to get into the water and start exploring. But for visitors who desire firsthand experience of the marine environment, all that is needed is some swimming skill, the appropriate equipment and a boat ride to an offshore coral reef. Snorkeling requires nothing more than a mask to see underwater, a snorkel for breathing and fins for propulsion all of which can be easily rented or affordably purchased and can be experienced with less than 15 minutes of instruction. Scuba diving is more complex, requiring sophisticated equipment and instruction by certified teachers. Instruction generally lasts from one day for an introductory lesson to five days for open-water certification. Whether visitors indulge in scuba or snorkel, the Florida Keys provide spectacular rewards in brilliant colors, breathtaking scenery and the exhilaration of an encounter with nature's wonders. To maintain the Keys' status as the world's most popular dive destination, the region's offshore environment has been the focus of conservation efforts for more than a generation. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, established in 1990, encompasses the coastal waters of the entire island chain from northernmost Key Largo south to the Dry Tortugas. Off the Lower Keys, the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary has been protected from shell and coral collecting, as well as spearfishing, since 1981. As a result, the undersea environs are home to great numbers of reef fish and annually play host to a well-attended, albeit unusual, event for divers and snorkelers: the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival.
Keys conservation efforts got under way in 1960 when widespread public support laid the foundation for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park off Key Largo, named for a late Miami newspaper editor who championed local environmental preservation. The undersea park and the adjacent Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary features the nine-foot-high "Christ of the Deep," a 4,000-pound bronze statue installed as an underwater shrine. Created by Italian sculptor Guido Galletti, the statue stands on a 20-ton concrete base in 25 feet of water. A duplicate of the "Christ of the Abyss" situated in 50 feet of water off the coast of Italy, the "Christ of the Deep" was a gift to the Underwater Society of America from industrialist and undersea sportsman Egidi Cressi. It has become one of the most photographed underwater sites in the world and is a popular spot for underwater weddings.
The 510-foot Spiegel Grove, a retired U.S. Navy Landing Ship Dock, is the largest ship ever intentionally sunk to create an artificial reef. The vessel was the center of international attention when it prematurely sank and rolled over May 17, 2002. Three weeks later, a salvage team successfully reoriented the ship on its right side and it subsequently opened to divers. An excellent multilevel dive, the huge ship already has attracted legions of fish and other marine life. The ship can be viewed by scuba divers, snorkelers and even glass-bottom boat patrons. The Spiegel Grove is positioned about six miles off Key Largo in 130 feet of water. Several mooring buoys provide convenient tie-off points for boaters. Experienced scuba divers also can investigate two vintage sister Coast Guard cutters purposely sunk off Key Largo in 1987 to serve as artificial reefs. Positioned just south of Molasses Reef, the 327-foot vessels rest on white sand in 120 feet of water. Diving either of the two wrecks is not for novices and should be attempted only with a Keys-based dive-charter operator. A sunken Spanish galleon of 1733 is the focus of the San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve off Islamorada. Little remains of the underwater wreck after 250 years, but it continues to be a favorite of snorkelers and divers, and curators of the site have added authentic touches, including seven concrete cannon replicas and an 18th-century ship's anchor. Off Marathon, undersea favorites include the wreck of the Ivory Coast, the obscure remains of a sunken slave ship run aground in 1853, and Sombrero Reef, marked by a large, lighted tower. One of Marathon's most historic dive sites is an artificial reef created from the center span of the old Seven Mile Bridge, built by Florida pioneer Henry Flagler for his overseas railroad. Big Pine Key is noted for the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, rated by many as one of the most spectacular shallow-water dive experiences to be found. Just west of Looe Key, the 210-foot island freighter Adolphus Busch Senior rests on the bottom of the ocean as an artificial reef providing additional habitat for marine species as well as another site for divers. Key West, replete with luxurious resorts, fine dining and renowned shopping, also offers snorkelers nearby offshore reefs and dozens of dive and snorkel excursions every day. Several wrecks are frequented by area dive-charter operators.They include the 65-foot-long Joe's Tug, which rests upright on the bottom in 65 feet of water surrounded by coral formations; Alexander's Wreck, a former destroyer escort broken into two sections that sit 200 yards apart in 28 feet of water; and the Cayman Salvage Master, an old 185-foot Coast Guard buoy tender providing diving opportunities at 70 to 90 feet. For divers with an interest in art, Keys metal sculptor Ann Labriola's Stargazer project rests about five miles southwest of Key West in 22 feet of water. Now home to marine life, the 200-foot-long creation is composed of 10 individual steel structures weighing between 2,000 and 8,000 pounds each, with holes cut out in patterns of star constellations. For scuba enthusiasts seeking advanced education in the sport, many dive operators in the Florida Keys offer sophisticated programs such as underwater photography and videography as well as deep-water technical diving. While the vast majority of divers will never need it, the Florida Keys has a $1.2 million custom-built hyperbaric chamber at Mariner's Hospital in Tavernier the only center of its kind in the Florida Keys that admits the public. The facility comfortably accommodates six patients at once for the treatment of decompression illness, and has a 12-person maximum capacity. Patients can listen to music or watch television while being treated.
Multi-language visitor guides are available free by writing to Florida Keys & Key West Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 1147 Key West, FL 33041, U.S.A.
Downloadable brochures and videos are available at the Florida Keys & Key West Web site at: http://www.fla-keys.com Or, in the U.S. and Canada, dial toll-free 1-800-FLA-KEYS.