Six miles off sleepy Big Pine Key lies one of the United States' greatest sunken treasures Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary. The Florida Keys landmark encompasses roughly 5 square nautical miles of unspoiled reef running parallel to U.S. Highway 1 in the blue Atlantic. And no dive mission to the Lower Keys is complete without a visit.
Named for the HMS Looe, a British warship that ran aground there in 1744 and subsequently burned to the waterline, the U-shaped, grove-and-spur reef system became the country's second national marine sanctuary in 1981, six years after the original in Key Largo. This special designation means that there are "absolute" bans on spearfishing, lobster hunting and the collection of fish, coral or shells, a strictly enforced protection that has helped the reef population flourish into a dense, diverse and friendly community, thriving with an estimated 50 species of coral and 150 species of fish and invertebrates.
Part of what makes Looe Key special is that the reef represents a complete ecosystem. The sanctuary transitions from a shallow ridge of fossilized-coral rubble to a flat reef sprouting with turtle grass, then a sloping fore reef from 20-40 feet and beyond to a deeper section descending to around 100 feet, where it's possible to spot rays, turtles, mantas and the occasional whale shark. But it's the shallows where all the action happens. Dozens of mooring buoys mark diverse dive sites suitable for all skill levels in the roughly 200- to 800-yard protected zone. There, plentiful angelfish, parrotfish, sergeant majors, moray eels and barracuda live among elkhorn, staghorn, star, brain and fire corals. And the marine life seem aware they live in a sanctuary. The sight of a diver doesn't send them scurrying to the deep folds of the reef. They go on about their daily lives as if you're simply another part of the finned community.
Topside, the Lower Keys are the least developed of all the barrier islands. Once across the famous Seven Mile Bridge, the unofficial line of demarcation between "upper" and "lower," the vibe becomes far less tourist and way more natural. Signature eco-adventures in the area include kayaking the mangrove mazes of Coupon Bight, backcountry flats fishing for tarpon and bonefish, and spotting whitetails in the National Key Deer Refuge, home to the last remaining group of endangered Key deer in existence. Other nondiving distractions include the beautiful beaches of Bahia Honda State Park and an abandoned quarry called Blue Hole that's now home to a crew of alligators.
Accommodations range from primitive campsites to traditional conch guesthouses and newer resorts, some with marina facilities. For nocturnal entertainment, No Name Pub is the Keys' oldest watering hole (established 1935), a one-time brothel where a special breed of Lower Keys locals now mixes with fishermen and divers from around the world. And if you happen to visit the area in July, don't miss the annual Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival, now in it's 25th year, for one of the most-unique concerts you'll ever witness. But, the real attraction is the reef, and a handful of operators offer excursions to Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, including UnderSeas Inc. in Big Pine Key, which runs two-tank trips to the reef twice daily and guided tours by request. For divers who appreciate diversity, Looe Key won't disappoint. The multifaceted Lower Keys jewel is a dive that every American scuba enthusiast should experience. Consider it your civic duty.