I seem to spend half my life traveling to some faraway dive destination -- usually over, around or past all the diving that exists within a couple of hours of my Orlando, Florida, home. Especially all the wreck diving that Florida is not yet famous enough for -- I say that because distant places such as Bermuda, Scapa Flow, the Great Lakes and Chuuk have long called divers who want to explore wrecks and their stories. South Florida has somehow escaped the fanfare, and most of its hundreds of wrecks remain the almost exclusive playground of local divers -- and a robust community of sea creatures. So I've decided to spill the beans. I've made a recent vow to explore the sites close to home and quickly found my way to Fort Lauderdale's wreck extravaganza. Awaiting just off the famous beaches of this heralded party town are piles and piles of wrecks, all part of South Florida's expansive artificial reef program. When they sink practically anything, it's as if the homeless fish from miles away hear the ripple at the surface. As soon as the wrecks settle on the bottom, moray eels, massive goliath grouper, thick and beefy barracuda and schooling fish by the hundreds show up to check out the new real estate. One of the best places to meet the big, small and sunk is the Sea Empress, which rests in 70 feet of water just offshore.
Over the years, it has become a pile of old culverts and twisted metal. But locals call the place Aqua Zoo because of the variety of big, friendly marine life on the wreck. Almost as soon as you hit bottom, a 6-foot green moray with a crooked smile slithers up to greet you, winds around your leg, checks out your gear. Suffice it to say, this moray is far from shy. It loves divers and it has loads of friends. A massive goliath grouper seems to appear out of the middle of nowhere, which is a big feat for a 500-pound fish. It sits just over the sand and spends the dive watching you. On my dive, a giant carpet-size southern stingray practically cuddled up and wrapped its 5-foot wingspan around me in a welcoming hug (this is no exaggerated dive tale -- you'll see). It stuck around for the rest of the dive. As you can see from the photo, it came to me. I spent so much time with the big guys, I almost missed the little guys, which shelter in the many cavelike hide-outs made by old culverts. We were told that bull sharks like to make occasional appearances. We hoped, but none showed up on our dive. Not that we really missed them.
Everything about this dive was just plain easy. Easy and close encounters with some of the coolest (and typically elusive) critters in the ocean; easy conditions; and dives not far from the PADI Aqua Sport dive shop we went with. But the best part: It's in my own backyard.