The variety of dive sites in the Keys offers divers of every level…from first-timers to experts…the chance to experience the reef's otherworldly beauty. The entire reef tract lies inside the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Created in 1990, the sanctuary is a protected marine environment encompassing 2,800 square nautical miles (9,500 square kilometers) of coastal and oceanic waters.
Dozens of world-class shallow dives from 15 to 30 feet enable divers to stay underwater longer and see more. On many dives, bottom time can safely exceed one hour. Deeper reefs and drop-offs, from 30 feet to 60 feet, put divers face to face with larger reef species and pelagic visitors like sea turtles, manta rays, dolphins and sharks.
On the sea floor, at depths ranging from 40 feet to 100 feet, rest the amazing wrecks of the Keys. Some are remnants of navigational errors or storm winds, like the Benwood and San Pedro…others are retired ships that were cleaned and sunk to provide new marine habitats. Most of the artificial reefs in the Keys can be explored at moderate depths of 50 to 75 feet, making them accessible to almost every diver.
It's easier to name the top 50 dives in the Keys than the top 10, but the following are not-to-be-missed sites loved by visitors and locals alike.
Traveling from north to south, Key Largo to Key West, the first stop is the queen of the artificial reefs in the Keys, the Spiegel Grove, located just six miles off the Key Largo shoreline. At 510 feet long, the Spiegel Grove is the largest ship ever intentionally sunk as an artificial reef. It rests on its starboard side on a flat sand plain 130 feet deep. But because the ship is 84 feet wide, divers can explore about 400 feet of the ship's length at depths of 50 to 85 feet. The sheer size of the Spiegel Grove is a startling sight to divers no matter where they've dived or what they've seen. The ship reveals itself almost mystically from the depths as divers approach. A giant jewfish has taken up residence, along with hundreds of other species from tiny tropicals and large barracudas. Algae, shrimp, sponges and corals have moved in, demonstrating the natural development of life on a reef.
Often taken as the second dive after visiting the Spiegel Grove are the Key Largo Dry Rocks, recognized worldwide as the site of the "Christ of the Abyss" statue. The solid bronze statue stands nine feet tall and is a duplicate of the statue that rests under 50 feet of water off Genoa, Italy. The ethereal beauty of the statue is complemented by shallow, heavily populated coral reefs accessible to divers and snorkelers.
Barely 20 miles south and just a few miles offshore from Islamorada, lies another spectacular pairing -- the Eagle and Alligator Reef. The Eagle was sunk in December 1985 and lies in about 110 feet of water. Exploration of the wreck begins at about 65 to 70 feet. The ship is heavily covered by marine growth. Tall sea whips sway in the currents from their perch on the main mast. Schools of tarpon and permit, two of the premier game fish in Florida waters, can be seen circling the Eagle. Angelfish and dozens of tropical species also make their home on this steel reef. A close-up, hand-over-hand trip along the exposed gunwale reveals a world of arrow shrimp, sponges, brittle stars and tiny octopi.
The ship measured 287 feet long when sunk, but the undersea surge caused by Hurricane Georges in September 1998 broke the Eagle in two. The opening between the front and aft sections creates a swim-through inhabited by schools of snappers, grunts and silversides. In addition, divers who explore the sea bottom near the Eagle may see the rare batfish skittering along the sand.
Barely a mile from the Eagle is Alligator Reef, named for the U.S.S. Alligator, a small man-of-war sent by Congress to fight the pirates who thrived in Florida's waters during the early 19th century. The ship ran aground in 1822. The white tower beacon erected to mark the reef was completed in 1873 and can be seen for miles. Its 136-foot-high lantern, visible to 15 miles, is the major navigational aid to commercial shipping in the area. The tower stood up to the 1935 hurricane that slammed Islamorada with 200-mile-per-hour winds, and has defeated every hurricane since.
Alligator Reef is a bank reef with a rise reaching about seven feet at its tallest point. An easy swim along the "wall" and the seemingly endless nooks and crannies lets divers experience a colorful, crowded marine world. Lobsters, protected because Alligator Reef is in a no-take Sanctuary Preservation Area, arrogantly wave antennae at passing divers. Huge schools of fearless grunts get within inches, sometimes swirling around until a diver becomes part of the school. A return trip along the top of the reef gives divers a completely different sense of the habitat.
Marathon, the city in the center of the Keys, is the site of the Thunderbolt. It measures 188 feet long and sits perfectly upright in 115 feet of water. Sunk in March 1986, the Thunderbolt is covered by a thick coating of colorful sponges, corals and hydroids. Angelfish and jacks swim around the superstructure, and a jewfish estimated to weigh 500 pounds stands guard near the bow.
World famous Sombrero Reef presents 50 or more shallow dive sites. Marathon dive operators have a handy habit of finding the spot with the best visibility for the day's conditions. Divers can cruise through coral canyons and swim under an eight-foot-tall coral archway. The spur and groove formations are separated by bright sand channels. Schools of grunts and snappers hang in the water, wary of a slow-moving barracuda but unafraid of tank-laden humans.
Quietly maintaining its "least touched by man" feel, the area known as the Lower Keys stretches from above Bahia Honda State Park (mile marker 37), through Big Pine Key (MM 33-29), to Boca Chica Key located about six to eight miles east (south by highway direction) of Key West. The area is home to the Adolphus Busch Sr., a 210-foot-long ex-movie-star freighter that sits majestically upright in 110 feet of water. It was featured in a 1957 Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth flick titled "Fire Down Below."
Sunk in December 1998, the ship now plays host to a new cast of characters, including a pair of approximately 400-pound jewfish, hovering trumpetfish, large permit and colorful tropicals. More adventurous divers can swim inside the ship to experience the thrill and mystery of a penetration dive.
Spectacular Looe Key, also located in the Lower Keys, isn't really a key at all. It's a 5.3-nautical-mile-long stretch of spur and groove reef formations protected from any kind of fishing or shell collecting. Regarded by many as the most beautiful coral reef in North America, Looe Key holds an incredibly diverse population of tropical fish, corals, sponges, hydroids and shellfish. The overall layout of Looe Key offers a wide variety of depths -- from one foot to 30 feet -- that makes for easy snorkeling and diving. The water tends to be very clear, so Looe Key has become a popular site for underwater photographers.
America's southernmost city, Key West, has a long list of "nowhere else can you find" sites, sights, activities and attractions. For divers, there's the appeal of (relatively) shallow water wreck diving on close-to-shore artificial reefs. Joe's Tug sits upright in about 60 feet of water, making the average dive depth about 50 feet. An easy dive for beginners and advanced divers, the tug is watched over by friendly moray eels, impassive grunts and curious snappers. Soft and hard coral formations and large sponges surround the tug.
Alexander's Wreck is a 300-foot-long destroyer escort that lies in two sections, about 150 feet apart, under 30 feet of Gulf of Mexico water. The ship has been down for more than 30 years and looks to be more reef than wreck. Its hull is covered with oysters. Nurse sharks and nudibranchs, corals and crustaceans are included in this diverse ecosystem just a few miles from downtown Key West.
South of Key West lies the Western Sambos, simply one of the prettiest reefs anywhere in the world. The site is part of a strictly protected ecological reserve created in 1997. Today, the reserve is recognized by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary as having the greatest habitat diversity in the Lower Keys. At the west end, in just 25 feet of water, grow large fields of coral. In slightly deeper water, large stand-alone coral heads dot the sea floor. Each coral head supports a community of sea creatures -- fish above, shrimp on the edges and lobsters in crevices.
The top 10 dives in the Keys are subject to change daily. Moving a boat 100 yards along a Keys reef presents new sights and new experiences; move a half mile and the undersea world changes completely…and wherever you go, the quiet is endless.
NOTE: Most wreck dives in the Keys require an Advanced Open Water certification. Many Keys dive shops offer Nitrox fills and tanks for Nitrox-certified divers.
Photo credit: Joe Berg, Way Down Video.