Only “Caribbean” islands of the USA, the Florida Keys consist of an archipelago of 1700 islands at the extreme south-east of the Florida Peninsula. Even if they are not technically part of the Caribbean region (same as for the Bahamas and Turks & Caicos), the climate and the underwater ecosystem is similar to what I experienced in Guadeloupe, Dominican Republic and Belize’s Cayes.
Stretching for 121 miles (195 km), the southernmost point in Key West is only 90 miles (145 km) from Cuba. The Keys are like the ocean extension of the Everglades.
On their north side is the Bay of Florida, quiet and shallow, with a palette of different shades of turquoise and home of thousands of wild mangrove islands. On their south side is the Atlantic Ocean, with its dark blue colour and where all the underwater treasures of the Florida Keys lie. There are 3 main areas in the Florida Keys:
- the Upper Keys: the nearest to the mainland with Key Largo & Islamorada islands
- the Middle Keys: in the centre of the archipelago with Marathon & Pigeon Key islands
- the Lower Keys: the furthest from the mainland with Bahia Honda & Key West islands
The history of the Florida Keys
Until the end of the 19th Century, the Florida Keys were only accessible by boat. Until the director of the East Florida Railroad decided to build one the craziest railway projects from Miami to Key West! The route was achieved in the 1910s, but the hurricanes ended severely damaging the bridges in 1935, so the train service stopped.
Then the car replaced the train. You can still visit a large part of the original railway bridge next to Pigeon Key. A total of 42 bridges is linking 43 islands, including the Seven-mile Bridge (11 km) between Marathon and Bahia Honda which is one of the longest in the World.
In November 2015, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary celebrated its 25th anniversary. The Keys’ coral reef is the 3rd world largest barrier reef after Australia and New Caledonia, and the only living coral reef in the USA.
The sanctuary covers 2,900 nautical miles from the south of Miami to Dry Tortugas National Park. As part of the sanctuary protection, a voluntary recognition program, named Blue Star, was launched for the operators in scuba diving, sailing, kayaking, to promote responsible activities that are not harming the ecosystem.
Within the sanctuary, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. After 3 consecutive days of diving in Key Largo, I can tell they did an excellent job, and anyone can see the obvious benefits of such protective measures.
The Florida Keys’ Wreck Trek
The first time I heard about scuba diving in the Florida Keys, it was about the enormous shipwrecks you can dive there. If you are fond of wreck diving, you will be glad to hear that there are 13 wrecks to dive all along the Keys. The main ones are:
- The USS Spiegel Grove, 1956-1989, a Navy supply ship of 510 ft./155 m, in Key Largo
- The Duane, 1936-1943, a coast guard cutter of 327 ft./100 m, in Key Largo
- The Benwood, 1910-1942, an English built merchant marine freighter of 285 ft./87 m, in Key Largo
- The Eagle, 1962-1985, Paper cargo ship of 287 ft./87 m, in Islamorada
- The Thunderbolt, 1943-1986, first a military workboat it was transformed into a lighting research vessel, 188 ft./57 m, in Marathon
- The Adolphus Busch Sr., 1950-1998, a cargo ship of 210 ft./64 m, in Big Pine Key
- The Cayman Salvage Master, 1936-1985, a US minelayer of 187 ft./57 m, in Key West
- The USS Vandenberg, 1943-2008, a missile tracking ship of 524 ft./160 m, in Key West
Most of these ships are not historical wrecks but part of a program of artificial reefs conducted in Florida. The most famous, the USS Vandenberg, cost 8,6 million USD to be decommissioned before being scuttled. It is now the second largest artificial reef in the world after the USS Oriskany in Pensacola, in the North of Florida.
Unfortunately, sea conditions were not good enough at the time of my trip. That is part of the game with scuba diving. I dived the Cayman Salvage Master but unfortunately in low visibility. Thanks to my video light and my training from Scotland, I did not mind, and I could see the wreck was interesting. With all the particles, I got a big surprise when I found myself face to face with a giant green moray eel hanging out there.
My itinerary in the Florida Keys
After visiting the Everglades, I left Homestead at 10 am in the morning to drive the Overseas Highway all the way to Key West. I stopped half-way to spend the beginning of the afternoon at Curry Hammock State Park in the Middle Keys.
After a relaxing 2-hour break on the beach, I reached Key West at 5 pm. The traffic on the highway, which is not a dual carriage all the way, made me think that island hopping is not so easy, so I was glad I booked 2 days in Key West and then spent 3 days in Key Largo.
Scuba diving in Key Largo
The gate to the Keys can be negatively surprising at first glance: large double carriage highway, flashy tourist shops and no town centre to walk around. It is only by leaving the road that you will discover the true nature of Key Largo. The easiest way is to take the direction of John Pennekamp State Park. While kayaking, snorkelling, paddling or sunbathing, you will discover a luxuriant protected area.
Key Largo decided to call itself the Diving Capital of the world. First, it made me smile. There are dive supermarkets (please note the difference, not your regular dive shop) and a scuba diving museum in the neighbour island of Islamorada. Diving Capital of the world, I don’t know, but what I experienced underwater was nothing like before! Anyway, it was my very spot to go scuba diving in the Florida Keys.
As my dive centre was on the Florida Bay side, we had to take one of the canals crossing the island to go to the Atlantic side. To my greatest pleasure, the boat ride to the dive sites every day was enchanting. You first pass the pontoons colonised with lazy pelicans and then enter the canal crossing the island. Passed the canal, you enter a mangrove which looks like a floating forest maze to finally arrive at the ocean.
For 3 days, I dived different sites at Molasses Reef and Elbow Reef. The first one is famous for its biodiversity and the second for its Christ statue, the replica of “Il Cristo Degli Abissi” from Portofino in Italy. All of these dives were shallow: I never went deeper than 11m with an average depth of 7m. If you want to go deeper, you will need to make a dive trip to the wrecks. The reef dives are an excellent opportunity to spend time with non-diving friends and/or family who can also enjoy the beauty of the dive sites while snorkelling.
Most dive sites consist of sand alleys between long coral pinnacles, generally organised like the fingers of a hand. You need to know that like in Europe there is no Divemaster with you during the dive (except for the wrecks for security reasons). Nevertheless, the underwater orientation is simple as you can follow each sand ‘finger” one by one, making a U-turn at the end.
The visibility was superior to 20 m, on the first day and reach 30 m on my last day. Nothing better to enjoy the beauty of the sea fans and the schools of blue-striped grunt swinging with the light tidal current. The reef has Elkhorn coral, giant brain coral, and staghorn coral. My biggest surprise came from how indifferent the fish were to scuba divers, especially the great barracuda and the stingray. For underwater photographers and videographers, this is an exceptional opportunity to get very close to them.
My excitement also came from species of fish I’ve never seen before: the Atlantic spadefish, the hogfish and a big nurse shark! My only disappointment was to miss the eagle rays at Eagle Ray Alley on Elbow Reef. However, with a family of 6 reef sharks coming to say hi, many French angelfish, Spiny Lobsters, stingrays, scrawled filefish and green moray eels, I was delighted! Key Largo made it to my list of the best diving in Americas & the Caribbean.
Who to dive with in Key Largo?
If you are looking for the most adorable and professional crew on a diving boat in Key Largo, do not look further and ask Captain Mike at Amoray Dive Resort. Amoray Dive Resort participates in the Blue Star program of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
104250 Overseas Highway Key Largo, FL 33037
Where to stay in Key Largo?
Your best value option is Amoray Dive Resort. It is one of the cutest places I’ve ever been to. I loved it because of its white and pink wooden buildings in a relaxing natural setting. It has a human size, and I loved the different areas where you can relax on your own: the pontoon, the small private beach or near the swimming pool. They offer a big discount for accommodation with a dive package from 3 to 7 days.
If you are on a budget, the motels of Florida City are only 30 minutes driving away and are an excellent alternative, especially when everything is fully booked, or the only remaining rooms reach insane prices during peak season holidays. For example, you can have a look at the Days Inn: the rooms are pretty and immaculate, and I liked the friendly atmosphere at the swimming pool with the tiki bar. You have to know that prices may vary a lot depending on when you book and on which website, don’t hesitate to compare and take free cancellation option if offered.
Be aware that you always need to add the tax to the prices indicated: +12,5% (it is rarely included in the price).
Relaxing at Curry Hammock State Park
Exactly halfway between Key Largo and Key West, on Little Crawl Key, the Curry Hammock State Park was the perfect nature stop for a picnic and a nap on the beach. For only 3 USD per person, you can enjoy clean picnic area and bathroom amenities before going for a walk on the beach. The beach is not very long, but it has several small coves, so it does not feel crowded.
The main advantage here: the beach is away from the highway contrary to the more visited Bahia Honda State Park. At the end beach, the mangrove starts. There I sat next to a big iguana that seemed to enjoy posing for my camera.
Important information: There are not many beaches in the Keys, and they are small. Most of the time people enjoy the private (artificial) beach of their resort. The best public beaches are in State Parks: John Pennekamp National Park in Key Largo, Fort Zachary in Key West, Bahia Honda in the Lower Keys and Curry Hammock near Marathon.
Scuba diving in Key West
Beyond its geographical status, Key West is a symbol. Like New York City or San Francisco, it embodies a certain liberal culture but in a tropical backdrop. While walking through the charming streets of its town centre, you will learn about the history of the Conch Republic and the stories of Hemingway getting seriously drunk at Sloppy Joe’s at the same time he was writing his masterpieces.
Each wooden “gingerbread” house being prettier than the other, be careful not to miss the sunset at Mallory Square, as you might end up taking thousands of pictures while trying to capture the spirit of Key West. However, it might also be the roosters circulating between the cars or the casual bicycle riders that will catch your attention. Make sure not stay only along Duval Street, Key West’s main street: explore the side streets; Key West is not so big so you won’t be lost too long.
Each night is a celebration in Key West, with beautiful lights everywhere inviting to stay longer for another drink. Key West is also a paradise for foodies with good restaurants where you can treat yourself with conch fritters, fish tacos (Schooner Wharf, 202 William St.) stone crab claws (Pinchers, 712 Duval St.) and Key Lime Pie (Kermit’s Key Lime Shoppe, 200 Elizabeth St.).
Key West is the second place where you want to go scuba diving in the Florida Keys, thanks to its reef and its famous wrecks like the USS Vandenberg. The day I spent diving with Dive Key West was great. After preparing our gear at their dive shop, we loaded our tanks on the boat at the beautiful FMC Marina, surrounded by intrigued pelicans. The sea was choppy that day, so I did my best to look at the horizon while explaining to the guys coming from NYC, that yes, I also dive in Scotland.
We started our trip with the Cayman Salvage Master at 25m deep for 36 minutes. At the beginning of the dive, we found an enormous green moray eel hanging out on the bow of the shipwreck. Unfortunately, the visibility wasn’t good that day, but I still enjoyed it.
After 40 minutes of surface interval, we went for a shallow reef dive. We did not go deeper than 10m, but I liked swimming around the pinnacles of Western Sambo “Haystacks” and exploring each crack and looking below the rocks to find a school of fish hiding. On the sandy bottom, I was surprised to see how close the barracuda came to check us out. My favourite discovery was to find a living conch underwater in the Capital of the Conch Republic!
Who to dive with in Key West?
I warmly recommend diving with Dive Key West. Bob and Cece have been managing their dive centre in Key West for 44 years! It is the oldest dive shop in town, so their knowledge and experience of diving in Key West is incredible. Dive Key West participates in the Blue Star program of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. You can enjoy the FMC Marina amenities after your diving trip with Dive Key West. There you can take a warm shower, swim in their infinity pool, get a tan on their private beach or even unwind in their sauna!
3128 N. Roosevelt Blvd., Key West, FL 33040
Where to stay in Key West?
The best value I found to enjoy Key West’s centre is the Caribbean House. It is a charming 2-floor yellow and pink gingerbread house. The rooms are not very big, but they are cute and comfortable. No breakfast is served, but free coffee with an excellent coffee machine, available all day long. As there is a fridge in the room and I had a table on the balcony next to my room, that was perfect for my breakfast in the morning with a bagel and cream cheese.
The location is also a big advantage of this hotel: right in the heart of Key West, while being on the residential side, surrounded by beautiful houses, you are less than 5 minutes walking away from Duval Street. Last but not least, they have 4 free parking spaces in front of the house, which was invaluable as I came to Key West with my rental car. Parking space is rare or expensive in Key West.
If you are on a budget: Seashell Motel & Hostel is the only hostel of the Keys. The dorm is very simple but clean. They have a mixed dorm and a female only one. They also have motel rooms with double beds, but their rate is higher than the Caribbean house which is more charming and better located.
Be aware that you always need to add the tax to the prices indicated: +12,5% (it is rarely included in the price).
When is the best time to go scuba diving in the Florida Keys?
When planning your visit to the Keys, you need to know two important things: the period of the hurricanes (tropical storms) is from June to November, and the American holidays which are the highest peak period, so the most expensive one. The period from December to March is the best one if you want to avoid the hurricane season.
However, all the locals told me they preferred the summer because the water is warmer and they found the visibility to be better. In July/August the water is about 30/31°C, and in December/January to water is at the coldest 21/22°C. In my case, at the end of December, beginning of January, the water was at a comfortable level of 25/27°C.
Another important piece of information is that children are going back to school mid-August in the US, which means that the two last weeks of August are quiet. According to the local divers, it is the best season to go scuba diving in the Florida Keys.
Here is the list of the American holidays and special events to avoid if you want to make big savings. I recommend you to check the exact dates for the year you are planning your trip:
- Xmas holidays from the 24th of December to the 5th of January
- President Day (3rd Monday in February)
- Spring Break (Beginning of April)
- Memorial Day (Last Monday of May)
- Independence Day (4th of July)
- Mini Lobster season (Last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July)
- Labour Day (1st Monday in September)
- Thanksgiving (4th Thursday in November)
- Homestead Race Weekend (End of November)
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