My American dream: scuba diving in the Florida Keys

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Only “Caribbean” islands of the USA, the Florida Keys consist of an archipelago of 1700 islands at the extreme southeast 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 are similar to what I experienced in Guadeloupe, Dominican Republic and Belize’s Cayes. What is technically true and that most American divers won’t deny is that spots like Key Largo and Key West are definitely some of the best diving in America.

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 to thousands of wild mangrove islands. On their south side is the Atlantic Ocean, with its dark blue colour, where all the underwater treasures of the Florida Keys lie.

Diving in the Florida Keys at a glance

How good is diving in the Florida Keys?

  • marine life

Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • unique features

Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • visibility

Rating: 3 out of 5.
  • protected area

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The History of the first marine protected area in the US

Florida Keys Highway

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 of the craziest railway projects from Miami to Key West! The route was achieved in the 1910s, but the hurricanes severely damaged 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 link 43 islands, including the Seven-mile Bridge (11 km) between Marathon and Bahia Honda, which is one of the longest in the World. This why renting a car at Miami Airport is a must, this is one of the best road trips in the US. I made sure to stop in each of the 3 main areas of the Florida Keys during my 6-day scuba diving road trip :

  • 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 Florida Keys are indeed now a National Marine Sanctuary covering 2,900 nautical miles from the south of Miami to Dry Tortugas National Park. In November 2015, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary celebrated its 25th anniversary. As part of sanctuary protection, a voluntary recognition program, Blue Star, was launched for operators of scuba diving, sailing, and kayaking to promote responsible activities that do not harm 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.

A tentative to follow 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, especially the USS Vanderberg. 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 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, a military workboat 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 (5 m max). Thanks to my training in Scotland, I did not mind, but I still got a bit spooked when I found myself face-to-face with a giant green moray eel. I’ll have to come back!

My itinerary in the Florida Keys

Diving in the Florida Keys from Key Largo

After visiting the Everglades, I left Homestead at 10 a.m. to drive the Overseas Highway all the way to Key West. I stopped halfway to spend the beginning of the afternoon at Curry Hammock State Park in the Middle Keys. After a relaxing two-hour break on the beach, I reached Key West at 5 p.m. So, it is roughly a 5-hour drive from Miami to Key West.

The traffic on the highway, which is not dual carriage all the way, made me think that island hopping is not so easy (note that I was travelling between Christmas and NYE), so I was glad I booked 2 days in Key West. I then drived the other way around and spent 3 days in Key Largo. To make it easier to read, I describe the locations I visited from the East to the West below.

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 on the neighbouring island of Islamorada. Diving Capital of the world, I don’t know, but what I experienced underwater was quite something!

As the 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. After passing the canal, you enter a mangrove that looks like a floating forest maze to finally arrive at the ocean.

For 3 days, I dived at 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 snorkelling.

Most dive sites consist of sandy 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 reached 30 m on my last day. There is nothing better than enjoying 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 mainly came from species I had never seen before, such as the Atlantic spadefish, the hogfish, and a massive nurse shark. My only disappointment was missing the eagle rays at Eagle Ray Alley on Elbow Reef. However, with a family of six reef sharks coming to say hi, many French angelfish, Spiny Lobsters, stingrays, scrawled filefish, and green moray eels, I was delighted.

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 Center. They participate in the Blue Star program of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Where to stay in Key Largo?

The best option by far is the Amoray Dive Resort. It is one of the cutest dive resorts 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 dive packages from 3 to 7 days with the accomodation.

If you are on a budget, the motels of Florida City are only a 30-minute drive away and are an excellent alternative, especially when everything is fully booked, or the only remaining rooms reach insane prices during peak season holidays. That’s how I ended up at the Days Inn: the rooms are pretty and immaculate, and I liked the swimming pool and being able to cook fresh waffles at breakfast!

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

Surprisingly, there are not so many beaches in the Keys, and the few available are small. Most people usually enjoy the private (artificial) beach of their resort. However, getting to the State Parks in the Florida Keys is the secret to enjoying the best public beaches (for an entrance fee):

  • John Pennekamp in Key Largo
  • Fort Zachary in Key West
  • Bahia Honda in the Lower Keys
  • Curry Hammock near Marathon

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, I made the best use of the 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 never feels crowded.

Contrary to Bahia Honda, the beach is well away from the highway for a more peaceful setting. The mangrove starts at the end beach, and this is where I found myself sitting next to a big iguana which seemed to enjoy posing for my camera.

Scuba diving in Key West

Diving in the Florida Keys from 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 is prettier than the other. Be careful not to miss the sunset at Mallory Square. However, it might also be the roosters circulating between the cars or the casual bicycle riders that will catch your attention. Make sure not to 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 for too long.

Each night is a celebration in Key West, with beautiful lights everywhere inviting you to stay longer for another drink. Key West is also a paradise for foodies, with good restaurants where you can treat yourself to conch fritters, mahi-mahi tacos (Schooner Wharf, 202 William St.), stone crab claws (Pinchers, 712 Duval St.), and key lime pies (Kermit’s Key Lime Shop, 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 curious 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 do 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’s “Haystacks”, 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 checking us out. My favourite discovery was finding 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. They participate 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!

Where to stay in Key West?

The Caribbean House is the best value accomodation I found in the centre of Key West. 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 is available all day long. There was 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 definitely the main 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 a rental car. Parking space is rare or expensive in Key West.

If you are on a budget, Seashell Motel & Hostel is the only hostel in 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.

But if splurging in luxury is what you are after, you should definitely have a look at the Capitana Key West.

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 was warmer and the visibility was better. In July/August, the water is about 30/31°C, and in December/January, it is at the coldest 21/22°C. In my case, at the end of December and the beginning of January, the water was at a comfortable level of 25/27°C

Another important piece of information is that children in the US go back to school in mid-August, which means that the last two weeks of August are quiet. According to 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 check the exact dates for the year you are planning your trip:

  • Christmas holidays from the 24th of December to the 5th of January
  • President’s 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)

Do you need more information to plan a dive trip to Florida?

Check these additional articles about travelling and scuba diving in Florida:


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Posted by Florine

  1. I’ve been wanting to dive the keys for some time now. Thanks for the great photo’s to help refuel my dreams!


    1. Thanks for your comment Kevin, I’m glad I could inspire you!


  2. Gorgeous photos! I was scuba certified in Cancun, and really need to go in the keys, especially after reading this!


    1. It’s a great place to get more experience, I recommend Molasses Reef in Key Largo for beginners!


  3. We dove with Florine in Key Largo, great dives and the Amoray dive resort is definitely recommended!


    1. Thanks Victor, what a great time there!


  4. nice story and review.. since i lived in a third world country, it would be only a dream for me to get there..


    1. OK maybe but your country is one of the most beautiful in the world underwater & beyond! I will soon post a video of Key Largo underwater so I can take you there with me 😉


  5. Super underwater photos. It looks like you had great vis on the reef dives, at least.


    1. Thank you Emilie! Yes the excellent visibility on the reef dives totally saved my trip 😀


  6. Katie @ Zen Life and Travel July 22, 2017 at 2:54 pm

    I did my certification dives in Key Largo. Molasses Reef was one of those dives. I would love to go back and try it again now that I am (a little) more experienced.


    1. That’s a really good choice to do your scuba diving open water in Key Largo, the John Pennekamp Marine Park is such a safe and easy location to dive while enjoying beautiful sights with lots of fish!


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