Why Florida Keys?
Florida Keys are one of the most versatile diving destinations in the world. Between the 120 miles of islands you can find shallow shore dives for the total beginners to over 100 foot more challenging deeper reefs. Dive sites vary from marine infested shipwrecks to natural coral formations, some just off the coast and some a longer boat ride offshore.
Florida is the USA’s only living coral barrier reef and the US government have invested a lot of money and effort into maintaining this through intentionally sinking old ships here as diving attractions and taking many steps to protect the reef environment. Such steps include creating the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and equipping most dive sites with mooring buoys to save the reef (the plus side is they also make it much easier for you to tie off). Most the dive operators in Florida Keys are very committed to protecting the marine habitat and often use smaller boats to take you out which has the plus side of meaning less divers within your vicinity when you are diving, although in my experience some of the most popular sites still manage to get really busy.
Florida was one of my first diving destinations when i first began in the diving game. I went there mainly because I was tight on budget so the convenience (and saving the cost) of not having to fly abroad was a major bonus. I was also comforted by the vast array of accommodation, eateries and facilities that exist in Florida meaning I wouldn’t have to forego my home comforts. I also knew that as it was in a developed country the dive schools and boaters might be a bit stricter on health and safety features than in less developed countries. I am all for being laid back but a hair raising experience with a local dive school when backpacking in Belize scarred me for a good few years. Florida Keys turned out to be a fantastic decision because of the sheer variety of sites and marine life (including bigger creatures such as sting ray and turtles) to still see in relatively calm and shallow waters.
Best time of year to visit
The average water temperatures throughout the year vary from 23 – 30 degrees centigrade. The coldest months are December, January and February, and the warmest July, August and September. Winter is also the busiest and most expensive time of year for tourism in Florida Keys, with summer being quieter, cheaper but also hurricane and rainy season which can disrupt your visibility on dives.
When I went to Florida for my dive holiday I went in October and this seemed a perfect time of year, with the weather and water still being pretty warm and the winds and rain not too strong to affect my dives. You should also be aware that apart from the weather, the other big dependency on your success on dives is the Gulf Stream which affects both your visibility and the strength of currents but is something you don’t have any control over.
How to get there
Use this map
Florida Keys are the southernmost tropical islands in Florida that you can actually get to from mainland Florida by car, boat or plane.
Getting to Florida could not be easier given its location with the States and with over 60 airports in Florida alone you can decide which the most convenient and cheapest for you depending on where you are arriving from, and whether you want to explore the other attractions Florida has on offer before you head to the Keys for your diving.
Key West International Airport is the closest international airport in the Keys and has many international flights arriving direct, however it isn’t as frequently serviced as the larger airports on mainland Florida. If you cannot find a flight here from your home destination you could either fly into Florida and get another flight out to Key West International or Florida Keys Marathon International Airport (you can only pay for on-demand small charter flights to arrive at Marathon airport). Or you could hire a car and make the drive down yourself across the overseas highway to reach the Keys. I have heard it is meant to be a beautiful scenic route.
Ft Lauderdale airport and Miami airport are also other options to fly into from an array of countries and Miami is surprisingly not far from the Florida Keys. If you cannot wait to get acquainted with the sea then you can get onboard the Sea Key West Express which is a ferry service to Key West from Ft. Myers and Marco Island.
Where to dive
This is the perfect spot for beginners with much of the diving being a low water depth and free of currents but still boasting an impressive array of marine life. Key Largo was designated a national marine sanctuary in 1975 and features six Sanctuary Protection Areas which are protected from coral collection and any type of fishing at all which means that it is both strikingly beautiful and the marine life are very friendly; not fearing humans.
I headed to Molasses Reef where I couldn’t believe the range and number of marine life which appeared within an arm’s’ reach of me, including a small bale of turtles. It was an amazing experience but did rather spoil me as a beginner because I imagined that was typical of a dive – when it is far from it!
I also headed over to Statue of Christ of the Abyss which is a huge statue which rises so high up to the water’s surface that it makes a great spot to head to if you are with non-divers as they could go out with you and experience the marine life around the statute with a snorkelling mask.
I wanted to move down the Keys so didn’t have time to fin around more sites in Key Largo but there are so many you could spend weeks there, including several shipwrecks. Some have been sunk intentionally such as Spiegel Grove, Bibb and Duane, and some natural such as Benwood Wreck (a casualty of World War 2) and the Elbow.
Heralded as one of the top spots in the Keys, I was super excited to make the journey here especially because it has quite a few sites from the Florida Key’s Wreck Trek which ends here.
You can either fin in the reefs several miles offshore but you will need a charter service to take you out there.
Or if you want to do it yourself you can head to Key West Marine Park to the south where there is diving from the shore. Again this makes a great choice if you are with non-diving friends or family who can also snorkel the same sites, my personal recommendation would be Nine Foot Stake.
The first place I headed was the Vanderberg (nicknamed by locals as the Vandy). It is arguably the best wreck in the area. However it starts at 95 feet which when I was a beginner was a little deeper than I felt comfortable with so instead my instructor took me to Joe’s Tug.
Joe’s Tug is a shallower alternative shipwreck which is in about 50 feet of water instead. I always love wrecks because they seem to harbour the most diverse and special coral and marine life hiding within the ship’s nooks and crannies. When you become a bit more experienced they are also a fantastic place for night dives as long as you don’t have an overactive imagination!
Joe’s Tug is an excellent alternative for beginners because it is small enough in size that you can explore all of it thoroughly on a single tank, yet large enough that it offers a wide variety of species ranging from lobster to barracuda to hogfish and parrotfish.
Other diving spots to explore whilst you’re there
Because the Keys are thousands of miles long and offer so many sites there is no way you can visit them all unless you move to the area! Other top spots that I have heard of are the Lower Keys with Looe Key Reef which offers excellent diving from 20 feet deep (useful when you are starting out finning) and Islamorada which has been acclaimed the “Sport Fishing Capital of the World” which has coral, shipwreck and a wall for variation of diving spots.
The only downside of the area is that because it is extremely popular with beginners due to the low depths and currents yet abundance of colourful coral and marine life, despite it being out of peak season it was still pretty busy and full of beginners who can often be less considerate of other divers than more advanced divers who are familiar with diving etiquette.
Overall, the Florida Keys are such a stress-free place for beginners, where you won’t have to sacrifice experience for variety of marine life or choice of dive sites, with the advantage of having access to comfortable amenities at the standards the Western world are used to.