WRECK DIVING IN KEY LARGO
The Florida Keys are advertised as the DIVE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD. And yes, it is easily accessible. But why is it so popular to dive in the Keys? Is it the fish life? The shallow reefs with no current? The wild topside activities? Or is it the wrecks? We opted for a short dive trip down to Key Largo to find out.
It had been 10 months since Ron, Tiffany, and I had been diving in warm water and since we had been to Cozumel (4 times in a row) we decided it was time to try a new destination. Key Largo seemed to fit the bill - not drift diving, lots of wrecks, and a chance for me to play with my new C-5050z digital camera. We decided to do only 3 days of diving, 2 full days with Kelly’s on the Bay/Aqua-nuts and one day with Divers City – two completely different dive ops with different ideas on what diving the Keys is all about.
This was our travel day - we left DIA at 8am, arrived in Ft. Lauderdale at 2:30 pm local, picked up our rental car and drove down to Kelly’s on the Bay for check-in. We had chosen Room 7 - a queen bed and a sleeper sofa, tv, small fridge and microwave, table, closet and bathroom - cozy but not too cramped. Dinner our first evening on island we decided was to be at The Fish House to celebrate Tiffany’s 15th birthday and our 18th anniversary - the food and service were excellent but a bit expensive.
From 7-9:30am each day Kelly’s has a free continental breakfast - juice, coffee, cereal, muffins, bagels, fresh fruit, etc. It was such a joy to stagger out of bed each morning to a breakfast buffet. After eating, we wandered down to the dock and set up our first tank while the crew busily loaded the boat. After a roll call, the boat left the dock at 8:30am and headed into the mangroves for the trip out to the reef chosen by the divers and captain. After arriving at the dive site, the captain would give the site briefing and start the timing - all divers are told to be back on the boat in one hour (or 500 psi) from the end of the brief.
Dive 1: Dry Rocks/Christ of the Abyss
Since it had been so long since we had been diving in warm, salt water this was actually a very good choice for us the three of us. It was such a rush to hit the water again and actually see something in the water!!! We never did find the statue, we just swam around looking at things, watching the fish and checking out the Keys reef scene for the first time. I snapped a few pictures but basically I just enjoyed being in the ocean again however my ears started to bother me half way through the dive and we ended the dive a bit early.... good thing we brought the Sudafed with us. I was going to need it.
Dive 2: City of Washington, shallow wreck
In the briefing, Capt George told us about the big grouper that lives here along with all the other great features of the site. As he announced “the pool is now open” he looked over the side and said “hurry, hurry, he’s right here at under the boat waiting for you!”. So of course, in we go and there he is! The biggest darned Goliath Grouper you can imagine. I had already told Ron that “if we see one of these guys just swim like heck and get up next to him. I will be right behind you with the camera”. And it actually worked! This guy let me swim right up within an arms reach and snap away as we swam along. I was very surprised at the color - I have never seen pictures of one that was yellow, they always look blue-gray in photos anyhow. After he got tired of us he swam away and we continued over to the wreck of the City of Washington. It is nothing more than strewn debris on the bottom now but I found it fascinating and so did the zillions of fish living there. Ron, Tiffany, and I spent the entire hour dive just slowly making our way around the rubble, looking in, around and under every nook and cranny. Lobsters, shrimp, crabs, flamingo tongues, fire worms, grunts, damsels, goatfish and snappers... they were all there in abundance! This is a shallow dive but one that I could do over and over as there was so much to see.
sea fans on top of City of Washington
Ron over the City of Washington
Back on the boat, we all broke down our gear and chatted on the ride back through the mangroves to the dock. It is a 40 minutes ride from Kelly’s but very relaxing and a great way to wind down. Up to 6 guests are allowed to ride up top and of course Tiff and I were always up the stairs in time.
We arrived back at the docks at lunchtime and decided we needed a big lunch next door at Hobo’s. We were scheduled for the night dive and told to be back at the dock at 6:45pm to load so after lunch we headed out for a little exploring and shopping. Down at MM77 is a place called Robby’s Marina where you pay $3 to feed the tarpon and we had to drive down to check it out. It was really a blast and well worth the money and drive. We returned to the hotel around 5pm and ate snacks instead of a full meal before the night dive but Tiffany was too tired from all our activity and decided to skip the night dive. Dive 3: Night Dive Eagle Ray Alley - Molasses Reef, 7 divers, Capt George and DM Patrick We left the docks at 7:30pm heading for the Benwood for our night dive but when we arrived, Capt George said the vis looked ugly - maybe 10', so he said we would go to Molasses instead. It was a nice quiet dive without much excitement as we all swam back and forth through the many sandy channels checking out lobster and sleeping fish everywhere. A large green eel was out hunting, a squid, a large porcupine fish and another small puffer, and a massive school of snappers or snooks (maybe?) were the highlights of the dive. It was not like night diving in Cozumel for sure (less fish and no octos), but it was still fun to be in the water in the dark and watch the nighttime activities of the reef. All in all, a great day of diving!
Being a weekend, more people were booked for diving and though 23 passengers sounds like a lot of people, once onboard it really didn’t seem bad at all. The boat is nice and wide so there was plenty of room to walk around and socialize with everyone while they geared up without feeling cramped or claustrophobic or tripping over gear. Everyone seemed to be reasonably experienced and chatting about recent trips to Bonaire or Turks, etc. There was an instructor onboard with two students but we never saw them once in the water. Everyone seemed to do their own thing and just meet back at the boat at the appropriate time. We have never been on any boats other than small 6-packs so this was a complete change of pace for us but we all really enjoyed the atmosphere and chatted with the other divers and crew all the way to the dive sites.
After the thorough briefing of the site, we jumped in and headed towards the wreck. Wow! This is another site where the wreck is in pieces however much more intact that the City since it has a metal hull. Fish were everywhere and we were all amazed at how many different kinds of fish we saw here. The life here was very diverse and dense. I found our first large spadefish, several spanish grunts and trumpet fish along with hundreds and hundreds of grunts and snappers and damsels everywhere. I am sure this site is incredible at night and we will definitely have to return here to try that again someday. A large baitball of silversides swirled on top of one section of the wreck and Ron, Tiffany, and I took turns swimming through it. What a rush! I think I swam through it 3 times, giggling through my regulator the whole time. NOTE: This wreck was not intentionally sunk - it went down during WWII at night when it was running without lights. The front half of the ship is mostly intact with huge holes you can peak in, over and around, the rest of the ship is in chunks and strewn all around the area.
Ron at Benwood wreck
school of silversides at Benwood
This area of French reef was shallow finger-like sand channels with scattered coral heads and lots of parrotfish. Big blue parrotfish and several rainbow parrotfish hung out over the coral while we slowly drifted around looking under ledges, in crevices, and on the big brain coral boulders finding several lobsters, arrow crabs, cleaner shrimp and gobies manning a cleaning station. A grouper slept in a hole and didn't seem to mind our lurking. ( I intentionally left the camera on the boat for this dive so no pictures.)
After the dive, the DM went around asking who would be going back out for the PM dives and took lunch orders for sandwiches to go from Hobo's. Once we arrived back at the dock, Ron set up gear for the afternoon trip out while I ran to the room and fixed our sandwiches. We ate at one of the picnic tables while the crew went through their roll call and loading routine. Several of the AM people decided to join us, so once again we had 20+ divers on the boat.
This reef should be renamed “Sea Fan” reef as every square inch of the coral was covered with sea fans. Well, make that every square inch that didn’t have elkhorn coral on it!!! I really love this reef as the coral was more lush and with practically NO current. I was able to stalk, I mean photograph (LOL) every type of fish there and they all seemed to be there. I found an adorable red-lipped blenny and just couldn’t get a picture but found him so entertaining to watch as he darted around posing for me. What a hoot! Ron found one of his favorites, the slender filefish, as well as the trumpetfish and hogfish, which I love to watch as they go about their daily hunting activities.
We moved the boat to the other end of the reef for this dive and Tiffany decided to sit this one out so Ron and I went in together. Another gorgeous section of this very vital reef. Under a ledge, Ron found two large lobsters fighting and we watched them for several minutes. It was very bizarre. We found the huge chains, which were completely encrusted with life and I was wishing I had brought the camera with me for this dive. Oh well, it was nice to do a dive without the camera and just relax and take in the beauty.
We arrived back at Kelly’s dock around 5pm, showered and changed and headed out to dinner. We were absolutely starving and tired and decided on The Cracked Conch. This is another of those quaint little restaurants the Keys and we found the food to be superb (the service was very slow, however).
Marriard had arranged a day of diving with Divers City down in Tavernier so we had to jump up early, pack gear and grab a bite at McD’s and meet the group (Marriard, Mae, baby Meghan, Suzuki, Rob, Steve and his wife) at the dive shop at 7:45 am. We were the first to arrive and shortly thereafter the other 6 divers were there and the boat loaded.
Wow, wow, wow! There just aren’t words to describe how big and amazing this wreck truly is... I really felt like a bug on the wall of the Empire State Building. It just seems that big. Every crack or hole was filled with arrowcrabs, clams, and other tiny creatures. Schools of several types of fish filled the interior and outside, large barracudas, trumpetfish, and the biggest hogfish we saw all week inhabited the ledges. There were several dive boats dropping off divers however the sheer massiveness of the wreck made the divers seem so small and inconsequential. I didn’t take the camera on this dive and honestly I don’t think a picture could really show this wreck effectively - maybe a wide-angle shot would give some perspective but the photographer would have to swim way out away from the wreck to get the shot and that could be dangerous. Current coming up and down the line was a bit ripping but once next to the wreck it was only a gentle pull from one end to the other. Divers City dropped off at one end and we drifted to the other and up the line, which worked out perfectly for us. All the other divers with us were using Nitrox so they had a bit longer bottom time, but this was such a fantastic dive I can’t really complain about the length of time. All I know is that we will be back. Wow!
Yes, we did the Grove and the Duane both on the same day! Thank you Divers City for indulging us. This is a bit smaller wreck so we actually were able to drop down the line (still just minimal current) and swim around at our leisure, then drift back to the line and up again. Ron dropped over the side and touched the sand with his computer, which registered 121' while Tiff and I stayed up on the main deck area. The Duane has been down for long enough to become fully encrusted with sponges and coral and inhabited with a full gamut of fish life. Hundreds of barracuda and jacks floated around the radar tower of the wreck and even more hung out at the main deck but never seemed to move as we swam by them. The whole fuselage is covered in growth or coral and sponges. I am sure in another few years, the Grove with look like this! NOTE: Since the Grove was sunk this wreck has lost interest for divers and we were the only boat there, which was nice. Another incredible dive for our logbooks.
tiffany at the duane
This dive was Tiffany’s #100 and it was quite a lovely dive. She and Ron found 3 scorpionfish, the only ones of this trip, and Marriard found nudibranchs on sea fans there. Every inch of this reef was alive with little critters - blennies, gobies, cleaning stations at every coral head, you name it, we saw it! We found a small nurse shark (maybe 4' long) and a spotted eel near the end of the dive, a gorgeous puffer fish who just wouldn’t be still long enough for me to photograph and a very large squirrelfish. A great way to end our dive trip!!!
After returning to the dive pier at 3:30pm or so, we headed out for food and shopping as it was our last night in Florida. We grabbed a quick sandwich at our room and went power shopping for T-shirts and the usual dive trip souvenirs. Dinner had to be back at Hobo’s and we were not disappointed. The food was fantastic and Ron and I had to indulge in key lime pie. After dinner we strolled back next door to our hotel and sat out by the dock to watch the sunset.
Travel day again, we checked out of the hotel and drove up to Ft. Lauderdale, took a quick stroll on the beach, then ate lunch and headed for the airport. We arrived back in Denver at 4:30pm and were home by 6:30.
Our conclusion: Go to the Keys to see the wrecks! The shallow and deep wrecks are not to be missed for many reasons. The shallow wrecks we saw (City of Washington and Benwood) were heaps of rubble, historic time capsuls and completely engulfed in life. At times it was hard to descern where the wreck ended and reef began as the wrecks were now PART of the reef. Coral, sea fans, and sponges cover them with a blanket of color and fish of every size and shape inhabit every nook and cranny. Even though they are shallow, they are definitely worth visiting. The deep wrecks (Duane and Spiegel Grove) are intentionally sunk as attractions for divers and to relieve the stress of divers on the actual reef system in the Keys. They do that job, plus they are quite awe-inspiring too! Such massive, manmade structures sitting in the abyssmal depths of indigo water gives you a creepy feeling but captures your curiosity and beckons you to come closer. There is something very dark and mysterious about them, something enticing yet dangerous. Our visit found these two wrecks in calm waters with little current however this is not always the case. These two wrecks are must-do dives if the conditions and your skills are up to the challenge.
Would we go back???? - Hell yes!!!!
Ron at the duane