Dangling off the tippy end of Florida, the Keys, which stretch more than 160 kilometers/100 miles from Key Largo to Key West, almost look like an afterthought and have always taken pride in their unique "Conch Republic" ideals. They have hosted everyone from Hemingway to James Cameron. But, for us, it's the diving that elevates the Key's status. You can wind your way down the Key's one superior wreck experience after another. Behemoths like the Spiegel Grove and the Vandenberg take dozens of dives to explore, while some of the older wrecks like the Bibb and Duane have developed into such diverse marine ecosystems that you'll want to slow down to savor all the action. Tarpon, barracuda and sea turtles commonly inhabit these artificial reefs, as do thick clouds of schooling fish and giant goliath groupers. Current is common on most of the wrecks, so you'll need to come prepared with inflatable signal tube. The United States' only barrier reef meanders off the Keys, and most of the shallow reef diving is done among spur and groove reef formations. Look for rare leatherback sea turtles sleeping under ledges, and nurse sharks, too. Above the water, they Keys almost need no introduction. Key West is famed for writers, treasure and the wilds of Duval Street. And the Key's also offer some of the world's best big game fishing. But, don't leave without trying the conch chowder and key lime pie.
When to go:
Year round, althoughhurricane season runs from June through November.
Marine Life Seasons:
Most marine life in the Keys can be seen year-round, with the exception of sailfish, which are more abundant from November through April.
When to Get the Best Deals:
August to October.
What to Pack:
3/2 mm wetsuit for summer; 5-7 mm for winter, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, DAN card.
Seasonal averages: 22°C/72°F in winter and 29°C/84°F in summer..
Seasonal averages: 22°C/72°F in winter and 29°C/84°F in summer..
US Dollar. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Valid passport; check with local immigration office for visa requirements.
Included in your airfare.
What to Eat:
First, you must have conch chowder and key lime pie. After that, you have an endless array of choices in every price category, on every island in this 160-kilometer/100-mile chain. Try stone crab claws (when they are in season), lobster, shrimp and lots of fresh locally caught fish.
What to Drink:
The rumrunner cocktail was born in the Florida Keys and is widely served today along with other frozen drinks like daiquiris and margaritas. There are several breweries and brew pubs in the Keys and many colorful bars, especially in Key West.
The Duval Crawl in Key West; Sunset in Key West; Hemingway House in Key West; deep sea or flats fishing throughout the keys; kayaking through the mangroves.
Customs and Culture:
Anything. . .well, almost anything, goes in the Keys.
Fantasy Fest in October; Pirates Paradise Festival in November, both in Key West; Conchtoberfest, Marathon, October.
Electricity and Internet:
110V/60HZ. Internet is common in hotels.
Drink the water?
Safe to drink.
Amazing Marine Life
These massive grouper, which can easily exceed 90 kilograms/200 pounds, have made more than an impressive comeback throughout south Florida. You'll see them on almost every wreck dive in the Keys.
Grunts and Snapper:
Seen throughout the Keys in schools thick enough to hide the reef or block out portions of a wreck.
As its name implies, this coral formation resembles the antlers of elk, branching in fantastic formations that can all too easily be broken off by boat anchors or careless divers.
A flashy, fast-swimming, elongated schooling fish, the Key Silverside is endangered and can only be found in the Florida Keys.
These predatory pelagic fish are often seen on the reefs. They can swim at incredible speeds and can grow up to two meters/six feet in length, but even a small one can earn a diver's respect with a flash of its jaw full of razor-sharp teeth.
One of the five species of sea turtle found in Florida, these reptiles can be found swimming in leisurely fashion or napping under ledges on most reefs.
Although these pelagic giants are more often found farther out to sea, it's not unheard of to spot one while diving the outer reefs. Keep an eye out, particularly in the months of November through April.
These brilliantly colored fish do, indeed, possess remarkably parrot-like beaks that they use to grind coral structures so they can eat the soft coral animals inside.
Also known as rock lobsters, these crustaceans sport brown or orange shells, often colorfully dappled with yellow, blue, or green.
Take a close look under ledges and around reef structures for nurse sharks. Generally docile and sluggish, these sharks can nonetheless pose a threat to divers if they become agitated.
Top Dive Spots
Bibb and Duane:
The 99-meter/327-foot Duane and the 99-meter/327-foot Bibb, were both purposely sent to the bottom within a day of each other off Key Largo in 1987. Each has become an impressive eco-system, covered with encrusting corals, sponges and marine life.
One of a number of ships sunk in the Keys to serve as artificial reefs, this steel hull is now encrusted with marine life, and serves as a hideaway for some larger lurkers, such as giant jewfish and moray eels.
Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary:
Eight kilometers/five miles south of Big Pine Key, the Sanctuary includes the wreckage of a British frigate that sank in the 1740s. The protected reef boasts growths of elk horn coral, star coral, and brain coral resulting from as much as seven thousand years of growth.
Slightly southeast of Upper Matecumbe Key, this reef's coral formations serve as background to a wide range of colorful fish.
Key Largo Rocks, "Christ of the Abyss":
Perhaps the most memorable feature of this dive is not the marine life, but the 3-meter/9-foot bronze statue of Christ with outstretched arms. The statue is not alone, however, being attended by a variety of fish, corals, and colorful invertebrates.
Just south of Key Colony Beach, this area boasts nooks and crannies in the reef structure that provide refuge for an array of intriguing invertebrates. Also watch for nurse sharks, barracuda, and other pelagic fish.
Standing well seaward of the Keys, this site sees the effects of the Gulf Stream's currents. Visibility varies with the swell and the currents, and divers are likely to see pelagic schooling fish.
General Hoyt S. Vandenberg:
This massive, 158-meter/522-foot long ship rests off Key West as a result of an artificial reef project that took 13 years.. It's another jewel in the wreck diver crown of dives off the Florida Keys. Worth many days of diving to fully explore. It's already a haven for barracuda and goliath grouper.
This 155-meter/510-foot purpose-placed wreck off Key Largo is worthy of numerous dives. It sits upright on the sand in 40 meters/130-feet of water attracts all kinds of marine life from goliath grouper to barracuda.
Beneath a lighthouse tower, this reef enthralls a diver with brain corals, elk horn corals, staghorn corals, and sheet corals stretching for more than six kilometers/four miles and dotted with historical remnants of wrecks, which provide havens for marine life of all kinds.