The Keys are a series of narrow islands partly connected by more than 40 bridges and some accessible only by boat.
Geologically, they comprise two parts - the Upper Keys (down to Big Pine Key), and the Lower Keys (between Big Pine Key and Key West) with the Middle Keys (unsurprisingly) in between.
For divers, their significance is that the mass of the Keys - coral rock capped by Miami limestone - inhibit runoff from the Gulf side whilst on the Atlantic side there are barrier reefs to the west of the Straits of Florida and the fast flowing Gulf Stream current.
As a result, although the coral is not great (pretty much anywhere in the Caribbean is better) it does provide a perfect habitat for marine life near deep waters with a lot of nutrients as well as numerous wrecks; there is almost always something memorable to see.
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The Good News
As you would expect, there is excellent infrastructure on the Keys with a wide range of accommodation, restaurants, and bars to choose from even if some of the decoration is kitsch and the offering often in a rather monotonous 'Keys Style'.
Shopping is limited and the tourist-oriented merchandise pretty tacky, but divers' needs are quite well catered through outlets like Divers Direct on Key Largo.
For the rest, somewhere in the Keys there is normally something going on topsides whether it's the annual Hemingway look-alike competition in Key West, an arm wrestling contest or a Harley Davidson bike run.
There are many responsible dive operators in the Keys and, if you choose carefully, quite a few of them use small boats (six divers being typical) rather than juggernauts with 20 or more divers on board.
On the smaller vessels you are usually left to your own devices, so you plan and run your dive without being shepherded back onto the boat after 40 minutes when you still have lots of air left.
The boat captain will give you a site orientation, advise you of any potential issues and emergency procedures and help with gear if required.
You may find that you quickly sharpen your navigation skills if they are a little rusty, but the task is relatively easy as the reefs are laid out in 'finger' formation so you either work your way up and down them or swim over their top to the next channel (remembering to count in both cases !).
Even in the shallow reef waters there is plenty of life and you can have surprisingly close encounters with larger creatures such as nurse sharks, sting rays and turtles, as well as lots of fun checking under coral outcrops and in crevices for moray eels, crabs and such like. There are also one or two swim throughs, but they are not very exciting.
In deeper waters there are world class wrecks which can be stunning visually in their own right (the Spiegel Grove and the Duane off Key Largo and the Vandenberg off Key West come to mind) as well as attracting critters like schooling great barracudas, tarpon and bull sharks as well as a host of larger fish.
Depending on the Gulf Stream, the visibility can be fantastic or dreadful and the currents can be negligible or ripping, so always descend on the mooring/anchor line and explore against the current.
Divers should be experienced and appropriately certified and consider making an additional safety stop for a minute halfway up from any deep dive.
Brain Coral, Looe Key.
Dive boats go out twice a day, each time for two tank dives, typically leaving at around 08.30 and returning at 12-ish before going out again at 13.00 to return at 16.30-ish.
Night dives are possible but not widely available as a result of relative lack of interest (sunset cocktails are perhaps more interesting?) and the distance of the reefs from the shore, which can make for a boat ride of more than half an hour depending on the sea conditions.
For those who like to work while they play, many of the dive operators offer courses and it is possible to get certified up to Instructor level in the Keys.
In case of Decompression sickness (the Bends) the Florida Keys Hyperbaric Center is located at Mariners Hospital in the Upper Keys.
The Bad News
Traditional diving challenges in the Keys revolve around currents and visibility.
The Gulf Stream shifts unpredictably from day to day with a potentially big impact on both factors and it is prudent to bear in mind that currents may be very different on the surface from underwater. Offshore weather, especially when the wind whips up the waves, can occasionally be problematic and make reboarding the boat difficult.
More recently, other troubling issues have arisen.
Sadly, the backwash from the tragedy in New Orleans a few years ago does seem to have made visibility off the Keys less crystalline than it was (an awful lot of sewage and garbage was swept into the Gulf).
The environment has also been affected by the arrival of an invasive species, the lionfish, a venomous coral reef fish from the Indian and western Pacific Oceans that has made its way through the Panama Canal into the Caribbean, where it has no natural enemies and where it is making inroads into indigenous reef fish. Divers are requested to report any lionfish sightings - boat captains have details of where to call.
Another concern is coral bleaching and coral disease outbreaks which were reported in the summer of 2009.
Whatever your choice of housing and nourishment (by the way, day trips to Key Largo from Miami, which reduce the cost, are feasible if tiring), diving is never a cheap sport and the Keys are no exception.
Prices have edged up over the years to about US $ 75 for two tank dives. You may be able to negotiate a better deal if there a number of you, or if you are diving for a few days or out of season.
Quoted prices will exclude Florida State tax (currently 7 %) as well as any tips you may wish to make to captain/crew. Of course, if you need to hire equipment such as BCDs you will be have additional charges.
Where to go
Apart from the odd wreck such as the Vandenberg and the Dry Tortugas (65 miles offshore Key West), the Lower Keys are not so hot for diving (the weird and wonderful life is topside in Key West).
In the Middle Keys are Sombrero Reef and Looe Key, now a reef not an island, which has some excellent diving and probably the best coral in the Keys. That said, sites on the latter are limited so most people will be dived out within a few days. There are wreck dives in both locations.
Personally, for diving I would recommend the Upper Keys and Key Largo in particular. In terms of access it is less than an hour and a half from Miami, and it has the most extensive coral reef system in America, in the Atlantic southwest of the Key.
There are a number of interesting wrecks within easy reach.
Shore and support facilities are varied and good, and the financial crisis of the last couple of years has halted the previously remorseless move to take things up market. One warning relates to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Whilst it is great that 75 square miles of ocean are protected, if you prefer not to be part of a crowd I would recommend that you do not use one of the operators out of the Park as they tend towards activities en masse and 'More means worse'.
Writing By Daniel Nash Segundo, photos by Dave Lloyd.
Scuba Diving Magazine 2012, reader's vote.
Best Destination Overall (diving, topside adventure, nightlife) in North America:
No. 1 Florida Keys
Drive the famed Overseas Highway — the 112-mile road that links the myriad keys, expansive sky and blue water that comprise this coral chain — and you'll find scores of dive flags fluttering from the dive shops that can put you on the reefs here.
From Key Largo to Key West, the reefs are famed for their healthy fish populations, stands of corals and deep wrecks like the Spiegel Grove, Vandenberg and Eagle. Spend a day of diving in warm, clear water and then find a place to kick off your flip-flops, drink a cold beer or frothy margarita and watch the sun seep into the water from a comfortable vantage point. You'll soon understand why the unabashedly red, white and blue Conch Republic, from Key Largo to Key West, is one of the best places in the world to dive.
Scuba Diving Florida Keys
When to go diving:
As far as conditions are concerned, the winter season naturally has colder water and is prone to poorer visibility and choppier seas.
Whilst the reverse applies in summer, the downsides are that the weather can be very hot and humid and from July onwards there is a risk of hurricanes (the later in the season, the higher the risk given the latitude of the Keys – see separate comment in the Caribbean beaches pages).
Florida Keys weather:
Best months for beaches and watersports: April-July. August is very hot, sticky and expect storms. Also bear in mind that in holiday periods resorts and restaurants will be much busier and more pricey, particularly during American vacations.
The official hurricane season begins June 1 and ends on November 30 but storms/rain are most likely mid-August to mid-October. In summertime average high air temperature is
32C (89F), water temperature 30C (85F), in winter air lows reach 18C (65F).
Get to the Keys from the mainland via U.S. 1, the Overseas Highway.
Visitors to the Upper Keys can fly into Miami International Airport or Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. From there get a shuttle bus or rental car and arrive in the Upper Keys in about an hour from Miami or 100 minutes from Ft. Lauderdale. Travelling to Key West from the mainland will take about 3.5 hours.
Tourists can fly to Marathon, the small city at the mid-point of the island chain, aboard small airlines such as Florida Coastal Airlines and SeaCoast Airlines. Shuttle buses and rental cars are available in Marathon.
Visitors can also fly to Key West International Airport from many Florida cities. Shuttle buses and rental cars are available.
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