Diving in the Florida Keys
The U.S. is home to some of the world’s best diving with the Florida Keys near the top of the list. We are lucky to live in a state with over 800 miles of coast line offering almost unlimited access to some of the best beaches, reefs and clean clear water to enjoy. To continue our scuba diving education and experiences, Danielle and I headed to Tavernier, located in between Key Largo and Islamorada. Off the east coast of Florida you can find some of the best dive sites in the world. There are over 30 mooring balls available at dozens of outstanding dive sites along several reefs including Molasses Reef which is a short boat ride from Key Largo. There are a number of excellent wrecks to dive on for the more experienced divers.
Where to go:
For those of us visiting this area, it is best to book a dive through one of the many excellent rated dive charter companies in the area. The Florida Keys has a Blue Star rating for responsible dive shops operating safe enjoyable dive charters while helping to educate the public on how to protect the reefs by not touching any wild life, not polluting the water or removing anything but trash found in the water. Locals will tell you that there are more dive shops than gas stations in the area, which actually may be true. Competition has helped to keep prices down, and service up.
After doing our research online we decided on two companies. Islamorada Dive Center for a full day of diving a little farther south and Rainbow Reef Dive Center in Key Largo where we booked our two-day advanced open water dive training course. This advanced rating will help us be safer divers and will allow us to go on deeper dives to the several wrecks in the area. Both these shops are PADI certified and both provided excellent customer service and dive experiences.
Advanced Dive Certifications:
If you are looking to get advanced dive certifications, I believe it is better and definitely cheaper to plan to do them over a few days with your planned dives. You get discounts on the dive trips for booking multiple days of dives at a time and also get discounted training when combining them. In all we saved several hundred dollars by doing it this way instead of taking the various course components at different times which can cost as much as $250 per training course. The advanced rating requires six training specialties. Here are some of the benefits we found doing it this way:
- Saved money on each of the two tank dives sessions
- Saved money on the training
- Completed the course over two days instead of weeks
- Accelerated learning – Diving 10 dives over three days is a lot but it made us more comfortable in the water and helped us learn faster.
- Learned more about diving in the area
- Learned more from the teacher because they became familiar with our strengths and weaknesses.
In summary we found it to be cheaper, better, faster and safer.
Note: We decided to rent an Airbnb unit in Tavernier to better meet our needs, but most of the dive centers team up with local hotels to provide quality discounted accommodations.
Islamorada Dive Center:
We chose this dive shop because of their terrific online reviews, location and Blue Star rating. We planned a full day of diving with them which was 4 locations and tanks. This gave us a great way to get to know the reefs off the coast of Islamorada. We weren’t disappointed. The boat, crew and dive masters were all excellent. We were also lucky to have amazing weather and over 60’ of underwater visibility almost all day. Over the day we dove the following sites:
- Kiera’s Reef
- Hog Heaven
- Lions Leap
- Ham – which I am told is short for Hammerhead although we did not see any
We had different dive masters for the morning and afternoon dives exposed us their different interests and styles. Our dive depth varied between 25’-57’ over the course of the day at the different locations. The visibility was excellent and we were thrilled to see so many different types of coral, crustacean’s and fish in all the areas. Some of the highlights included:
- Green moray eels
- Spinney lobsters – a few of the divers were actively looking and capturing a few.
- Lion fish
- Large nurse sharks
- Sting rays
- Green turtles
- Schools of parrot fish, angel fish, jacks, needle nose, butterfly, clown fish and so much more.
These dives were all spectacular. Our afternoon dive master seemed to know all the nooks and crannies to find some of the tiniest organisms to one of the largest and probably one of the oldest crabs hiding out in a small cave.
Big kudos and thanks to the Islamorada dive center.
Advance Open Water certification with Rainbow Reef Dive Center
We choose Rainbow Reef because of their ratings, reviews, and price. They have 8 boats that go out of a few different locations. They are a full-service Blue Star rated organization which provides full rental gear, instruction, and dive masters. Our experience over this two-day course was exceptional. The captains and the boat crews were friendly and helpful. Our instructor, Jeff, was a highly competent and seasoned diver, having traveled around the world diving and teaching for decades. He was knowledgeable and most importantly incredibly patient. We learned so much in the two days and left knowing we were better and safer divers.
During our first dive we worked on buoyancy control. This was one of the best training sessions we had. I was able to drop 4 lbs. off my weight belt and learned to control my buoyancy better providing and more enjoyable dive experience. Jeff had us swimming through hula hoops and obstacles under water which came in handy when navigating through and under rock formations and swim throughs.
Next up came underwater navigation where we learned to properly use our compasses and successfully navigate and out and back, square course and calculate what our kick rate over distances was.
The entire weekend was a fish identification experience, but with the help of our guides, instructors and fish charts we managed to learn the types and names of many more of the fish species we were sharing the water with.
Our deep dive and wreck dive both occurred on the USS Spiegel Grove. At the surface we moved around to two of the more than 6 mooring balls over the wreck so we could safely explore more of the ship with our limited dive time. Our max depth was 97 feet. The current was fairly strong and unfortunately the visibility had dropped to 35-40’. However, they were great dives. We were able to get over our anxiety about diving deep safely and learned how to safely dive and navigate a ship wreck returning safely with air to spare.
Overall, it was a successful and challenging weekend of diving and we came away better and more confident divers. Thanks to the great folks of Rainbow Reef and Islamorada dive centers.
Key Largo Area Fishing Sidenote:
While Danielle and I were out diving, Bob headed out fishing on a local fishing party boat in Key Largo. He came back with several trigger fish the first day but the fishing gods were not on his side the second day. He was supposed to go out Monday as well, but the boat did not reach their 15 head minimum so he was not able to fish the third day. The next time down, he’ll most likely hire a fishing guide and go out by himself or with us for a full day of fishing with an experienced guide that can explore more of the shallows and other fishing areas. After another trip or two down to the Key Largo area, we’ll probably venture to take our own boat down for both fishing and diving adventures.