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Snorkeling & Scuba Diving off Big Pine & the Lower Keys

The unparalleled beauty of the waters off the shores of Big Pine and the surrounding keys offers opportunities for everyone from seasoned scuba pros to snorkeling novices. Both natural and artificial coral reefs support myriad aquatic life forms ranging from tiny fish and shrimp to massive rays and whales. You’ll want to bring an underwater camera on your offshore excursions to capture all the vibrant colors and beautiful corals. The reefs off Big Pine & the Lower Keys are often better preserved and perhaps healthier because this section of the Keys draws less tourist traffic—plus, Big Pine divers experience less crowding and more peaceful dives.

DIVE & SNORKEL SITES

Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary is the largest, best-known, and most easily accessible coral reef diving site in the Lower Keys. Hundreds of fish, rays, turtles, dolphins, sharks, spiny lobsters, and other marine creatures make their home here amongst the coral spurs covering the HMS Looe, a British frigate that ran aground in 1744. Though most of the ship itself has disappeared, the large anchor is still visible.

Looe Key is unique in that it represents, in a 3.5 square mile microcosm, the entire range of a coral reef ecosystem. Besides the wide array of fish and crustaceans, Looe Key exhibits areas of fossilized corals, of growing spur corals, of grass flats, and even a 100 foot deep reef. Pelagic (i.e., offshore, or open-water) species such as large turtles, rays, whales, and sharks can be seen along this slope.

In July, divers and snorkelers float above the coral and through the radio waves—during the annual Underwater Music Festival at Looe Key, stations broadcast special “subsea optimized” programming through submerged speakers. Call (305) 872-2411 for more information.
Located eight miles off Big Pine Key , nearly all the area charters run frequent trips to Looe Key, and mooring buoys are provided for private boats.

Intentionally scuttled in 1998, the Adolphus Busch Sr. freighter is the favorite reef of three jewfish, massive grouper that can reach 7 feet long and weigh 800 pounds. Since the artificial reef built on the Adolphus Busch Sr. rests about five miles southwest of Big Pine Key and at a depth of 110 feet, only experienced divers should swim through the 210-foot ship.

While others barbecue and sunbathe on America’s best beaches, slip on your mask and snorkel and explore the grass-bottomed waters off Bahia Honda. The remnants of the Old Bahia Honda Bridge attract large numbers of fish that congregate around the pilings, where fishermen often hook snapper and grouper. Other frequent aquatic visitors include crabs, queen conchs, barracuda, and dozens of species of tropical fish. Three daily ferries to Looe Key offer expanded opportunities for snorkeling. Bahia Honda State Park is located 6 miles north of Big Pine Key (immediately north of the Seven Mile Bridge, at MM 36.9 Oceanside), and welcomes visitors year-round.

The Content Keys, a collection of small reefs northeast of Cudjoe Key, are very shallow, making them an excellent site for snorkelers and novice divers. All the reefs are in 8 to 15 feet of water. The Content Keys are among the few Gulf of Mexico sites—different creatures greet divers in these calmer waters, which are ideal for exploration on choppy days that make the Atlantic Ocean reefs rough going.

American Shoal offers a chance to view the more exotic aquatic creatures, such as octopus and jellyfish—watch out for the ink & tentacles. Since Looe Key draws most of the traffic in this area, American Shoal is a good spot to search for evidence of run-aground wreckage in peace and solitude. At depths of 30 to 50 feet, the lighthouse-anchored reef is best for scuba or hookah divers. [Some Florida Keys dive charter outfits provide equipment and instruction in hookah diving, which allows divers to explore the depths with surface-supplied air through long hoses.]

The USS Wilkes-Barre is unquestionably the most dangerous dive in the Lower Keys, suitable for exploration by only advanced or technical deep divers. Scuttled in 1972, this 610-foot WWII light cruiser sits upright and intact in 320 feet of water. Large creatures such as whale sharks, turtles, manta rays, and sperm whales have been seen here, fourteen miles southeast of Boca Chica channel.

CHARTERS & DIVE SHOPS

No boat? No problem. Big Pine and the Lower Keys are populated with very capable and experienced charter boat services that can tell you which dive sites are best, how to navigate the currents, and help less seasoned snorkelers find their sea legs. They can even show you how to work the fancy scuba diving equipment they just sold you—many charters offer fully-stocked dive shops and even scuba lessons. The primary difference between charter boats is their capacity—larger boats are less expensive and more comfortable on rough seas, but smaller boats (often called six-packs) offer more personalized service and usually more time in the water.
If you’re in a large party of people with different ideas of the ideal Florida Keys offshore activity, look for charters that specialize in combination snorkeling / fishing excursions. For those interested in Florida Keys history, some charter outfits provide an insightful narrative as they wind their boats through the islands. See what’s going on even when you’re not in the water by chartering a glass bottom dive boat—or you can cruise on one at sunset.

If you’re not certified, but still want to try scuba diving, find a dive shop offering a “'Resort Course.” After four or so hours of instruction, during which you’ll spend time geared up in a pool, you’ll be able to dive with your instructor at sites in less than 40 feet of water. This quasi-certification allows you two weeks of instructor-guided shallow dives, after which you can start over or decide to enroll in a basic Open Water Diver course.
Experienced divers can earn additional certifications in the Lower Keys, too. Courses range from Open Water to Divemaster, and select dive shops even offer Instructor courses.

The dive shops dotting the Lower Keys provide everything a diver or snorkeler could need. If you don’t know what you need, qualified divers can direct you through brands and price points. Many frequent visitors bring their own masks & snorkels, (plus regulators and computers for scuba divers), and then rent fins, tanks, and weights from local shops. This can eliminate the headaches and backaches that frequently result from trying to travel with large, heavy items.

*When diving or snorkeling, remember that the marine life and vegetation is protected throughout the Florida Keys. Please don’t touch, disturb, or remove anything from the waters, and help ensure this fragile coral reef ecosystem survives for centuries.

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