One of the coolest things to do when visiting the Keys is to grab the snorkel gear and take the plunge. Just off the island chain sits the Florida Reef Tract, the third largest coral barrier reef system in the world. It stretches from the Marquesas Keys north to Stuart, albeit as isolated coral patchwork in the northern reaches, and is a great place to experience the vast and colorful underwater world.
Part of the tract making up the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, incorporating 2,900 square nautical miles of prime seascape, the diving offerings out and about Islamorada are vast and varied. For the boat-less, hop aboard a charter. They are relatively inexpensive and the captains know where and when to dive while taking divers out beyond the crowded near shore sites, and the boat trip is half the fun.
A sucker for the multi-hauled, the Happy Cat out of Robbie’s is a personal favorite, and not just because cruising on the 43-foot power catamaran is like cruising on a super stable patio (the seasickness slayer). The snorkel spots it hits are top-notch and easily accessible for the beginner while interesting enough for the seasoned pro, with Alligator Reef topping the list. The cost is $35 per adult, $20 per child, which includes dive equipment. Snorkel charters are at noon and 3 p.m. daily, while sunset cruises embark at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m.
Alligator Reef | 24?50’50”N 080?37’11”W
Located approximately three and a half miles southeast of Upper Matecumbe Key, within the Alligator Reef Sanctuary Preservation Area, this site is a protected shallow reef portion of the National Marine Sanctuary. As a SPA, mooring buoys have been installed to prevent anchorage damage, while harvesting and removing of any fish is prohibited. This allows for a dynamic dive site with a diverse array of fish and sites to see.
Named for the Navy schooner USS Alligator, which wrecked on the reef after engaging pirates in 1822, the site is now dominated by the Alligator Reef Light, which is just north of the reef itself. Built in 1873, the station and light stands on an iron pile structure and towers 136 feet above the water. Along and under the lighthouse, depending on tide, depth is 10-18 feet and drops east and south. For the intermediate diver, 300 yards west-southwest of the light sits Alligator Gully, a coral-studded ledge that plunges from 8-30 feet, with plenty to see along the way.
One of the largest reef systems in the Upper Keys, the Alligator Reef SPA is home to more than 500 marine species and bridges the shallower reefs of the Upper Keys with the deeper reefs of the Middle Keys. Green turtles, reef sharks, moray eels, barracuda and scores of tropical fish are always out and about patrolling the coral-studded ledges and rock outcroppings. Under the light, fish school in incredibly tight formations, making for an interesting swim.
Cheeca Rocks | 24?54’14”N 080?36’58”W
Just one mile off the Upper Matecumbe, Cheeca Rocks is the smallest of the SPAs in the National Marine Sanctuary and the only protected inshore patch reef of the portfolio. A relatively shallow dive, with a max depth reaching 15 feet (averages are around 10 feet), Cheeca Rocks is home to a rather diverse collection of marine life. The reef, a mix of soft and brain corals, sponges and rock, is the ideal structure for tropical fish like parrotfish, angelfish and triggerfish; crustaceans like spiny lobster, stone crab and shrimp, including the brightly hued coral banded shrimp and Pederson cleaner shrimp; and octopus, conch, turtles, spotted rays and the occasional nurse shark, school of tarpon and snook.
With the relatively shallow depth and calm waters, Cheeca is a great place for beginners to get their feet wet and acclimated with snorkel equipment and is still a great site with plenty to see for the more seasoned salts of the crew. For those with water-proof cameras, Cheeca is a great spot to test those photography skills, with plenty of potential subjects flitting to and fro.
Underwater photos courtesy of Happy Cat and Robbie's of Islamorada.