Scuba Diving in the Florida Keys

The Florida Keys is made up of more than 1,700 islands that extend more than 190 miles from Soldier Key to the Dry Tortugas.  The islands are located just south of Miami and are divided into five regions which include Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine, the Lower Keys, and Key West.

The Florida Keys are known as one of the best areas to scuba dive within North America.  There is so much to offer for any scuba diver traveling to southern Florida that even a quick day trip to the Florida Keys is worthwhile.  There’s amazing scuba diving all along the Keys from the first community of Key Largo, through to the middle at Marathon and all the way to the end in Key West.  Key Largo in particular is a diver’s town with numerous dive operators and retailers who carry diving equipment and gear. 

One of the great things about scuba diving in the Florida Keys is the variety of dive sites for every skill level.  Most coral reefs are loaded with fish which are located in a number of beginner level dive sites including Molasses Reef and French Reef.  With depths of 30 to 50 feet, these are perfect dive sites for newly certified scuba divers as well as those who wish to do night dives. 

There’s even wreck diving in shallow dive sites like the Benwood wreck where the resident marine life will not disappoint any diver.  For more advanced divers, there are some spectacular deep dives featuring large wrecks like the Duane, a former coast guard ship that sits upright, and the Spiegel Grove which is one of the most popular spot for divers in the Keys.

One of the main reasons that many scuba divers from North America and other parts of the world come to the Florida Keys is for their open water certification dives as well as advanced training.  Additionally, the cost of diving in the Keys is lower than in many of the Caribbean destinations like the Bahamas and Cayman Islands. 

For those who are not ready to try scuba diving, there are some decent sites to snorkel in the Keys including one of the best in the U.S. at Looe Key.  The marine life that can be seen here has convinced quite a few snorkelers to finally pursue scuba diving certifications. 

In addition to scuba and snorkeling, the Florida Keys has enough other activities to keep non-divers busy.  The area is home to quaint roadside shopping, water sports (jet skiing, fishing, paddle boarding, kayaking and more), fine dining, beaches (in select area) and even places to swim with dolphins.  For the adventurous, there is the “funky” scene at Key West.

Where to Stay in the Florida Keys

Lodging and accommodations are plentiful in the communities along the Keys and range from simple roadside motels to high end resorts.  A number of hotels and resorts have special packages just for scuba divers in conjunction with one of the local dive operators. 

Some of more popular luxury resorts in the Florida Keys include:

  • Hawks Cay Resort
  • Key Largo Marriott Beach Resort
  • Cheeca Lodge & Spa
  • Playa Largo Resort & Spa
  • The Pier House Resort & Spa
  • The Casa Marina Resort Key West

In addition to the luxury accommodations directly on the Florida Keys, there are also relatively inexpensive accommodation options in Florida City which is the closest community back in the Florida mainland, about 20 minutes from Key Largo. 

Wreck Diving in the Florida Keys

For shipwrecks, we suggest a first time diver to visit The Elbow Sanctuary Preservation Area which is located in the Upper Keys area.  All of these areas offer wonderful visibility, which makes the diving experience unrivaled.  This reef is also perfect for night diving because of the lighted tower.

Another good spot for wreck scuba diving is the San Pedro which was one of the last vessels from the New Spain fleet to cross to what is now the United States. In 1733, this ship was taken victim by a hurricane along with several other ships in its fleet.  There are wrecks covering over 80 miles of the Florida Keys oceanscape from this storm.  The Spanish salvaged this ship only to find that she had been burned to the waterline so that pirates could not loot her.

Some of the Best Spots for Scuba Diving in the Florida Keys

As you can see, the Florida Keys has some of the best places to scuba dive throughout North America.  Following are several of our favorite locations in the Keys.

  • Christ of the Abyss / John Pennekamp
  • Stargazer Reef Sculpture
  • USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg
  • USCG Duane
  • USS Spiegel Grove

John Pennekamp / Christ of the Abyss

One of the places that should be on the top of your list to dive is the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the nation’s first underwater preserve. Located near Key Largo, the visibility here is almost perfect, making it a favorite dive destination for beginner and advanced divers alike.

The statue of Christ of the Abyss is an eerily magnificent site to dive.  Located 25 feet beneath the surface, the statue is prominent and distinct.  Divers also love this site because it features canyons and trenches to be explored as well as a large variety of eagle rays and sea turtles.

Stargazer Reef Sculpture

The Stargazer Sculpture is one of the most unusual dive locations in the Florida Keys.  Located in the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, the Stargazer consists of approximately five nautical miles of sculpted reef. Just five miles off Key West, this reef includes a series of replicated star constellations once used for sea navigation.  If you enjoy diving in waters with colorful marine life and coral, then this is the place to visit.

USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenbert

One of the most famous dive sites in all of the Florida Keys is the USNS General Hoyt S. Vanderberg which is a 520-foot former military troop transport ship.  This vessel is one of the largest artificial reefs in the keys and located off Key West.   Sunk at a depth of 140 feet, much of the superstructure of the ship is only 40 to 50 feet below the surface.

The waters surrounding the Vandernberg is calmer than some of the other area wrecks and with the relatively shallow depths, it is an ideal spot for divers at all skill levels.

USCG Duane

One of the most interesting shipwrecks in the Florida Keys is the USCG Duane.  The Duane is a 327-foot former coast guard cutter that sits at a depth of 120 feet.  The navigation bridge is at a depth of 70 feet which is the most shallow point of the entire wreck.  The Duane is a magnet for marine life and with crystal-clear waters, it’s one of the most beautiful spots to dive in the Keys.

This site is perfect for advanced divers as it sits outside of the reef’s protection, but there are strong currents which any diver needs to be aware of.

USS Spiegal Grove

The USS Spiegel Grove is a former US Navy Landing Ship Dock that was sunk in 2002 to create an artificial reef in Key Largo, much like the Duane and Bibb ships.  The Spiegel Grove is 510 feet in length and 84 feet wide making it the largest of the shipwrecks accessible to scuba divers in the Florida Keys.  This wreck sits at a depth of 134 feet near Dixie Shoals and the depth at the highest point of the ship is about 60 to 65 feet depending on the tide level.

As one descends on the Spiegel Grove, they will see just how large this ship is. Lots of divers in the area have dived the Spiegel Grove before and are only happy to dive it again to explore the different compartments accessible in the wreck.  This ship is also unique as it has a large crane in the stern area since it was used as a landing ship dock.  For enthusiasts interested in the beauty of shipwrecks themselves, this will be considered a great dive. 

The only downside to this dive is the amount of marine life on the wreck. Barracuda, large angelfish, and other fish can be spotted on the Spiegel Grove but not nearly as many as on the Duane.  This is why some divers may still prefer the Duane over the Spiegel Grove if marine life is their primary interest in scuba diving.  But the Spiegel Grove is still a relatively new dive site compared to the Duane so in time, the amount of marine life will increase at this site making it even better in the future. 

Both the Spiegel Grove and the Duane are highly recommended dives for all scuba divers with a minimum of advance certification when diving in the Key Largo area.

Scuba & other things to do in the Florida Keys

There are so many different resources in the Florida Keys for scuba divers as well as other water sports and other amazing as things to do when visiting this tropical paradise.  Here are some of our favorites:

Florida Keys Scuba and Snorkeling Resources

  • Sail Fish Scuba: Offering a discover scuba diving experience for four people in Key Largo
  • sciDivers: Offering five- and seven-day scuba packages in Tavernier

Boat Charters in the Florida Keys

Other Things to Do in the Florida Keys

  • Jet ski, kayak and paddleboard rentals
  • Museums and other tours
  • Shopping and dining

To learn more about the many other things to do in the Florida Keys, please visit our post “Things to do in the Florida Keys and Key West”.

Endless Summer

Florida residents for over 35 years. From the Florida Keys to the Panhandle, we've touched almost every area in the state as theme park passholders, Florida State Park Patron Members, avid water sports enthusiasts, beach lovers and more.

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