Diving in the Florida Keys - Part 2

Conch Key to Looe Key

In the bridge country of the Middle and Lower Keys, you're driving over water as often as land. When many of the Overseas Highway's bridges were replaced in the 1980s, sections of the older spans were left for fishing, strolling, and sunset gazing. Although there are fewer dive operators here than in Key Largo, you'll still find everything you need and more than 100 underwater sites to visit.

Looe Key offers the best features of Key Largo's reefs, shrunk a bit, and as carefully constructed as a scale model.

This textbook spur-and-groove formation has long, well-defined fingers or spurs of coral separated by sandy grooves, which transport sediment away from the reef. From east to west, the reef gains depth, and from shallow to deep, it's crowded with life. The snorkeling here is the best in the Keys. Cocky lobster and loads of friendly fish jam the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, enjoying the strict no-take protection. Indeed, it's the same protection enjoyed by the creatures at all the most popular reef areas in the Keys sanctuary.

As you swim up and down between the coral spurs, it's like perusing the aisles of an overstocked fish market. Hamlets, damsels, tangs, jacks, chubs, gobies, blennies, wrasse, squirrelfish, goatfish, porkfish, hogfish, angelfish, lizardfish, scorpionfish, triggerfish — all the colorful Keys tropicals you've ever heard of are here.

End of the Road

In 1513, when the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon sailed out in search of the fountain of youth, he found Key West instead. The explorer named the island Cayo Hueso, which means Island of Bones, so named for the skeletal remains the Spanish unearthed from Indian burial mounds on the island. After Ponce came the pirates, including Blackbeard and Captain Kidd, who ruled the waves from the 1600s until the U.S. Navy arrived in 1822 and kicked them out.

The Navy stayed on in Key West, and some believe a few pirates did, too. Local boats have carried rum, drugs, Cubans, and shrimp — whatever the market would bear. The town even declared its independence from the United States in 1982, becoming capital of the Conch Republic in protest against customs and border patrol roadblocks. The Conchs declared war on the United States, then immediately surrendered and asked for foreign aid. Today, the Conch flag stands as the symbol of a free-spirited, Hemingway- and Jimmy Buffet-imitator-infested town with wonderful Victorian bed-and-breakfasts, rusty beach bikes, and just enough people walking around talking to themselves to keep life interesting. It's the perfect setting to find at the end of the road, and the two dozen dive sites around the island are as wild and colorful as the terrestrial nightlife.

As you witness the daily sunset celebration on the Key West waterfront, you realize how lucky you are to have found your Keys. You've driven to the southernmost point in the continental United States and sampled some of the best diving in this part of the world. But with literally hundreds of dive sites to see, you have only one choice — turn the car around and dive your way back north.

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