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Key Largo 2014

Posted on: 23 Feb 2015 at 17:00 by TimC, in Travel - Comment: 0 comment.

By: John A. Shaheen; All photographs by John A. Shaheen

The Florida Keys (Keys) are a 112 mile long chain of islands that begin at the southeastern tip of the Florida peninsula approximately 15 miles south of Miami. The Keys are home to the only living coral barrier reef in U.S. waters. The northernmost island, Key Largo, is home to John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater marine park in the world. In 1975, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) created the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary in order to protect the reefs offshore of John Pennecamp Park. In 1990, Congress designated the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary stretching from Biscayne National Park just south of Miami along the 300 foot depth line as far south as Key West and the Dry Tortugas. The Sanctuary includes the waters on either side of the Keys encompassing the entire Florida Keys ecosystem, a total area of approximately 2900 square miles. As if the pristine reefs weren't enough; the Keys are home to a number of historic as well as intentionally sunk shipwrecks.

 

In April of 2014, a group from Aquatic World travelled to Key Largo for 4 days of diving, snorkeling and general warm water relaxation. We stayed at Amy Slate's Amoray Dive Resort on the Gulf of Mexico side of Key Largo. The first morning, after a hardy breakfast, we meet at the dive boat, the Amoray Diver, where Captain Mike, our boat captain provides an overall briefing on the boat as well as what to expect for diving over  the next 4 days. We will spend 3 days diving reefs and some shallow wrecks before diving the Spiegel Grove deep water wreck on the last day. Once all the gear is situated onboard and the boat briefing complete, we head through “the cut” to the ocean side of Key Largo and head out to Elbow Reef. The first dive of the week is on “Mike's Wreck”, which several years ago was identified as the Hannah M. Bell, which sank in April 1911 when it ran aground as it headed for Vera Cruz, Mexico with a load of coal. She lies in approximately 30 feet of water. We tie up to the mooring ball and head down to the wreck. The bottom temperature is a balmy 81 degrees F this day. The second dive is on the wreck of the City of Washington, a steam engine powered schooner which carried passengers regularly between New York and Havana, Cuba. She was 320 feet long and 38 feet in the beam and was built in 1877. She ran aground on Elbow Reef in 1917. This day, as we descend, a Goliath Grouper stands guard on the wreck eying us with apparent curiosity. Warm water and 40 feet of visibility make for a very pleasant one hour dive exploring the wreck.

 

The second day, we head out to Molasses Reef for a two tank dive. The day is calm and we tie up to the mooring ball at Fire Coral Cave at the south end of Molasses. We “giant stride” in and proceed to the bottom. This day, there are schools of snapper(grays and yellowtails) as well as French grunts, lobster, squirrelfish and blue tangs. A second dive is at North Star, a circular patch of sand surrounded by high relief coral formations on the north end of Molasses. We are treated to a nice size Southern Stingray as well as an abundance of various species of fish. They appear to barely acknowledge our presence as we slowly swim amongst them.

A trip to the Florida Keys would not be complete without a trip down to  Key West. Soon after returning to Amoray from a satisfying morning of diving, a group of us decide to make the scenic drive down. We arrive mid-afternoon and begin by making the “obligatory” stops at the Schooner Wharf Bar in old town Key West where Michael McCloud, a local musician is playing some of the crowd's favorites. From there, we head down to Mallory Square and head up Whitehead Street past the Truman Annex where President Truman spent a great deal of time and Ernest Hemmingway's house on the opposite side of the street. We eventually make it down th the Southernmost point where we pose for a few pictures before heading a block over and proceeding down Duval Street. We make another “obligatory” stop at Sloppy Joe's for refreshments and some live music before heading back to old town where we grab an early dinner at the Half Shell Raw Bar before heading back to Key Largo to prepare for our last two days of diving.

The next day, we board the boat early and head back out to Molasses Reef to make our first dive at a site aptly called Aquarium. On this day, Aquarium is teaming with schooling fish, large gray angels and plenty of lobster. We complete the dive day by heading up to French Reef, about 1.5 miles north of Molasses. French Reef is primarily noted for its caves, swim-thrus and overhanging ledges. We dive on Christmas Tree Cave, named for the large conical star coral mound that rises over the top as well as the numerous Christmas Tree worms surrounding it. This cave, at a depth of approximately 40 feet, is about 4 feet in height with two entrances, creating a “swim-thru”. On this day, in addition to it's namesake Christmas Tree worms, it's full of schooling fish of every kind including snapper, small mouth grunts and schoolmasters. After an approximate one hour dive, we surface and head back to Amoray. The chatter on the ride back is already about the next day's dive which will be on the wreck of the Spiegel Grove.

We check in at the boat early Friday morning where Captain Mike informs us that strong winds are making for rough seas on the Atlantic side of Key Largo. The good news is that the winds should dissapate within the next hour and, the seas should therefore settle down. About 9:30, the winds are starting to calm as we board Amoray Diver for our last day and head out to the Spiegel Grove site. At the time of it's sinking in May 2002, the Spiegel Grove, a former loading ship dock, was the largest deliberately placed artificial reef in the world. Although the larger USS Oriskany off the Pensacola coast and the USNS Vandenberg near Key West have been sunk in more recent years, the Spiegel Grove remains one of the premiere wreck dives in the world. She is 510 feet long and 85 feet wide and sits in about 130 feet of water. When originally sunk in 2002, she ended up on her starboard side. In 2005, Hurricane Dennis rolled the ship into a perfectly upright position which is as she sits today. This wreck is huge! The port and starboard cranes have latticework so large, a diver can swim through it.

We arrive at the wreck site to find 6-8 foot seas and a 5-6 knot current; in Captain Mike's words “sporty conditions” .We tie up to the mooring ball on the port side of the superstructure. Based on conditions, we will enter the water off the bow of the boat, with safety line held loosely in hand, within several feet of the mooring ball making for a short swim to the mooring line. I enter the water followed by my dive buddy Gary. As we signal each other to make our descent, the brisk current pulls hard, almost daring us to let go of the mooring line. As we descend, we are like a couple of flags on a pole in the 5-6 knot current. Once we arrive at the superstructure, we drop down behind it which gives us some welcome relief from the strong current struggling to pull us off the wreck. We move out along the port side and immediately encounter a strong head current sweeping from the bow. As we struggle to make some forward progress, several 5 foot long barracudas curiously watch us as they hover above the port rail. We eventually are able to make our way to the wheelhouse and swim inside for some where the current is essentially non-existent. After some exploration, we move out of the wheelhouse to the starboard exit and continue to make our way up toward the bow hitting a maximum depth of about 85 feet. Air supply is just about 2000 psi at this point as we turn to make our way aft to the weather deck. We hang for awhile on the weather deck checking out the prolific coral growth  before letting the current carry us further aft to the crane station. We drop down one deck level to once again seek protection from the strong current as we make our way forward to the mooring line. With about 1000 psi remaining, we begin a slow ascent toward the surface.

After a nice long safety stop, we once again find 6-8 ft seas waiting for us at the surface, making for a challenging water exit onto the boat. This is likely the tenth time I've dove the Spiegel, but like all the rest, this dive has proven to be both challenging and rewarding.

We finish the day with a mild dive on the Benwood wreck, a Norwegian freighter, which sank in 1942 after colliding with the Robert C. Tuttle, an American freighter. Depth ranges from about 25 feet at her bow to approximately 55 feet at her stern. The wreck is fairly broken up as she was used for bombing practice soon after she sank. However, a variety of fish including goatfish, grunts, moray eels, hogfish, grouper and even the occasional scorpion fish frequent this wreck, in particular at her bow. We surface after about a 1 hour bottom time and head back to Amoray to start packing for the trip back north.

It's been a great 4 days of diving in the Florida Keys. Tomorrow, we'll say our goodbyes and I'll head north to the Ft Lauderdale area to do some shark diving with the locals.

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