Into the Clear, Blue Water: Diving Florida

The 1,700 islands that compose the Florida Keys stretch for 150 miles from Miami to the Sunshine State's southernmost tip, bordering the only living barrier reef on the continent. The clear, calm seas, diverse marine life, brilliant coral ridges, and as many as 5,000 shipwrecks make for a diving enthusiast's dreamland—but don't let Florida's flagship scuba and snorkeling destination overshadow the state's copious spring dive sites.
The near-perfect visibility of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the nation's first underwater preserve, makes Key Largo the most popular diving and snorkeling destination in the United States. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which starts at Key Largo and stretches the full length of the islands, and the Statue of Christ of the Abyss, an eerily beautiful and massive structure resting 25 feet below the ocean's surface, amplifies this distinction. The labyrinthine series of canyons and channels along the Molasses Reef in the Upper Keys, home to sea turtles and eagle rays, should not be missed. The Pillar Patch, where coral rises up from the floor like cactus, and the shipwreck-littered Elbow also rank high on the must-see list of divers in the Upper Keys. For a more natural and untouched Keys experience—save the unavoidable glitz of Key West—head to the Lower Keys, where the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary houses an incredible array of coral and marine life in a meager 5.3 square nautical miles. Stargazer, the world's largest underwater sculptured reef, sits five miles off Key West, replicating the intricate series of star constellations once used to navigate the seas.
But if you're anxious to find a diving experience different from the crowded Keys, Florida's porous limestone terrain, particularly across the central region and the Panhandle, has created more divable springs than any other state in the nation. There are as many as 1,000 springs within this area; some reside on private lands, while others are protected inside state parks and preserves. Blue Springs in Orange County, where manatees migrate from the St. Johns River, has a 120-foot throat where gar, tilapia, and bass lurk. Rock Springs in Apopka gushes from the bottom of a limestone bluff, while Alexander Springs is the only scuba-sanctioned spring in Ocala National Forest. Ginnie Springs, the best privately owned spring system with water that Jacques Cousteau described as "visibility forever," offers opportunities to swim, snorkel, dive, and camp. Certified cave divers, meanwhile, should migrate to Peacock Slough, composed of two major springs, six sinkholes, and a number of earthen depressions.

Published: 17 Sep 2002 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

Best Hotels in Florida Keys

$280-$419
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Southernmost on the Beach
$379-$409
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Santa Maria Suites Resort
$322
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La Mer Hotel and Dewey House

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