We’re an underwater paradise

Whether going snorkeling or diving deep, the views awe

Senior Staff WriterMay 9, 2008 

Imagine living in Flagstaff, Ariz., and never going to see what that Grand Canyon thing is all about.

That’s kind of like being in the Florida Keys and never plunging into the aquamarine wonder that lies just off these shores. Except the coral reef is closer.

Most people who spend any time at all in the Keys don a mask and fins to snorkel the astonishing array of habitat and marine life that thrives at the coral reef, the only environment of its kind off North America.

Snorkeling is a grand experience, particularly at world-renowned sites such as Looe Key off the Lower Keys or Molasses Reef off Key Largo. For others, the best way to experience life in the undersea involves strapping on an air tank and regulator as a scuba diver. Using scuba gear does carry an element of risk, so training is mandatory.

Passing the course means a diver has been certified by one of the national training agencies. There are several, but PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors), SSI (Scuba Schools International) and YMCA are among the largest.

Obtaining dive certification — earning a “C-card” — opens the door to a pursuit that can be as mellow or adventurous as desired. Few places in the world — certainly not in the U.S. — provide a better locale for dive-certification training than the Florida Keys.

“It’s just an awesome place to learn to dive,” said Amy Schuhmann, manager and instructor at Tilden’s Scuba Center in Marathon. “The shallow barrier reef makes training easy, and the conditions here are so nice. Plus there’s lots of marine life and all the beautiful coral.”

The Keys have more than two dozen operations that offer dive instruction, usually in small groups that allow personalized attention or even on a one-to-one basis. Some of the first businesses offering recreational dive training in America opened in the Keys.

Dive training has evolved over the years, becoming less rigorous so that a person comfortable in the water can progress at his or her own pace.

“If a person has any motivation at all to become a diver, there’s rarely a problem,” said Ric Altman, owner of Silent World Dive Center in Key Largo. “We’ve got shallow reefs with good [underwater] visibility and light currents, so this is a good place to learn.”

One way to sample scuba diving is called the resort course, a one-day session that includes the most basic instruction, followed by a dive trip with an instructor. However, time spent in a resort course may not apply toward a full certification.

Becoming a certified diver who can dive with most operations worldwide requires elements of classroom work and pool training, followed by one or more open-water dives at the reef.

The advent of home learning, through video or computer programs, has trimmed the time needed to be spent in on-site classroom work covering topics such as gas theory and why divers must constantly monitor their time and depth.

A person seeking basic certification should still plan to allow three to four full days for training.

“A lot of people who live up north may do their classroom theory and pool training there, then come down here to make their supervised open-water dives,” said Guy Sheets from Quiesence Diving Services of Key Largo. “If they’re smart, they realize that their local quarry or lake is probably cold and dark, and the Keys have nice clear water that’s usually warm.”

Costs of training vary depending on locale, study materials and the size of the class, but a basic certification course can be expected to run from $385 to $450. Rental equipment is included.

Upon passing a knowledge test and completing the required number of dives, a student becomes a diver, eligible to rent dive gear and book reef trips.

Generally, a basic certification covers depths to about 60 feet, more than enough to dive vast swathes of the Florida Keys coral reef and get bottom time with angelfish and sergeant majors amid the polychromatic corals.

Most of the Keys sites renowned among divers worldwide — Molasses, Looe, Grecian Rocks, Sombrero and so many more that are protected by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary — lie in waters considered shallow by dive standards.

But the Keys diving experience can go beyond shallow. Doing the deep means adding another level of certification to dive training. An advanced open-water certification will be required by most dive operators to visit famed Keys shipwrecks as the Spiegel Grove, the Duane, the Eagle, the Thunderbolt or the Adolphus Busch, or to drop down to deeper reefs (every Keys diver should strive to see the Sherwood Forest reef in the remote Dry Tortugas at least once).

That training can be combined with the basic certification, but will require an extra two days or so to fit in the expanded range of training dives required.

Then go see the fish.

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