What a great time to get your fins wet

Keys Living ContributorMay 9, 2008 

All right all you road-weary travelers, you’ve made it to the Keys and have driven down U.S. 1 at that ominous speed of 55 mph ... or slower. So already you’ve been immersed in the “slow down and take it easy” mentality of the Keys, giving the right of way to not only pedestrians and bicycles, but also land crabs, iguanas and chickens.

It’s a perfect speed, though, because you start to realize there are a lot of things to look at, whether or not you understand the importance of the environment that surrounds you. If you’re a seasoned veteran of the Keys or a first timer, you’re probably marveling at the color of the water, noting how different it is than anywhere else in the United States.

Then the mind starts to wander and you start dreaming about what other beautiful, interesting and fun secrets these islands hold and where you might find them, especially in and on the water.

One of the first and commonly asked questions is, “Is there anywhere to snorkel right offshore?”

The answer is, “Not really.”

Even though the Keys have some stellar beaches on which to play, swim and even try out snorkel or dive gear, there’s just not much to see, and it’s not very deep. In fact, in a lot of places, at low tide you can walk hundreds of feet into the ocean and it’s still only knee- to waist-deep. The occasional ray, manatee or hermit crab may cruise through, but the real action is on the reef, which is anywhere from three to six miles offshore.

For proper snorkeling and diving on patch reefs, the reef line and the marine sanctuaries (where all the coral and fish hang out) it’s best to either hire a charter boat — to play it safe — or rent a boat if you don’t own one.

If you decide to go with charter services, they’re going to take you to the places you need to go to see the reef life that makes the Keys famous, making things easy on the customer.

Capt. Tony Presutti, a dive charter captain for A Deep Blue Dive Center in Key Colony Beach, says one of his favorite reef spots — although hard to choose — is Samantha’s Reef, in between Coffins Patch sanctuary and Sombrero Reef sanctuary.

“It tends to be filled with all kinds of sea life, and it’s not a sanctuary so your options are open when it comes to lobstering, fishing or spearfishing,” Presutti said, “or if you just want to look and see the beautiful reef, there is plenty to see.”

For those of you who are more adventurous, visit your local visitor center, dive shop, tackle and bait store, or even some gas stations to seek advice. (“Local” usually means up to 10 miles either way — up or down — of where you’re staying.)

If you’re interested in night diving, Presutti says there is an excellent little reef spot called “The Donut” that goes in a circle with a sandy spot in the middle, hence the name.

“You can’t get lost and the reef is only about 25 feet deep but filled with many tropical fish,” Presutti said. “Some groupers, rays, eels, lobsters, and all the hard and soft corals, and sponges that are indigenous to the Keys.

If you’re still determined to give it a go without a guide, invest in a “Top Spot” map for whichever area of the Keys you intend to explore. Top Spot makes maps for the Lower, Middle and Upper Keys, and marks the depths of water, GPS marks and fun local diving and snorkeling sites.

Notice many of them are marine sanctuaries, where it’s fine to look, but not OK to take. A common saying for these areas is, “Take only pictures and leave only bubbles.”

Marine sanctuaries are full of tropical fish, sharks, lobsters, eels, rays, sponges and beautiful soft and hard coral formations.

Some of the sanctuaries to ask and know about, starting in the Upper Keys and going down, are: Molasses Reef, Conch Reef, Hens & Chickens, Alligator Reef, Coffins Patch, Sombrero Reef, Looe Key Reef, East and West Sambo Reef, Rock Key, Sand Key, and finally (west of Key West) is the Tortugas. Cheva Heck, spokeswoman for the National Marine Sanctuary, says visitors to the Keys are an important link in caring for our coral reef ecosystem.

“Whether you’re going out on the water to dive, snorkel, fish or just to enjoy a day on the water, make sure to take a moment to learn the rules that the ... sanctuary and other agencies have put in place to preserve the marine environment,” she said. “Sanctuary staff distributes brochures to more than 400 businesses throughout the Keys, including bait and tackle shops, marinas, dive shops, hotels and even grocery stores. The brochures describe the 24 sanctuary areas that are closed to fishing, depict the locations of the mooring buoys that protect the coral reef from anchor damage and provide tips to help boaters avoid running aground on coral reefs and seagrass beds.”

Heck also says to pay attention to what captains and guides have to say before taking the plunge.

“If you’re planning to dive or snorkel the coral reef aboard one of the many local charter boats, pay close attention to the briefings of the captain and crew,” she said. “They’ll tell you what site you’ll be visiting and whether it has any special rules, as well as what type of marine life you can expect to see. The briefing will also explain how you can help us protect the coral reef by avoiding contact with marine life.”

“Snorkelers and divers should be sure that their hands and fins don’t touch coral,” she said. “Divers should make sure to use only the weight necessary to maintain neutral buoyancy and check to make sure their equipment is secure and will not drag over the reef. Done correctly, diving and snorkeling should have no impact on the ocean bottom.”

For those who want to do more than take pictures and leave bubbles, patch reefs and the reef line runs the length of the Keys, and in between the sanctuaries, with a good bottom sounder and GPS, you can find and mark some wonderful spots where it’s legal to take shells (with nothing inside, and be careful, many of their inhabitants are good hiders) or lobsters, if they’re of legal size and aren’t bearing eggs.

Lobster season, from Aug. 6 through March 31, brings many novice snorkelers and divers out of their own shells, as the prospect of cooking their own catch provides some incentive. Don’t forget to get a license first, which can be acquired at Keys locations, over the phone and online.

Spearfishermen can find a bounty of fish to harvest on several reefs, but those who don’t know the regulations on local takes should hire a guide to stay on the legal side of the tape measure.

Hook and line fishermen can also use the top spot maps and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission regulations to find places outside of the sanctuary to harvest fish.

Weary travelers should keep in mind is that drinking, boating, diving and the hot sun are a sure recipe for disaster, so reserve that aspect of vacationing in the Keys for the dock or shore.

Originally published in the Summer 2006 edition of Keys Living.

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