Maybe you’re looking for colorful reefs teeming with life and gigantic grouper lazing on the sandy bottom. The iconic wrecks that make up the Shipwreck Trail may interest you more. No matter which, the best dive sites in the Florida Keys have something for every diver.
The story goes that it takes six separate dives to circumnavigate Key Largo’s USS Spiegel Grove. But with many local dive shops offering double-dip dives to the iconic wreck, it doesn’t seem like the dive community is tiring of this classic any time soon. The initial sinking of the 510-foot (155 m) wreck was scheduled in 2002. But instead of landing upright, the wreck sank prematurely on its side. Three years later, Hurricane Dennis placed it back on its keel. The highest point starts at around 60 feet (18 m), with a maximum depth of 134 feet (41 m). Today, some favorite spots on the structure include the crane area, the coral-covered gun mount and the American flag, waving proudly in the current.
One of the most dynamic wrecks along the Shipwreck Trail is the 327-foot (100 m) USCG Duane, a former Coast Guard cutter that rests at 120 feet (37 m). The wreck sits outside the reef’s protection, which makes it better for more experienced divers. There’s almost always a strong current. The result: The wreck is like a magnet for marine life and boasts crystal-clear conditions. The navigation bridge, at 70 feet (21 m), is the wreck’s shallowest point. Watch out as well for the crow’s nest, silvery pockets of dancing baitfish, and large barracuda hanging out among the railings. When it comes to snapping that money shot, the bow of the wreck offers the best angles, along with a chance of capturing the schooling fish taking in the view.
The youngest member, and possibly the most famous, of the Shipwreck Trail family is the USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, a former military troop transport located in Key West. Today, it is the world’s second-largest purpose-sunk vessel and home to a healthy population of marine life. The current here is calmer than on the Duane, and most of the Vandy, as the wreck is affectionately known, lies between 40 to 50 feet (12 to 15 m). This makes it a great dive for both novices and experienced divers. The 520-foot (158 m) ship sits at 140 feet (43 m) with many areas to explore. Check out the dish antenna, a weather-balloon hangar, crow’s nest, a 20-foot (6 m) smokestack and bridges covered in corals.
Christ of the Abyss
It’s not just about the wrecks here — the colorful reefs also offer some of the best dive sites in the Florida Keys. One favorite site is the Christ of the Abyss, located in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. With a depth of just 15 feet (4.5 m), the site is good for everyone from snorkelers to seasoned divers. Easy-to-navigate tongue-and-groove coral formations teem with angelfish, barracuda and even the occasional turtle. The big draw to this dive site is of course its namesake, the Christ of the Abyss statue that reaches to the surface and makes for spectacular photo ops. Do not touch the iconic statue, however tempting, as it’s covered in fire coral. Unless you want to take home a painful souvenir, keep your distance.
Also deserving of a spot on the list is Pickles Reef. It’s just southeast of Key Largo and to the south of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. New divers and seasoned underwater photographers alike love this site for its shallow depth of just 15 to 25 feet (4.5 to 8 m), offering longer bottom times and more opportunities to explore. Named for the cement-filled pickle barrels that were left here during the Civil War era, there are plenty of hiding places for everything from healthy schools of yellowtail, to curious angelfish and massive grouper.