Perched on the side of the highway at mile marker 83 in Islamorada, about halfway down the Florida Keys, sits a must-stop for divers: the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum. The museum is a homage to humanity’s quest to explore the ocean, from the decompression chamber and the giant diving-bell helmet that greets you on the roadside, to the enormous collection of dive gear, this is a must-stop destination in this region of the world.
Touring the museum
The self-guided tour begins — fittingly — when you pass through a proper working ship’s hatch, stepping over the threshold and into the collection, where a timeline of dive equipment greets you. Starting chronologically with humanity’s first attempt to survive underwater, the initial contraptions are — by modern-day standards — simply frightening. Creepy masks that seem doomed to flood sit alongside bizarre barrel contraptions with tiny glass windows and rough leather arm sockets — a far cry from today’s, latex, silicone and neoprene designs.
Moving on, the first precursors of modern diving gear start to appear. World War I designs involving hand-cranked air pumps that feed air to the diver below and leather-buckled suits that used various fats and greases to achieve a seal make you goggle at how complex old diving gear can be. Plaques tell stories about historical-diving enthusiasts who almost drowned trying to recreate these early experiences due to a single misaligned buckle or missing strap.
Up next on the tour is possibly the museum’s crowning jewel — a collection of rare diving bell helmets from nearly every country that endeavored to explore the world beneath the waves. Most of these helmets were made with the sole intent of allowing people to collect pearls. Taking a seat before them, you can gaze at this immense collection while lights illuminate the gear from each country and a narration offers some in-depth knowledge about popularity, design and usage.
As you meander through the rest of the museum check out the history of rebreathers and multiple, huge deep-sea diving suits equipped with hooks instead of gloves — the sheer volume of equipment is mind-boggling. No visit is complete, however, without stopping in the very impressive gift shop that has everything a scuba nerd could ever want, so come prepared to part with some cash.
All images courtesy of the author.