Peering over the edge of the Sandy II, I could see colorful fish and waving sea fans in the 20-foot waters off Big Pine Key, Fla. "You won't be sorry you decided to do your first open-water dive here," said Susan Steinkamp, the master scuba diver who was to certify me among the ranks of underwater adventurers.
She was right. The clear, warm waters of the Florida Keys are a popular spot for experienced divers as well as novices like me. I went to the keys with my husband and three friends the third week of December just as the first snow was falling in Baltimore. After taking a weekend scuba class at Annapolis Scuba Center, I had the choice of taking my final test in a fresh-water quarry in Pennsylvania or in some more exotic location like the keys. Looking for an excuse for a vacation, I picked the keys.
While there are dozens of dive shops along the keys that offer many dive-trip packages that can include as many or as few dives as you want, we chose a shop that is based in Woodbridge, Va. -- Diver's Getaway -- because they gave us the best price. Our $3,000 package included lodging in a four-bedroom house on a canal, two boat dives a day, and three meals a day for five days. I paid a little extra for my test dives.
Captain Susan, as we came to call her, arrived every morning at 8:30, and we loaded our gear onto the Sandy II before cruising out to an idyllic spot a few miles offshore. Our first stop was Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, about seven miles off the coast of Big Pine Key.
Looe Key is one of the most beautiful dive sites in the keys, Captain Susan said as she tied the boat up to a buoy marker in a spot where the water had turned from green to blue. The blue water is warmer, she said.
Designated a sanctuary in 1981, Looe Key is named after a British frigate, the H.M.S. Looe, that sank here in 1744. The remains of the ship -- the anchor and ballast -- are difficult to spot between two fingers of coral near the eastern end of the reef about 200 yards from the reef marker. The water is about 35 feet at its deepest, making it perfect for novices. Experienced divers, I'm told, come here for the unusual coral formations as well as the manta rays, groupers and parrotfish that feed here.
After suiting up in about 60 pounds of equipment that included 14 pounds of lead weights on my belt, a tank that held 3,000 pounds of air, a mask with a suction grip that rivaled a toilet plunger, and my inflatable vest, I sat on the edge of the boat, leaned back and somersaulted into the water.
The water was warm and quickly filled my wet suit while I hung onto the tow line waiting for Captain Susan and everyone else to get into the water. One of my biggest fears about this part was sinking to the bottom like a rock and crashing onto the reef or, worse, a shark at the bottom. But that didn't happen. No sooner had we let the air out of our vests and begun sinking than I felt my feet touch the sandy bottom.
Suddenly, I was in a strange world where schools of curious small, yellow fish swam around us and between us. The mask cut down on my peripheral vision, so I was constantly turning my head to look around. Huge sea fans -- plants that spread several feet across in the rough shape of a fan -- waved back and forth with the surge. Gold-colored tube sponges were growing out of a rounded brain coral. I could see the bottom of the boat 20 feet above.
This was almost like the Discovery Channel, which shows scenes of beautiful plant and marine life swimming in clear, sun-filtered water. The only sound was my heavy breathing through the regulator.
To calm my nerves, I tried to think of it as swimming in my parent's tropical fish aquarium -- only much bigger.
While my companions busied themselves swimming with the yellow-headed jaw fish, rainbow parrotfish and angel fish, Captain Susan and I went over basic dive skills such as removing and replacing my mask, breathing through her spare regulator and breathing through a free-flowing regulator. Once that was finished, she and I, with my husband tagging along, started the truly fun part: swimming with the fish around the reef. We were lucky that day and spoted a huge manta ray skimming the bottom, beautiful blue and gold queen angelfish and many more yellow-tail fish swimming around mounds of plants and sea fans.
Just when I stared to feel pretty confident about everything, we noticed we had strayed a distance from the boat and started to head back. Sticking close the bottom, we swam around a large plant and almost ran right into what I dreaded the most: a 6-foot great barracuda hovering above us about 4 feet away.
Barracuda are not sharks. But they look just as scary. Their large mouths open and close slightly as they breath, giving them a sort of evil grin between their two large eyes.
I stopped dead in my tracks, unsure of what to do next. Captain Susan swam up to it and stuck her thumbs in her ears, seemingly making a childish face at it. It swam away.
Back on the boat, my husband and Captain Susan teased me unmercifully about the look on my face, which they described as "sheer terror marked by bulging eyes."
"Barracuda can swim about 40 miles per hour," Captain Susan said. "So when you hear that story about a barracuda chasing a diver around a reef, it's not true. If he wants to chase you, he will catch you. But I've never heard of one hurting a diver."
Looe Key turned out to be my favorite among the several dive spots in the middle keys we visited that week. There are many other dive spots throughout the keys, from John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo all the way south to the Dry Tortugas, about a two-hour boat trip from Key West. Before you dive, you must take a course, as I did, at a dive shop that is recognized by one of three national organizations. The largest is the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). Then you may choose where to take your open-water dives.
Getting it together
My course cost about $300, and I took the basic lessons in a backyard pool with three other students and an instructor. If you don't want to buy your own equipment, the shop will usually rent it to you. If you do decide to buy it, they may give you a discount.
While I bought most of my equipment, wet suit, buoyancy vest, weight belt, fins, mask and snorkel in the Baltimore area, there is a great discount dive shop in Key Largo called Diver's World. It is sort of an outlet dive shop that carries anything and everything dive-related.
The equipment is not cheap. Although you almost always rent tanks during trips and can rent equipment, too, you will probably want your own. If you are diving during the summer in Florida or the Caribbean, you may not need a wet suit or may just want a thin Lycra suit to protect against sunburn, which can be severe, by the rays filtering through the water. Since I get cold easily and the water temperature there was in the mid- to upper 70s, I wore a full wet suit with a Lycra suit underneath, a hood, booties and gloves. Getting too cold can ruin a dive. The good news is that all this should be a one-time expense.
The reefs in the Florida Keys are generally accessible only by boat. While most divers who go to the keys leave the driving to professionals who run charter trips, some do rent their own boats. If you do, you should be an experienced boater and know how to read charts well.
Boat captains are financially liable for any damage they may cause to corals by either a grounding or anchoring. Although you can set your anchor down in the sand away from the reef, it's best to use the mooring buoys that dot the waters and can be used free of charge by anyone.
If you go
All major airlines have flights to Miami, where you can rent a car and drive about three hours to Key West. Or, you can get a connecting flight to Key West International Airport -- about a 45-minute trip. The cheapest hotel rates are during the humid summer months, in late spring or after hurricane season in October.
Key West has dozens of quaint B&Bs;, some hotels and apartments. There are also plenty of nice places in the Upper Keys -- Key Largo, Plantation Key and Islamorada. For information, check with your travel agent or call the Key West Chamber of Commerce at (305) 294-2587, or the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce at (305) 451-2587.
Joy Williams has written a great book about the area called "The Florida Keys, a History and Guide."
After you get to the keys, finding a dive shop or charter boat operation is no problem. There are dozens of them along the A1A, the main highway from Key Largo to Key West. There are also several in Key West. You can buy a package plan that includes several days of diving or pay as you go. It is better to get certified near home, but try not to buy all your equipment until you get to Florida, where competition has driven the cost of wet suits and buoyancy vests down.
A handy book that details most dive sites and rates them by experience level as well as providing practical advice is called "Diving and Snorkeling Guide to the Florida Keys," written by John Halas, Judy Halas and Don Kincaid. Ms. Williams' book also includes information about dive sites and shops.