Florida Travel Guide for Scuba Diving

Sentinel Staff Writer

Known for its white sand beaches and thousands of miles of coastline, there is more to Florida's sun-filled fun than just the beach. With a diverse selection of underwater environments, Florida offers some of the world's best scuba diving. From the Panhandle to the Keys, there is a dive site for everyone filled with beautiful wildlife, unique coral reefs, intriguing caverns and more.

Whether you're a novice snorkeler or an advanced deepwater diver, you will find a wealth of dive opportunities in the Sunshine State. You may choose to visit an iconic dive site like the Dry Tortugas, an historic wreck in the Atlantic, or perhaps a freshwater spring. Below you will find featured dive sites and centers throughout Florida's famed diving world.

The Florida Keys
You don't have to leave the United States to find amazing coral reefs and Caribbean-like dive spots. From the northern most key to 70 miles west of Key West, there is a myriad of underwater opportunities. If your first stop is Key Largo, then a popular dive location is John Pennekamp Park.

Pennekamp offers several different dive sites. There is the Christ of the Abyss, an 8.5 foot statue of Christ that is accessible for both divers and snorkelers. It is one of the world's most popular and visited spots. There is also Molasses Reef, an immense coral reef with dive depths ranging from 10 feet to 70 feet. It is often cited as the most visited reef in the Keys.

Beyond Pennekamp, Key Largo offers numerous dive and wreck sites. Spiegel Grove is the world's largest ship sunk as an artificial reef. It is great for advanced divers, offering views of the 510-foot U.S. Navy ship.

For more on diving in Key Largo, visit one of several dive centers like Rainbow Reef Dive Center, Sea Dwellers Dive Center of Key Largo, or Horizon Divers.

As you travel further south through the Keys, you will find more wreck sites and colorful coral reefs. For a dramatic site off of Islamorada, visit The Eagle--a 287-foot freighter, sunk in 1985 as an artificial reef. Although better suited for advanced divers as it is set in 110-feet of water and has strong currents, The Eagle offers a variety of sea life sightings and swims into the ship.

For a glimpse of prolific coral and fish, visit Hens and Chickens Reef, just offshore of Islamorada. It is a great reef for all dive levels and snorkelers, with a depth range of 20-22 feet. And to see even more fish visit Davis Reef and Ledge. Davis is known for its huge schools of fish, resident Moray eels and a statue of a Buddha.

For more on diving in Islamorada, visit one of several dive centers like Key Dives at Bud 'n Mary's Marina, Conch Republic Divers, or the Holiday Isle Dive Shop.

As you make your way towards the Seven-Mile Bridge near Marathon, you can spot the Sombrero Lighthouse, which also marks a wonderful reef. Sombrero Reef offers immense colorful coral, diverse sea life and great dive experiences for all levels. Easily found because of the lighthouse, it is a Middle Keys' must see.

For a more advanced dive and a great wreck site, visit the Thunderbolt. The Thunderbolt is a 188-foot research vessel once used for studying lightning. It offers divers exploration of the ship's hull, engine compartment, colorful sponge and coral. For more on diving in Marathon, visit one of several dive centers like Hall's Diving Center or Tilden's Scuba Center.

The Lower Keys and Key West offer exceptional diving as well. Looe Key Reef is one of the most prolific and popular reefs in the Keys. The reef is a 5.5-square-mile National Marine Sanctuary, offering a variety of levels and coral growths for all divers and snorkelers. Visit Looe Key Reef Resort and Dive Center for more on diving the reef.

If you make it to Key West and are up for a great dive trip, then you must visit Dry Tortugas National Park. Located 70 miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas are only reachable by air or sea, but it is still a popular stop for divers and snorkelers. The ramparts of Fort Jefferson offer views of coral, fish and more on a white sand bottom. You can also take a side trip to the Windjammer, a 200-foot schooner wreck off of Loggerhead Key.

The Yankee Freedom Ferry or Sunny Days Catamarans are popular ways to get to Dry Tortugas National Park. Dive Key West offers trips to Key West's other reefs and dive sites.

Venture beyond South Beach or Biscayne Bay to see a variety of diverse, colorful life. The waters off of Miami have several different wreck sites and the world's only underwater margarita bar. One of Florida's oldest wrecks is the Half Moon Archaeological Preserve, which offers divers and snorkelers calm waters, colorful coral and smaller fish.

The Jose Cuervo Artificial Reef is located in the South Beach Artificial Reef site and is a 22-ton concrete margarita bar. Sunk on May 5, 2000, the reef was nicknamed "Sinko de Mayo" and is the first element along the South Beach Underwater Trail. For diving off of Miami's coastline, visit one of the area's several dive centers like South Beach Divers, Tarpoon Diving Center, or Grove Scuba.

Fort Lauderdale
The Fort Lauderdale area has more than 90 artificial reefs, from wreck sites to offshore oil platforms. One of the area's most popular dives is Tenneco Towers, which is the largest artificial reef in southeast Florida. It was created in 1985 when Tenneco Oil Company sank five oil production platforms. Today the wreck site's rigs are covered in coral, sponges, with schools of fish.

Hog Heaven is another popular Fort Lauderdale dive site. It is a 180-foot upside down barge and offers glimpses of turtles, nurse sharks, goliath grouper and more. For beautiful underwater scenery, both real and artistic, visit the Guy Harvey wreck site. It is a 185-foot freighter that was sunk in 1997, after Guy Harvey painted sharks and game fish on its outside. For Fort Lauderdale area dives, visit a local dive center like Lauderdale Diver, Pro Dive International, or Deep Blue Divers.

Boca Raton and West Palm Beach
Along with Fort Lauderdale, the waters off of Boca Raton are known as some of the best for diving in the United States. The United Caribbean is known both above and below water. It was first known when it ran aground while carrying more than 200 illegal Chinese immigrants onboard. Today it offers great exploration opportunities for beginner and advanced divers, as well as diverse sea life.

Nearby is the Noula Express which offers a rich fish community as the area's oldest freighter. Another great ship to explore is the Sea Emperor. Intended to sit upright with 1,600 tons of concrete on top, the ship flipped over when it sank and now makes for great exploration. Because of its location and landing, the Sea Emperor is home to resident sea life like stingrays, a Moray eel and Jewfish.

To explore the waters off of Boca Raton and West Palm Beach, visit Boca Dive, Force-E Scuba Centers, or American Dive Center.

Daytona Beach
The "World's Most Famous Beach" has more to offer than just the sand and surf. Not too far off shore are several artificial reefs and wreck sites. For a great night dive or to see lots of fish, visit the Semarca, a 76-foot-long utility vessel.

For another impressive dive, visit the USS Mindanao. It is an internal combustion engine repair ship that was decommissioned following World War II. Only 60 feet down, divers can explore parts of the hull and see schools of bait fish, tomato grunts, mangrove snapper and more.

For exploring the waters around Daytona Beach, visit a local dive center like Sea Dogs Dive Center or Spruce Creek Scuba.

Central Florida
Although there may not be any seas in Central Florida, area springs offer great dive experiences. Or if you're visiting the theme parks you can go for a dive. Walt Disney World's Epcot theme park has DiveQuest, a unique scuba diving experience in the Seas with Nemo and Friends Pavillion's 5.7-million-gallon saltwater tank. With more than 60 species and 6,000 sea creatures, this dive experience is definitely memorable.

For a freshwater dive, visit the popular Crystal River to dive and swim with manatees. Here you can some in contact with some of the local manatees as well as cave dive in the local springs. You may also see tarpon, grouper or dolphins.

Other Central Florida springs are great for beginner divers to practice, like DeLeon Springs or Alexander Springs in Altoona. Alexander Springs is a 300-foot-wide basin with an average depth of 10 feet, with lots of wildlife and caverns for more experienced divers.

Visit a local dive center like Orlando Scuba, Crystal River Divers, or Epcot's DiveQuest for more information.

Although further north, there are more than 60 dive and wreck sites in the waters off of Jacksonville. Coppedge Tug may be located 20 miles off shore, but this 103-foot tug offers large schools of batfish, grouper, snapper and more. It is a great dive for photography and less advanced divers. Another great wreck site is The Anna, a 225-foot freighter that was sunk as an artificial reef.

Closer in is Nine-Mile Reef (nine miles offshore), which is a natural reef that runs all the way to Daytona Beach. It is a popular reef for fish and lobster sighting, and bottom fishing. For diving off of Jacksonville, visit one of the area's centers like Offshore Dive Charters or First Coast Divers.

North Florida
North Florida is known for its springs and rivers, as well as some of the world's best diving--more specifically cave diving. Several of the area's spring systems offer the best in cave diving, for all levels. Near the small town of Williston are two popular caves, Blue Grotto and Devil's Den.

The Blue Grotto is Florida's largest clear water cavern that has a unique feature, the air-filled "bell," which divers can swim into for fresh air. Nearby is Devil's Den, which has crystal clear water, 72 degree temperatures year round, with ancient rock formation, stalactites, fossil beds and more.

For some of the best freshwater diving, visit Ginnie Springs. Near the town of High Springs, here you can explore the 100-foot across bowl-shaped spring, with safe caverns in the "Ballroom" at the bottom. To find out more about North Florida's springs and dive sites, visit an area center like Cave Dive Florida or Dive Outpost.

The Panhandle offers some of the best historic wreck sites in Florida. From Panama City to Pensacola, there are miles of reefs and wrecks for divers to explore. The Panama City waters are full of military equipment like ships, Navy scrap metal, pontoons, towers, tanks, hovercraft and more.

One such boat is Black Bart, a 185-foot oil field supply ship whose cargo holds, head and galley are open for exploration. There is also an abundance of fish like catfish and grouper, and sometimes turtles are seen.

Off the shores of Okaloosa County and Destin are the Sand Dollar Artificial Reef and Mohawk Chief, which has patch reefs with fish havens and an 83-foot tugboat. The area's most popular site is the Thomas Hayward, a 360-foot Liberty Ship that sits in 90 feet of water and is a great place to spot amberjack, grouper, stingrays and more.

Further west in Pensacola are some of the Panhandle's most popular historic wreck sites. The USS Oriskany is the world's largest intentionally created artificial reef is 22 miles offshore of Pensacola. It is a former aircraft carrier from the Korean and Vietnam wars and now makes up the appropriately named "Great Carrier Reef." Although it sits in 212 feet of water, the overall height is 151 feet so there is plenty of the ship to view and explore.

An even older ship in the area is the USS Massachusetts, which was first commissioned in 1896. It is 350-feet long and sits in only 30 feet of water. Most of the hull is still intact, although it can be difficult to explore due to strong currents and poor visibility.

If you plan on diving in the Panhandle waters, be sure to visit one of many local dive centers for more information like Emerald Coast Scuba, Panama City Dive Center or MBT Dive and Surf.

Tampa Bay area
Although there may not be as many dive sites in the Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg area, there are quality sites. The Pinellas #2 Artificial Reef houses several famous shipwrecks, including the Sheridan and USCG Blackthorn.

The 180-foot Blackthorn tender first sank in the 1970s when it struck a 605-foot freighter on its way to Galveston. It now sits 20 miles off of Tampa in 80 feet of water and offers sightings of large amounts of marine life, like Goliath grouper, snapper and sometimes even whale sharks. The 180-foot tugboat Sheridan only sits 200 feet away, which offers more exploration of its compartments than the Blackthorn.

To explore the Tampa Bay's dive sites visit Scuba Dive Tampa or Jim's Dive Shop.

Southwest Florida (Naples and Fort Myers)
For fantastic dives that are less visited, the Naples/Fort Myers area has several. Bayronto is an historic 400-foot freighter that sits upside down in a 100 feet of water, just southwest of Sarasota. This part of the Gulf of Mexico offers crystal clear waters and tons of marine life.

Even further south is the Santa Lucia wreck, a 47-foot-long turtle boat that was used in the 1990s by migrating Cuban refugees. Not too far from shore, it is a quiet but difficult dive that is best for experienced divers. 27 miles offshore of Naples is the Naples Spring, better known as the Black Hole. The Black Hole is a prehistoric spring or sinkhole, with its circular opening 65-feet below the surface. It offers advanced divers beautiful corals and lots of marine life, including sea turtles.

For diving in Southwest Florida, visit a local dive center like Scuba Outfitters of Naples, Scuba Adventures of Naples or Dean's Dive Center.

For more information on diving in Florida be sure to visit your area's Convention and Visitor's Bureau web site.

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