KEY LARGO, Florida Keys -- Key Largo has long held the title of Dive Capital of the World for its clear waters, vast array of fish species and colorful corals. With year-round warm subtropical weather, the island is a mecca for underwater adventurers.
Surrounding Key Largo are some of the clearest waters in the Keys, in great part because the Gulf Stream current comes closest to shore there and creates ideal visibility for divers.
The area’s waters are unparalleled for diversity, holding interest for virtually every type of diver. Beginners can hone their skills in the safe and beautiful environment of the indigenous reefs, while more advanced and adventurous divers can explore the many shipwrecks in nearby waters.
Because of its popularity as a dive destination, Key Largo supports a group of skilled private dive operators catering to visitors from all over the world. These dive pros typically schedule a morning and afternoon excursion each day.
No trip to Key Largo is complete without a visit to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the United States’ first underwater park. Pennekamp is home to 600 species of tropical fish, and its proximity to the grasslands and mangroves of Florida Bay creates an ideal environment for spawning grounds.
The park’s most popular dive is the Christ of the Abyss. This 9-foot-tall statue can be found on Key Largo Dry Rocks reef only 25 feet below sea level. The statue is modeled after Italian sculptor Guido Galletti’s Christ of the Abyss statue located off the coast of Portofino, Italy.
The Key Largo statue was given to the Underwater Society of America in 1962 as a gift from dive gear manufacturer Egidio Cressi. It was placed in Key Largo waters in August 1965.
Molasses Reef, just five miles off the coast of Key Largo, also is a favorite for most dive operators and local divers — including upper Keys underwater photographer and videographer Bob Care, who lauds the clarity of the water at the reef.
Molasses Reef features healthy mountain-star, elkhorn and staghorn coral as well as plentiful permit, snapper, barracuda, angelfish, grouper and other species typically in the area. The reef’s classic spur-and-groove formations make it easy to navigate for divers.
“This is one of the best spots in the Keys because it has a beautiful sand channel that offsets the exquisite colors of the reef’s beauty and tropical fish,” said dive captain Tim Shaw of Quiescence.
Elbow reef is named for its formation that makes a sharp turn back toward the shore and creates an elbow shape when seen from above. The Elbow is known for many wrecks and indigenous critters, as well as the City of Washington wreck, a 360-foot ship that begins at a depth of only 25 feet.
For advanced divers, Key Largo’s peak experience can be found at the wreck of the USS Spiegel Grove. One of the largest vessels ever intentionally sunk, this 510-foot former Navy warship has served as an artificial reef since 2002. The vessel’s first upper deck lies at about 63 feet with the hull at about 130 feet.
Divers exploring the Spiegel Grove are likely to have “large-scale” company: two goliath groupers, estimated at 300 to 400 pounds, that have seemingly claimed it as their favorite spot.
For more information about diving Key Largo waters, click here.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park’s most referenced dive site is the Christ of the Abyss. This 9-foot-tall statue can be found on Key Largo Dry Rocks reef only 25 feet below sea level.
Reef locations such as Molasses Reef and Elbow Reef are marked by their excellent visibility and exquisite colors.
For advanced divers, Key Largo’s peak experience can be found at the wreck of the USS Spiegel Grove.
A diver swims near the forward deck of the Spiegel, one of the largest artificial reefs in the world. Photos by Stephen Frink /Florida Keys News Bureau
Angelfish are among the plentiful tropical reef fish populations off Key Largo.