DIVE SITES IN THE FLORIDA KEYS NATIONAL MARINE SANCTUARY & JOHN PENNEKAMP CORAL REEF STATE PARK
The Florida Keys are an island chain spanning over 126 miles and fringed 6 miles seaward by North Americas only living coral barrier reef and the third largest in the world after Australia and Belize. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary consists of 2,800 square nautical miles surrounding the entire archipelago of the Florida Keys and includes the productive waters of Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Key Largo offers world class diving, snorkeling and technical diving in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. All our reef diving is conducted within Sanctuary Preservation Areas (SPA’s) such as Carysfort, Elbow Reef, Key Largo Dry Rocks, Grecian Rocks, French Reef and Molasses Reef.
Christ of the Deep
Christ of the Abyss is a 8 1/2 foot, 4,000 pound bronze sculpture of Jesus Christ that stands in 25 feet of water off of Key Largo, Florida. It is located near Dry Rocks, about six miles east-northeast of the Key Largo Cut, in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. This sight is great for diving and snorkeling. Check out our rates and trips page for the days of the week that we go to this site, which is more frequent than any other dive or snorkel shop in the Florida Keys.
The Elbow Reef
Elbow Reef is our most popular dive spot because of its beautiful reefs that have grown up around some very old shipwrecks. The Gulf Stream passes closer to Elbow than many other Key Largo reefs which means the water on Elbow is usually clear blue providing the best visibility in the park. Some of the wrecks here have been down for over 100 years and have fostered a great deal of coral growth. A large variety of sea creatures such as moray eels, stone fish, large barracuda and goliath grouper inhabit The Elbow.
CITY OF WASHINGTON Just offshore of the Elbow reef lies the remains of the “City of Washington”, a schooner lost here in 1917. This wreck is known for exceptionally clear waters and an abundance of friendly fish populations. Several friendly green morays, barracuda and grouper patrol. The scattered wreckage provides an excellent backdrop for underwater photography. If you want to see big stuff, this site is a ‘must do.’
MIKE’S WRECK Probably the most colorful area of the Elbow, adorned with lots of soft coral. The site was named Mikes Wreck after a local captain who’s boat sank at the site in the 1970’s. Upon salvaging the vessel, a much larger steel hulled wreck was discovered underneath it.
SOUTH LEDGES This reef area is known for it’s clear water and spectacular coral. A spur and groove formation provides shelter for many large species of fish. Turtles, schools of spotted eagle rays and even tarpon are often seen. A large ‘Sand Highway’ cuts across the ledges at the deeper section providing large pelagics an easy route up and down the reef.
ANCHOR CHAIN lying across the reef near the mooring ball, an abandoned anchor chain with huge links and concrete mooring block, thought to be that of the original lightship at the Elbow reef can be found here in 25 feet of water. Good visibility and unlimited fish and coral make this a favorite site among divers.
TRAIN WHEEL WRECK A tug and barge went aground in the 20s, dumping train track and wheels onto the reef. Huge formations of Elkhorn coral shelter schools of Goatfish, Snappers, and Porkfish. Colorful tropical fish are plentiful.
FINGERS Southeast of the Elbow, a spur and groove formation features coral ridges topped by giant elkhorn corals. The outstretched arms of these shallow coral colonies provide habitat for schooling grunts and other tropical fish. A large school of blue tangs can usually be seen along with an awesome specimen of Elkhorn. Species normally found in the Bahamas are abundant here, making this another photographers favorite.
ELBOW DEEP / NELSONS LEDGE Perfect for a deep drift dive or for those wanting a bit more depth. The reef top is fairly flat and starts at 50′ with a mini wall dropping down to between 70′ and 100′. Huge barrel sponges and brain coral are a prominent feature of this dive.
Carysfort Light & Reef
The circa 1852 Carysfort Lighthouse is the oldest functioning lighthouse in the United States and marks the most pristine and sought after dive site in North America. Due to its remote location at the Northern end of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, this site is rarely visited by anybody and it well out of range of the majority of Key Largo dive shops. Silent World is the only operator that has Carysfort as a regular trip on the boat schedule several times a week! This area is perfect for snorkeling and diving as it offers extremely shallow areas where the coral literally sticks out of the water, right down to mini walls in 100′ of water. Carysfort Reef is named for one of its earliest victims, the twenty-eight gun frigate HMS Carysford, which ran aground in 1770. Since that time, the reef has claimed many other ships, which is why this reef is home to the oldest reef lighthouse. Thirteen mooring buoys surround the lighthouse, each marking a beautiful dive spot. The lighthouse lies six miles off of Key Largo. The shallow reefs surrounding the base of the lighthouse prohibit a close approach by boat. Snorkeling near and around the lighthouse is fantastic with good visiblity, magnificent coral and plenty of fish. Carysfort Reef is one of the best developed reef systems in the Keys, and contains a wide variety of reef features including well-developed stands of elkhorn coral. Reef development is enhanced by the water quality, temperature, and salinities of the Gulf Stream, which sweeps close to the seaward edge of the reef. Located ENE of the tower is “Carysfort Trench” (a.k.a., “Caryfort Wall”), a beautiful wall of Staghorn, Brain, and Sheet corals. The wall drops 65-80 feet to a sandy bottom. Five cannons from the 1800s rest in 15 feet of water approximately 1/2 mile to the north of the tower. And two large anchors thought to be from an 1800s frigate rest in 30-40 feet of water four hundred yards NNW of the tower.
French Reef is one of the most spectacular reef areas in the Florida Keys. There are dozens of ledges, tunnels, and caves to explore; most large enough to swim through. French Reef is northeast of Molasses Reef and is marked by buoys inscribed with the letter “F”. The location has a 1 square nautical mile triangular Sanctuary Preservation Area (SPA) which includes a rubble field and several of the caves and arches. You may want to bring an underwater light to French Reef to explore the tunnels and caves that it has to offer. Photographers should also visit this reef because they won’t want to miss the opportunities for close-up shots. The unique limestone cliffs in the area are home to many corals and the gullies and crevices that line them are home to yellowtails, porkfish, moray eels, cooper sweepers and grunts. The many tunnels provide opportunities for swim-throughs. The Hourglass Cave is located 50 feet inshore from buoy F1 and the Christmas Tree Cave is located 50 feet inshore of buoy F3. Each cave offers a chance to uncover hidden sea life. Christmas Tree Cave is filled with the namesake Christmas tree worms and also with moray eels and grouper. While buoy F5 marks a sandbank with coral ridges around, F6 marks a swim-through and inshore of F7 is a ledge near and old anchor. Located in the center of French Reef is the “White Sand Bottom Cave” which is the largest cave in the area. Each cave offers new opportunities for exploration and discovery.
Molasses is an extensive reef complex with diving depths from about 10 feet to more than 70. At depths ranging from 10-40 feet, Molasses Reef features high profile spur and groove coral formations. At 40-60 feet down, seaward sand chutes separate a gently sloping hard flat bottom adorned by hard and soft corals, along with a variety of sponges. The “drop-off” begins in the 50-60 foot range, and extends downward at various angles to the 70-100 foot range. Excellent drift diving can be found here.
Certain areas have distinct features for which they have been named, such as Spanish Anchor, Winch Hole, Fire Coral Caves, Hole in the Wall and many others. Snorkelers will enjoy the shallow spur and groove formations typified by Elkhorn and Boulder Corals punctuated by sea fans. Divers will find plenty to occupy them as well. Visibility is generally excellent on this reef as it is “rinsed” by the currents of the nearby gulfstream.
This is probably the most visited site in the Florida Keys and possibly the United States. Because of this, Marine officers generally patrol this area. These officers make sure that divers understand that even touching coral reef can kill these beautiful organisms. This site houses massive brain coral, star coral, and other large barrier corals. Caves and ledges provide homes for lobsters, crabs, moray eels, parrot fish, angelfish, filefish, turtles, rays, and sometimes nurse sharks. Divers will be able to come fairly close to these creatures. Sandy patches divide areas of coral and create an amazing sight. An old ship winch and an eight-foot anchor help to create the unique and interesting nature of this dive. Boaters must tie off to one of the 40 mooring buoys surrounding the large tower marking the reef.
This area was harmed when the freighter, Wellwood, ran aground here in 1984. Damaged areas are marked and should be avoided. Part of the remaining rubble from Wellwood is contained in the .3 square nautical mile Sanctuary Preservation Area (SPA) which reaches down to 60-feet. This is a dive not to miss for anyone traveling to the area. Those looking to snorkel should stay to the northern, shallower end of the reef while divers will want to explore the southern end. This is also an easily accessible and highly used night-dive site.
Local legend suggests that Molasses is named for a barge that grounded here many years ago carrying a cargo of molasses barrels, but much of the strewn wreckage is probably from a wooden hulled Austrian ship named Slobodna, run aground here in 1887. It could also possibly come from the wrecking of a schooner carrying syrup tanks that sank here in 1944. The wreck lies in 300′ of water and can be visited on one of our technical charters.
THE NORTHERN LIGHT 150fsw – 195fsw (Natural Wreck) The Northern Light was a Great Lakes steam freighter built in 1888. It was 300′ in length with a 40′ beam. The Northern Light is also somewhat unique in that it used a three-phase steam engine that produced 240 horsepower. These engines were developed near the end of the steam era. In 1927, the owner attempted to commit insurance fraud by setting fire to the ship, badly damaging it. It was then cut down and converted into a barge. In 1930, the Northern Light broke into two parts during a terrible storm and sank off Elbow reef, Key Largo with the loss of 5 lives. This wreck is our most popular technical diving site due to its depth range and proximity to our dock. She lies in 190fsw, off Elbow Reef in Key Largo and is home to a large number of Bull sharks, a massive nurse shark, numerous grouper and schools of Jacks. Diving at the site is dictated by the location of the Gulf Stream in relation to the wreck. If it is too close or over the site, then it will be un-diveable. When the Gulf Stream is further out, then it is often perfect diving conditions. Check with us before you plan your trip and we will advise you of expected dive conditions.
THE QUEEN OF NASSAU – ISLAMORADA 180fsw – 220fsw (Natural Wreck) This wreck is situated off Islamorada and is in pristine condition. Well known for its good cover of oysters, the wreck has a large debris field off its starboard side. Good chance of seeing Scalloped Hammerheads and Bull sharks, especially during decompression. Due to its distance from Key Largo, the wreck can either be visited on a full day charter, or alternatively we can take the boat to a local Islamorada fishing marina the night before. You can then simply meet us at the dock for a 20 min run to the site! Less affected by the Gulf Stream, conditions are usually calm with the site often bathed in a milky haze (as can be seen in the picture.)
THE DOC DE MILLY – BISCAYNE BAY 150fsw (Artificial Reef) Another Popular site but dived less often than the Northern Light due to its remote location in Biscayne Bay. Part of the massive Miami-Dade Artficial Reef Project, the Doc is situated in the same area as several other wrecks such as the Berry Patch, Hugos April Fool and 2 F4 Phantom jet fighters. This wreck is an all day charter as it takes approximately 2 hours to reach the site. The good news is that it is closer for us to reach from Key Largo than running out of Miami. We usually combine the trip with a dip on one of the other Biscayne Wrecks or Pacific Reef on the way back.
HARRIS FREIGHTER (AKA WHISTLE BUOY WRECK) – PACIFIC REEF – 180fsw – 220fsw This wreck is on the way to Biscayne Bay and can be combined with one of the Doc DeMilly, Hugo’s or the F4 Fighters as part of a full day charter. Rarely visited and fairly unknown
THE VITRIC – MOLASSES REEF KEY LARGO 290fsw – 310fsw The Vitric was a wooden schooner-barge built in 1917 (some say 1911.) She was 165 feet long by 36 feet wide with a wooden deckhouse on the aft section. While en-route from Havana to West Palm Beach, the ship capsized and sank in ~300 feet of water southeast of Molasses Reef in 1944. The site is about 12 miles offshore from Key Largo. The Vitric was carrying a cargo of 130,000 gallons of syrup and some Japanese motorcycles. The syrup was contained in about a dozen large tanks in the hold and on the deck.
Isolated Reef Sites
For the more adventurous amongst us, or for those who have been diving here for years and want to try something new, we have plenty of unmarked sites for you to try. Watsons Reef just north of the Elbow, deep ledges at 100′ and 200′ and Pacific Reef on the way up to Biscayne bay are just an example of what we can do. Call the shop to request a trip to one of the lesser known and more adventurous sites that we offer.