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Florida Fly Drive Dive Part 1 –  Key Largo

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In the first of this three-part blog, The Scuba Genies share their trip report from Florida!

It’s a dive trip – but not as you know it!

Finding a great dive destination that we can travel to whilst the World is still in the grips of the COVID pandemic is like trying to catch flies with chopsticks, but we keep trying! Our latest exploration came about from looking at rules and regulations, evaluating them all, making plans, changing them, until finally, we came up with a place that we could go dive that we hadn’t been to before.

Being married to a US Citizen meant that I could enter the USA and having a family house to sell meant that I could also leave the UK, so Florida was on the cards. I had some preconceptions about diving in Florida – I didn’t expect it to be amazing but was so fed up with diving in the fishpond and bathtub that I was of the opinion that anything would do.

How very wrong I was!

Let me open this prose with one fact, to be substantiated later – the diving I experienced in Florida was top notch. I don’t remember surfacing once without a huge smile of my face, and I can also say that I experienced two ‘dives of a lifetime’. Having logged over 2500 dives, this is really saying something!

Now dear readers, I must tell you that this trip was very different to any other trip I have done before. No beach resort, no all-inclusive hotel, no liveaboard leg, and very little of the normal relaxing on the beach in the surface intervals. This was a 100mph experience from start to finish…

FLORIDA : FLY-DRIVE-DIVE : KEY LARGO

Arriving at Miami International Airport is always an experience – this place is busy with a capital B. Collecting baggage, through the lengthy immigration queues and on to the car rental stations was just the start.

Our intended FLY-DRIVE-DIVE package has divers exploring the Florida coastline from Jupiter in the North to Key Largo in the South, and for me, leaving Miami and heading south to the Keys was the plan.

A quick one-hour road trip through the metropolis of Miami and the edge of the Everglades National Park had us arriving in the beautiful Key Largo, checking in at the Holiday Inn in time for dinner. Neat and tidy rooms, plenty of space, coffee machine and fridge, plus hairdryer and air-conditioning and a choice of pillows – perfect!

Some very windy weather forced the local dive operators to cancel a few days of diving, so we took the opportunity to explore the area. Key Largo – a beautiful place. Only half a mile wide at its widest point, this is the longest of over 800 keys, separated by some 42 bridges! On both sides, the island is dotted with marinas, boat ramps, bars and restaurants, and whilst it is very much a beach town, there is no lack of facilities – if you forget to bring anything, you can get it here! Dive shops (some of warehouse proportions) are everywhere.

Apart from dive gear shopping, visiting the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and chilling by the pool, you must take in the sunsets. We found the aptly named Sundowners on the West side of the Key, and sat on the deck right by the water, catching the most spectacular sunset, whilst enjoying an amazing cocktail or two. And for food lovers, there is no better place in our opinion than the marina-side Sharkeys Sharkbite Grill. We ate here at least 8 times in 6 days it was that good – the BEST fresh grouper and beer boiled shrimp ever! Accompanied by cold beers and live music in the evenings, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Once the wind moved on, we scheduled five days diving in Key Largo, utilising the services of two different operators. Rainbow Reef Divers, one of the biggest operations we have experienced globally and with eight large dive boats, looked after us well for a couple of days. We also scheduled a day of diving with Sea Dwellers. Sea Dwellers are a smaller operator, with two excellent dive boats, and their attention to detail, customer service and quality dive briefings were all excellent. The more personal service they provided was something that we preferred. Both operations were within walking distance of our hotel, and this made humping gear a far lesser chore.

The diving was, quite simply, excellent. Warm and clear waters, enough current to drift properly, and plenty of nooks and crannies to drop into to explore find life to photograph. The reefs here are super-healthy, packed to the surface with marine life, and we saw sharks, turtles, grouper, spadefish, morays, tuna, dolphins to name but a few. Critters galore too – shrimp, crabs, slipper lobsters and the snake-like gold spot morays. Then, there were the wrecks!

There are over 1,000 wrecks of the coast of the Keys, but Key Largo has probably the best – with the Benwood (a phenomenal night dive too), USCG Duane, USCGC Bibb and of course, the largest deliberately sunk wreck in the World, the 160m long USS Spiegel Grove. Sunk in 2002, she is suitable for recreational divers at a depth of 25m to her decks, but technical, extended range and of course side mount and twinset divers are well catered for, as are CCR divers.

We left Key Largo swearing a blood-oath to come back, and soon, and drove up Route 1 towards our next destination, West Palm Beach, full of anticipation, but with a little sadness too – Key Largo is a place that we would go to again and again.

Stay tuned for the next leg of our Fly Drive Dive tour of Florida but in the meantime check out some of our favourite images from Key Largo:

KEY FACTS

  • Getting there : This was part of our Fly Drive Dive itinerary, but Key Largo is a destination we would suggest on its own. Nonstop flights to Miami or Orlando are available daily with several car rental companies to choose from based on your needs.
  • Air temperature : In the spring and summer expect highs of 26 to 32 with milder temperatures in the winter. Rain is more likely June through September.
  • Water temperature : An average of 25 in the cooler months and 29 in the summer
  • Visa requirements : An ESTA is required to visit the USA. Currently an ESTA costs $14.00 and is valid for multiple trips for a two-year period. Application can be completed online at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/
  • Currency : US Dollar with ATM easily found and all major credit cards accepted.
  • Electricity : 120V with 2 and 3 prong plugs.

Accommodation: Holiday Inn Key Largo. This hotel is just steps away from the Marina and the boats of both Rainbow Reef and Sea Dwellers. And even more importantly Diver’s Warehouse is across the street – convenient for divers yet inconvenient for the wallet!

Diving: Rainbow Reef Dive Center has a fleet of 8 boats that offer both morning and afternoon 2 tank charters. Their online calendar makes it simple to pick the dive sites that interest you.

Sea Dwellers offers both morning and afternoon charters in addition to night dives. And once a month they offer a dive or snorkel in collaboration with the Coral Restoration Foundation. Get some training in the morning with diving in the afternoon returning corals to the Carysfort Coral Nursery. How cool is that?!?!

Price Guide: from £1995pp for 7 nights in Key Largo with a 10 dive package, car rental and return flights and from £3695pp for our complete Fly Drive Dive 14 night package with diving in Key Largo, Palm Beach and Jupiter, accommodation, car rental and return flights.

Favourite Dive Sites: Molasses Reef, Hole in the Wall, Christ Statue, French Reef.

Favourite Spots: Divers Direct Warehouse! John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Publix, Sharkeys Sharkbite Grill, Sundowner’s.

Check our website for more information on diving in Florida:

Where to Dive : North America : Florida : Key Largo

Come Dive with Us!


Find out more about the worldwide dive itineraries that The Scuba Place offers at www.thescubaplace.co.uk.

The Scuba Genies are John and Mona Spencer-Ades, owners and Directors of ATOL and ABTA bonded Tour Operator and Travel Agency, The Scuba Place Ltd. The Scuba Place design and custom-build exceptional diving holidays around the globe, and have been doing so since 2011. They provide travel services to groups, clubs, buddy-pairs and individuals, and have a wealth of hands on experience when it comes to destinations as they are fanatical divers themselves. John has been diving over 30 years and is a PADI Dive Master, having logged over 2600 dives. Mona started her diving career in 2004, and has logged over 600 dives – she is currently a PADI Rescue Diver. The Scuba Place also provide hosted trips to both new and their favourite destinations each year, providing expert support, under their banner ‘Come Dive with Us!’ Previous trips have been to the Philippines, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Bonaire, Florida, the Maldives, Malta, Bahamas, Thailand, Truk Lagoon, Grenada, St Lucia, Cozumel, Cuba and Egypt. For 2022 and beyond, Palau, Bali, Raja Ampat, Ambon and Coron are in the planning stage.

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Alonissos: The complete diving destination (Part 1)

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In June we were incredibly fortunate to be invited to dive in Alonissos, a small Greek Island in the Sporades island chain located in the North Aegean Sea.  While I have long been a big fan of the Greek Islands as a great holiday destination, I had not had the opportunity to do any diving on previous visits and Mike and I were extremely excited to see what Alonissos had to offer both above and below the surface!

The Sporades are easily accessible via the airport in Skiathos (the first island in the chain), which is served by Jet2 flights from all major UK airports from May through October.  Numerous ferries and charter boats make island hopping from Skiathos Town a breeze.  After an hour boat ride, the picturesque port of Patitiri was a wonderful introduction to Alonissos, where we were met by our gracious hosts Kostas of Albedo Travel and Dias of Alonissos Triton Dive Center.  Mike and I were delighted to be staying at the Paradise Hotel, aptly named for its stunning views over the sea and great location for walking to the waterfront.

Alonissos is beautifully situated in the National Marine Park of Alonissos and the Northern Sporades, the largest marine protected area in Europe.  The surrounding seas offer fabulous marine life, including incredibly rare species such as the Mediterranean monk seal.  They boast deep walls covered in gorgonians and sponges, stunning topography with caverns, swimthroughs and pinnacles, and the first accessible ancient shipwreck from 500BC!

In locations where historical sites have been reported, the waters are largely restricted, but with collaboration between government, underwater archeologists and dive centres, incredible underwater museums are being created for a truly unique diving experience.  Alonissos is home to the first of these, the Ancient Shipwreck of Peristera Accessible Underwater Archeological Site.  The chance to dive into history (along with reports of healthy reef life and amazing underwater topography) meant Mike and I were keen to get in the water.

Our introduction to the diving around Alonissos was at the Agios Georgios Pinnacles, in the channel between Alonissos and Skopelos.  This fantastic site was named “The Chimney,’ and proved to have a huge amount to see.  We got to a decent depth here (over 25m), and marvelled at a colourful reef wall with a wonderful swim through whose rocky walls were absolutely covered with life.  As well as brilliant topography there was no shortage of macro life here.  We saw numerous nudibranchs, five different species in total.  The second dive at Mourtias reef nearby was a shallower dive along a nice wall with lots of crevices. Several moray eels and grouper called this site home.  We enjoyed looking in the crevices for lobster and smaller benthic life, such as cup corals and tunicates.

Our itinerary allowed us two dives a day with afternoons left to explore the island with our hire car and evenings to enjoy the famous Greek hospitality.  This proved to be a lovely mix of in-water and land based diversions.  

The next days diving to the Gorgonian Gardens and Triton’s Cave was to be even better!  These two stunning sites are nothing short of fabulous.  The Gorgonian Gardens was a deep wall near to the Agios Georgios islands.  The ever-present currents in this deep channel meant that the sea life was amazing … the namesake Gorgonian sea fans dotted the wall at a depth of 30 to 50 meters, getting ever larger the deeper we went.  Above 30m was by no means less beautiful, with sponges, corals, scorpionfish, moray eels and some rare and colourful nudibranchs.

The second shallower dive of the day was to Triton’s Cave or the Cavern of Skopelos, on the east side of that island. The spectacular rock formations had wild striations both above and below the water making a truly epic topography.  The cavern entrance was at 14m, and big enough for a buddy pair, winding up to 6m and passing two beautiful windows out into the blue.  Emerging from the cavern, the light at the shallower depths and the incredible rock formations made for a fantastic gentle swimming safety stop and we all surfaced by the boat with massive grins. 

Check out our next blog :Alonissos: The complete diving destination (Part 2)” to hear about our amazing dive on the 2500 year old Peristera Wreck!

Thanks to:

Alonissos Triton Dive Center https://bestdivingingreece.com/

Albedo Travel https://alonissosholidays.com/activities/

Paradise Hotel https://paradise-hotel.gr/

Alonissos Municipality https://alonissos.gr/en/

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Mamma Mia! Diving Skopelos (Part 2)

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Our second days dive itinerary was to the famous Christoforos wreck! This is arguably the best dive in Skopelos and though only open to divers with deep diving experience, this 83m long wreck is well worth the visit.  

The Christoforos sits in 43 meters of water with the deck at 32 to 35 meters.  A 30m dive can give an impressive view of the wreck, though such a large wreck needs a few dives to truly do it justice.  Given its ideal location just a 2 minute boat ride from the dive centre dock it is an excellent first dive of the day.  The sheltered site is also diveable in all but the absolute worst weather so although deep, the water is usually clear with little to no current making it a very pleasant dive.  The site is superb for technical diving and a great training site for the Tec 40 and 45 programs, offered by Skopelos Dive Center.  

The Christoforos wreck was originally a collier ship built in 1950 at Grangemouth shipyard under the name “Thomas Hardie”.  In 1976 she joined the Greek merchant fleet as “Christoforos”.  On the 2nd of October 1983 the Christoforos was carrying 2600 tonnes of cement from Volos to Piraeus Port. During the voyage the weather turned, resulting in the ship developing a 7 degree list, whereby she changed course for safe anchorage at Panormos, Skopelos.  The ship reached Panormos at 16:00 with a list of 17 degrees and water ingress to No. 1 hull.  Though attempts were made to right the vessel, the crew were ordered to abandon ship at 22:00.  The captain, lieutenant and the quartermaster remained to try and save the ship, but had to abandon the attempt themselves and the Christoforos finally sank at 05:30 on 3rd October 1983.  She now sits upright in 43 meters of water less than 200m from shore in Panormos.

Diving has only been allowed here since 2018, so the wreck is very well preserved and a real treat to dive.  Permission to dive here was granted by the authorities after lots of incredibly hard work by the Skopelos Dive Center staff.  Having a fantastic wreck in such an amazing location and in excellent condition is a real privilege.

Of all the sites in Skopelos this was the site Mike and I were most keen to experience.  Having kitted up and zipped across the bay to the mooring, we left the surface and followed the descent line until the wreck emerged spectacularly from the blue at 15m.  She is a big and beautiful wreck, sitting as though calmly continuing her journey along the seabed.  With most of her original features still intact there were points of interest everywhere, including the anchors, winches, ships telegraphs, the wheel and RDF antenna.  

We found that aquatic life had colonised the ship, with schools of fish, electric blue nudibranchs, a large moray eel and the resident scorpionfish lurking inside the bridge.  The Christoforos was truly a stunning wreck and despite maximising our time at depth we eventually had to say our goodbyes and begin the slow and steady return to the surface. 

After a superb morning dive we had the afternoon to do a little sightseeing of the island, with a trip to the church of Agios Ioannis Kastri made famous by the blockbuster movie “Mamma Mia!”. Mike and I spent a happy afternoon pootling around in our little hire car before meeting up with Lina from Skopelos Dive Center.  An underwater archeologist as well as a dive professional, Lina had offered to show us a rather special attraction, the Christoforos shipwreck Digital Spot public information and awareness centre.

A fantastic initiative made possible from the collaboration of the government and hard work of the staff at Skopelos Dive Center is the “Digital Spot” in Agnontas port.  This information center has a number of displays on the history of the Christoforos wreck, the process by which the wreck was allowed to be opened to the public for diving tourism, other sites of historical interest in the area, a video of the wreck and the best bit, a virtual reality dry dive experience!  The beauty of the VR system is that non diving members of the family can see what you have seen on the wreck, or you can see areas that you may not have explored during the dive due to time or depth limitations.  It was a truly immersive experience and a great addition to the dive itself.

After a wonderful day we celebrated our last evening on the island with an exquisite meal in Skopelos Town with fabulous views over the town and bay, washed down with the excellent local wine.  The lamb with lemon and potatoes was a meal which I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life! 

Skopelos is an island that truly has it all.  The diving is excellent, the landscape is beautiful with plenty of non diving activities, the locals friendly and the food and drink superb.  Given how accessible it is as a holiday destination it has avoided becoming overcrowded and even in peak season offers a fun yet relaxing atmosphere.  We highly recommend giving Skopelos a visit.  We will certainly be back again!

Thanks to:

Municipality of Skopelos (https://skopelos.com/

Skopelos Dive Center  (https://sporadesdiving.gr/)

Ionia Hotel (https://www.ioniahotel.gr/en)

Dolphin of Skopelos (https://dolphinofskopelos.com/)

Ta Kymata restaurant (@takymata)

The Muses restaurant (https://www.facebook.com/TheMussesMousses/)

Aktaiov resturant (https://skopelos.com/listings/aktaion-taverna/)

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