South Florida Sunshine

SCUBA Diving Key West — A Guest Blog

Photo by Boomer McFall

This article was originally posted by on May 8, 2010 and reposted here with their permission.

There is more to Key West than dive bars. Most people don’t realize that one of Florida’s biggest party towns actually has a lot of scuba options if you can stay sober long enough to seek them out. Key West’s largest and most pristine reefs are located several miles off shore, making a dive boat a must. Those willing to venture a little further still can also enjoy the dive opportunities in the Lower Keys, especially pristine Looe Key Reef, a protected site teeming with sea life that know nobody is going to eat them. Interesting sites include:

Looe Key Reef – The coral reef of Looe Key has been afforded special protection since 1981. Since then, all spearfishing, coral collection, and even lobstering have been banned there. The site’s namesake, the frigate H.M.S. Looe, accidentally ran hard aground there in 1744; remains of the ship lie between two fingers of coral near the eastern end of the reef although only the ballast and anchor are visible. One unusual aspect of Looe Key is that a complete reef ecosystem is found there, from a rubble ridge of ancient fossilized corals, to a reef flat comprised of turtle grass, to a fore reef made up of large star and brain corals arranged in a spur-and-groove coral formation sloping from 20 to 40 feet. There is even a deep reef which slopes to more than 100 feet, providing a great opportunity to view the pelagic species of the Florida Keys, including eagle rays, turtles and every once in awhile a whale shark or manta ray. But don’t miss the main attraction looking for big game: more varieties of tropical marine species are found at Looe Key than perhaps anywhere else in the hemisphere, placing most of the of action right in front of your mask.

Adolphus Busch – This former island freighter was purchased by the local dive community with the generous assistance of Adolphus Busch IV, and sunk upright and intact in just 100 feet of water some seven miles southwest of Big Pine Key in December 1998. Before sinking, the ship was well cleaned and prepared for divers, including the opening of several large holes for penetration. The ship is 210 feet long and the maximum depth is 110 feet, making it an Intermediate to Advanced level dive. There is some marine growth on the wreck, but the highlight is the ship itself, as well as the schools of fish that are starting to use it as a playground.

Sand Key – From the surface, Sand Key looks like a pile of shells topped with a jaunty red lighthouse hat but, underwater; the view gets much more idyllic. The reef itself consists mostly of rock fingers and gullies with sandy bottoms between cliff-like structures and extensive areas of staghorn and elkhorn coral. This site reaches to 65 feet and teems with endless expanses of colorful tropical fish and macro photography opportunities. Though popular, this location is so large that dive boats can spread out, and fish always outnumber divers.

Alexander’s Wreck – commercial salver Chet Alexander purchased this ship from the Navy and sunk it to form an artificial reef. The wreck lies on its side and is broken in half, with the stern section lying 150 yards or so north of the bow, which is awash on most tides. The hull is covered with Leavy oysters and the surrounding waters teem with what seems like unending schools of tropical fish.

Photo by Boomer McFall

Joe’s Tug – This classic tugboat sits totally upright in just 65 feet of water, and offers a great opportunity for close encounters with goliath grouper, spotted morays, barracuda, and horse eye jacks. Open access to the wheel house and aft deck make this an enjoyable dive.

The Cayman Salvor -This 180-foot steel hulled buoy tender, also known as the Cayman Salvager, was intentionally sunk as an artificial reef in 1985. She now sits upright with cavernous open holds providing refuge for bait fish and grunts, as well as a resident jewfish and green moray eel.

Hoyt S. Vandenberg – So, how long to do you plan on staying in the Keys to dive? At 523 feet in length and 10 stories high, the Vandenberg, the Key’s most famous artificial reef, will take you some time to explore. The Vandenberg sits upright approximately seven miles off Key West in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, its keel buried at 145 feet. The tops of the bridges, the communication center and the ship’s dish antennas are 40 feet from the surface of the water, perfect for beginning divers or deco stops. All dive spots along the top structure are open, free from obstruction and are easy to maneuver over and around during a dive. The decks are 45 to 90 feet below the surface. There are holes cut measuring 8×10 feet on each side to allow divers to penetrate the decks horizontally. There are 18 stair towers, 11 elevator shafts and cargo hold shafts to give divers vertical access to the wreck. The 25 foot tall rudder and prop is a great deep dive at 150 feet for the advanced diver.

Since being sunk to the bottom in under two minutes’ time on May 27, 2009, the second-largest ship in the world to be sunk as an artificial reef sits encrusted with species of soft corals. Some 48 different species of shallow water and reef fish have taken up residency, such as parrotfish, goliath grouper, yellow and blue tangs, barracuda as well as deeper water dorado and the occasional sailfish attracted by clouds of bait that frequently school around the wreck. Gray angelfish and butterfly fish are routinely seen circling the anchor chain, while arrow crabs treat the whole thing like a jungle gym.

For more great articles on SCUBA diving please visit the blog at

For dive charters in Key West and more information on how you can experience these places for yourself check out Sunshine Key West’s Activities and let me help you book your dive adventure!


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  1. This is really informative!

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 11 months ago
  2. My Fiancee Robin grew up going to Key West with her family. They’d always bring their boat and dive gear, and enjoy the sights. I cant wait to take my son and do the same!

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 11 months ago
  3. * meapseseisy says:

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Christian,Earn Free Vouchers / Cash

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 10 months ago

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