The Great Dive Drive - Key Largo to Islamorada
As we make our way into Key Largo, adoring the sudden shift into a more relaxed island vibe, our excitement and hunger levels soar and we decide to make our way to a favorite spot, the Key Largo Fisheries Backyard Cafe, for an early lunch. While we dine, we really start to dig into the most intricate levels of planning for our adventure. That all too familiar giddiness starts to show up on our faces, indicating that we’ve reached the official start of our journey here. Certain things would have to be a bit different of course. Trying to create a new ‘normal’ after a pandemic isn’t going to be easy, but we are up to the challenge and are just grateful to get out and dive and explore again.
After we stuff our faces with amazingly fresh seafood, we decide to get going on our grand adventure by starting off with an on-land attraction to get us settled into the Key Largo lifestyle. We drive just another 20 minutes south and find ourselves in the presence of perhaps the largest crustacean statue in the world, Big Betsy, the Giant Lobster. This thirty-foot by forty-foot sea creature is absolutely phenomenal. Families gather round her, kids sit on their parent’s shoulders to get a better look, and couples get their pictures taken standing before her. She’s definitely a sight to see, and you certainly can’t miss her since she’s right off the main highway!
With tons of time left in the day, we go a tad farther down the road to get our first close encounters with sea life at the Theater of the Sea. With dolphins, sea lions, turtles, and more, everyone will have a blast and enjoy the show. Although we could stay and watch the animals forever, the Theater closes around six o’clock in the evening, which is perfect timing for an excellent dinner just across the street at the Ocean View Pub. This sports bar-style restaurant has a relaxed, beachy ambiance, and with a kids play area and beach chairs around a bonfire, it’s the perfect place to have a drink while watching the sunset. You never know, you may meet some new friends who are going on the same dives as you!
After a successful first day on land and a restful night’s sleep, we’re absolutely thrilled to finally get back in the water. First things first, we head to Pirates Cove Watersports to check in and get on the boat for our first dive of the day. We figure starting off in more shallow waters will get our sea legs warmed up and ready to go, so we head out to an amazingly popular underwater attraction, Christ of the Abyss, where we can see the statue and also cruise the Dry Rocks Reef area around it. The non-divers in our group definitely appreciated this choice of location since they could snorkel and still partake in all the fun. The boat then takes us to Horseshoe Reef where we can observe an abundance of Elkhorn coral, catch a peek at some Goliath Groupers, and even swim through some cavernous areas around the reef!
With our sea legs all warmed up, we head back to land for a much needed lunch, already itching for more ocean fun. Less than a ten minute drive down the road from Pirates Cove, we head over to the Key Largo Conch House to replenish our calories with excellent food. The divers in our group are in a bit of a hurry to catch the next boat out, so we get our food to-go and head right back to the dive center to check in again and get back out on the water. The snorkelers and kids in the group have had enough water for the day, and with the promise of more tomorrow, they decide to sit at the restaurant to eat and relax before heading over to the Coral Restoration Foundation Exploration Center to get a better understanding of coral reefs and how to help save them.
While they’re learning about coral reefs, we’ve decided to take our journey a little deeper and check out one of the most famous artificial reefs, the Spiegel Grove wreck site, where you can swim through the vessel and view the amazing variety of wildlife that has claimed it as their home. You’ll need an Advanced Open Water certification to check out Spiegel Grove, but since this wreck dive will be followed by a slightly shallower reef dive, your non-AOW certified dive buddies can tag along and dive the French Reef next—a great spot for catching a sight of larger sea life like Loggerhead turtles, reef sharks, and rays.
Unfortunately, one of us had a fin strap break while diving the reef, and lacking a back-up strap, we head right over to the largest dive shop in Key Largo, Divers Direct. Having been open for over 35 years, we know they’ll have just what we need and they did not disappoint. We end up leaving with much more than a fin strap, we got tons of new gear and even some helpful dive tips from the friendly and knowledgeable staff.
After some awe-inspiring dives, fun-filled education, and a bit of shopping, we meet back up, get cleaned up, and get ready to dig in to some delicious seafood at the award-winning and famous Fish House. Over dinner, we excitedly talk of our adventures—what we saw, what we learned, and our absolute favorite parts of the day. We’ve had our fill of seafood and key lime pie, when all of a sudden we realize just how tired we are, and just like the kids you see passed out in their strollers at amusement parks, the fun and food knocked us right out—but not before setting our alarms for tomorrow’s brand new day of diving!
Waking up in the morning, we’re refreshed and ready to get back in the water with eager anticipation for the new day of fun. Heading out for a light breakfast, we get going towards Horizon Divers for our first dive of the day. Those of us with Advanced Open Water certifications are still elated over yesterday’s Spiegel Grove dive and want more deep water wreck action, so we jump on the boat for the Double Dip Wreck Dive to check out the USCG Bibb and the USCGC Duane—two huge vessels very near each other. Those of us who are more comfortable in shallower water jump on the boat that will go to the Molasses Reef and the SS Benwood wreck. Each of our dives proved to be thoroughly amazing! Since these sites have had a bit of a break from humans recently, marine life is absolutely abundant. We all meet back up at the dive center, everyone beaming with smiles and full of stories of our own up-close wildlife experiences.
With so much to talk about between all these fantastic dives and nothing else scheduled for the day, we all scoot on over to Robbie’s to grab some much needed lunch. Beyond the deliciousness of the food, we end up having a blast too while we feed the huge tarpon fish that hang around the area and get up close and personal with a pod of pelicans. Gently digesting the phenomenal meal, we walk around the area and shop local artisan goods and souvenirs. “What’s next for today?” the youngest of our group asks. We all look at each other for ideas and inspiration, when someone finally says, “Let’s go paddleboarding!”
We head right over to Paddle the Florida Keys and make it just in time for their 2-hour sunset tour. Since not all of us have the best balance, some of us rented kayaks while others tried out stand up paddleboarding. Taking in this new aquatic perspective of the area, we actually find ourselves paddling alongside a family of manatees at one point. Back on land, we get ready for our last dinner of the trip at The Square Grouper for the perfect ending to our final full day.
Nice and early in the morning, we sip some coffee and have breakfast at the cozy and colorful Midway Cafe & Coffee Bar before heading to the Quiescence Dive Center where we’ve chartered a dive boat for the day. Since we’re choosing a private charter, we can depart for our dive whenever suits us, which makes for a much more relaxed experience. The boat takes us out to the Elbow where we explore the Hannah M Bell shipwreck (the locals call it Mikes wreck). On the way back in, we take the opportunity to stop at the City of Washington shipwreck which is a shallow dive at 25 feet. We leisurely cruise through this site, taking in every moment of this amazing underwater destination.
We’re not quite ready to say goodbye to the Keys yet, so we easily talk ourselves into one more meal before heading home. We get an outdoor table at Snappers Restaurant and eat slowly and talk much in an attempt to delay our departure just a bit longer. Inevitably, once we finish our meal and discuss every sea creature encounter we had throughout the journey, we drive back home with plans for our next adventure already buzzing excitedly around the car.
Keep a lookout for our next destination’s dive-tinerary!
Written by Amy Baldacci