Florida is well known for its golden sunshine, long beaches, sparkling seas, and laid back lifestyle. A popular holiday destination for all kinds of tourists, many head to the keys to lounge on the beach or sail expensive yachts.
But what is diving like in the Florida Keys?
If you want to dive into the waters of the Florida Keys the question isn’t where can you go - it’s where can’t you go. Dive spots in the Florida Keys are numerous, and there’s so much to see you can’t pack it into one visit.
And it isn’t just the scale that’s impressive. There’s a huge amount of diversity beneath the waves of the Keys; it’s hard to know where to look first.
Picking the best dive spots in the Florida Keys is an almost impossible task, but we’ve done what we can to pick the absolutely must-see areas. From shipwrecks to sharks, brain corals to barracudas, diving in the Florida Keys is an unforgettable experience.
The Best Diving Spots in the Florida Keys
The Florida Keys are absolutely packed full of some of the best diving spots to be found worldwide. Beneath the waves of the Keys are migrating fish, sunken ships, and a colorful array of living corals.
You could dive in almost anywhere and find yourself confronted with beauty. We’ve rounded up some of the spots that you absolutely don’t want to miss.
The gorgeous Islamorada is one of the most popular dive spots in the US. It has areas suitable for novices, exciting dives for those with more experience, reefs, wildlife and shipwrecks.
If you’re heading to Islamorada, the best place to start is the Hen and Chickens reef. A shallow reef, it got its name because the unusual structure seen from above looks slightly like a mother hen surrounded by her chicks.
It isn’t a difficult dive, but it is a breathtaking one. Purple sea fans and mounds of star corals contribute to the unusual topography, where schools of brightly colored fish dart in and out of view.
Davis’ Ledge sits just southeast of Hen and Chickens, and is another Islamorada site that deserves a visit. Visitors dive to see the lucky Buddha statue - it’s said that rubbing his belly can bring you fertility. Even if that doesn’t work, the nurse sharks and angelfish make the trip worth it.
Advanced divers are recommended to take a look at the Eagle Wreck. Built on to a purposely sunk Dutch Freighter, the layers of coral that cling to the ship walls are fascinating. Watch out for barracuda and bull sharks, both of which are known for passing through.
And if Eagle Wreck wasn’t enough, the Alligator Reef finishes off an incredible trip around Islamorada. Having run aground in the reefs, the USS Alligator was sunk to prevent pirates from pillaging it.
Now it forms the center of a wonderful dive site, suitable for beginner divers. The incredible range of fish that swim through, combined with the corals and ship remains, make this one of the best dive spots in Florida.
A laid back cluster of islands in the center of the Keys, Marathon is a popular spot for holidaymakers of all sorts. Divers will be particularly enchanted with what Marathon has to offer.
Used by the Florida Power and Cable Company to research lightning strikes, the Thunderbolt is possibly the most impressive shipwreck that the Keys have to offer. Standing upright on the ocean floor, the medium to strong currents makes this dive only suitable for advanced divers. It’s worth the effort.
Corals and sponges are thick on the walls of the shipwreck, and the boat itself is hauntingly beautiful. Sunk with the aim of becoming a dive spot, the clusters of angelfish and jack shows it didn’t sink in vain. Be sure to keep an eye out for sharks.
The iconic Sombrero Key Light marks the Sombrero Reef, a unique and unmissable spot in Marathon. Novice and advanced divers can both head to enjoy the diverse range of coral on view.
From brain corals to finger corals, populated with schools of bright tropical fish, there’s much to see at Sombrero Reef. Not least the light itself, which was built during the Civil War and remained operational until a few years ago.
A mile away from the Thunderbolt is the ominously named Coffins Patch. Don’t let the name turn you away - there’s a chance you may find gold and silver coins left behind by a Spanish galleon.
Even if the treasure hunting doesn’t work out, there’s more than enough wildlife in Coffins Patch to make the trip worth it. Staghorn and fire corals are just part of this gorgeous landscape made up of six reefs. Suitable for novice and advanced divers, good visibility makes this a picture perfect destination.
If you’re a fan of underwater photography, Marathon is also where you find the Delta Shoal. Home to the Barge and the Ivory wreck, it’s an accessible dive spot, where colorful fish can be found against the dramatic coral-covered shipwrecks.
Key Largo is well known as being one of the greatest diving destinations in the world. If you’re visiting the Keys for diving, there are several spots in Key Largo that are unmissable. The shipwrecks alone make it an incredible diving center.
If you’re interested in seeing something a bit different, then Christ of the Abyss should be at the top of your “must-visit” list. This 8.5-foot tall bronze statue of Jesus, arms reaching upwards, was sunk in 1965 to a depth of 25 feet.
Eerily beautiful, it’s one of the most recognizable dive spots in the keys. Even novice divers will have a chance to appreciate Christ of the Abyss.
Another spot novice divers will enjoy in Key Largo is the Molasses Reef. The extensive site is incredibly popular, with various named areas offering a different experience. Molasses Reef is vast, and there are so many places to visit you could spend the entire trip trying to see everything.
The clear waters are a gorgeous teal blue, and provide a wonderful visibility. The wildlife here is also spectacular. Look out for sea turtles, and reef sharks. If you’re particularly lucky, you may even see a Goliath grouper. These giant fish are harmless, but critically endangered. Molasses Reef is a protected area, so dive with care.
There are many shipwrecks in the Keys, but one of the most incredible is the USS Spiegel Grove. Sunk on purpose to form a dive site, this immense wreck is suitable for advanced divers only.
Measuring 510-feet long and 84-feet wide, many who’ve visited have said it’s impossible to fully explore in just one trip. Passages have been widened through the wreck, allowing for some unusual and exciting explorations.
Make sure to check out the American flag. When the tide hits right, it flutters magnificently - and makes for a spectacular picture.
The USS Spiegel isn’t the only wreck worth seeing in Key Largo - USS Duane and Bibb are also worth a visit. The guard coast cutters were the first ships to be purposely sunk in the Keys to form an artificial reef.
The Duane sits upright on the floor, an impressive structure that’s 120-feet long. The Bibb is on its side, providing a strangely different experience. Located in open water, stronger currents are expected, and the dive is only suitable for those with experience.
The stronger currents have their advantages - some large marine creatures pass through with the water. Look out for barracudas, bull sharks, and even whale sharks.
Big Pine Key and Lower Keys
Islamorada, Marathon, and Key Largo are the most widely talked about dive spots in the Florida Keys, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only places worth visiting.
Looe Key, just 5 miles off the coast of Big Pine Key, has vibrant marine life among the shallow depths and spur and groove formation. Named after a frigate that sank in the 1700s, Looe Key is abundant with marine life, including rays and fan coral.
The wonderful visibility makes it a perfect spot for photos, and you can even hope to catch a glimpse of the elusive Goliath grouper. Novice divers can enjoy the shallow depths, with the clear seas stretching around.
The southernmost area of the Florida Keys, Key West is home to a few notable diving spots.
One of the most incredible wrecks in Florida, the USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg is a massive 524-foot long. For advanced divers only, it was quite recently sunk, only making its way to the ocean floor in 2009.
In a few years, however, marine life has flocked to the sunken sides, decorating the ship with corals and sponges. A massive ship in its prime, it now presents a dive site full of strange places to explore. From elevator shafts to stairwells, divers will love experiencing a ship from a different perspective.
A slightly easier dive, but still a wonderful experience, is Joe’s Tug. Not actually a tug boat as the name would have you believe, instead a sunken shrimp boat found 7 miles south of Key West. The clear seas offer fantastic visibility, making it a great place for novice divers to get some photos.
What You Will See In The Florida Keys
One of the most compelling reasons to come to the Florida Keys is to see the vast array of corals. Florida is home to the only coral reefs to be found in mainland America, and they have some breathtaking species.
From the unusual bulbous shape of the aptly-named brain coral, to the elegantly swaying gorgonian corals. Among the corals, the reefs and shipwrecks are thick with sponges, such as the giant barrel sponge.
In the Florida Keys, you can really experience the color and beauty of the coral reefs. The views are breathtaking, as a whole new underwater landscape opens up before your eyes. Vibrant tones and unusual shapes come together to form a picture that’s almost otherworldly.
Corals aren’t the only reason to visit the Keys (although they are a good one). Diving in the Florida Keys will also introduce you to a range of marine species. Tiny, vivid fish dart alongside lumbering beasts of the deep, with different spots offering you a new host of creatures to discover.
The range of marine life that can be found in the Keys is astounding. Angelfish, and parrotfish have made themselves a home at the Keys. Eels can be found nestling in the sand alongside well camouflaged stingrays.
Larger rays dance elegantly through the currents that bring with them an array of sharks. Nurse and reef sharks are most common, but keep an eye out for bull sharks.
Gentle creatures like the green sea turtle and the West Indian manatee also move playfully through the waters of the Florida Keys. Some of the most unusual sea creatures around can also be spotted by lucky divers in Florida - stay alert for the sawfish, and the Goliath grouper.
There’s also more than a few shipwrecks. Some were purposely sunk, creating an artificial reef to explore. Others were lost to the currents.
Now, they’re scattered across the seafloor, creating a unique underwater landscape. The shipwrecks are home to many of the corals and sea creatures, forming a stunning backdrop for some underwater photography.
Something that all divers should look out for is the lionfish. Although a spectacularly attractive creature, with distinctive red and white stripes, the lionfish is an invasive species. In some areas of Florida, you can actually be paid for scooping these out of the water.
In true Floridian style, you can also see some unexpected treasures when diving in the Keys. Keep an eye out for the bronze Jesus statue, and the lucky Buddha.
Types of Risks
One of the major risks to be aware of when diving in the Florida Keys actually comes from the marine life itself. Bright fire corals are responsible for many stings, as they’re brushed up against by eager divers. They aren’t a threat, but they can be painful. Keep an eye out as well for the fire sponge.
Some marine life presents more of a danger. Stay alert for the Portuguese Man O’ War jellyfish, which can be found in these waters. A sting can be fatal.
Sharks are also found in the Florida Keys, although for the most part they will leave you alone. When approached, they can become aggressive.
When diving in the Florida Keys, always be alert to the dangers that the wildlife presents. However, the best way to behave is to treat the area with respect. Avoid interacting with marine life, and don’t disturb the corals. In turn, you will keep yourself safe.
The Florida Keys is a relatively safe place to dive, but always stay aware of the weather forecast. Hurricane season can be devastating, and strong storms even far away can have a serious effect on the currents of the Keys. If you plan on heading out during the height of hurricane seasons, keep yourself up to date with the travel advice.
Everything Else You Should Know About Diving in the Florida Keys
Many parts of the Florida Keys are marine protected areas. They’re home to sea life that often borders on extinction, and endangered and critically endangered species pass through. If you plan on diving, do so with care. Leave nothing behind but ripples.
The water surrounding the Florida Keys is often crystal clear, so packing a waterproof camera is a must. The myriad shipwrecks make perfect backdrops for the bright corals and the jewel toned fish.
There is no shore diving in the Florida Keys - all the best destinations have to be reached by boat. However, boat trips are frequent as diving is such a popular hobby.
For reefs like this, it’s definitely worth any extra effort. Diving in the Florida Keys is a real passion, so you shouldn’t struggle to find schools and companies to take you out.
Weather in the Florida Keys is good year round, so diving happens from January through to December. It’s a bit chiller in the winter months, but nothing more than most wetsuits can handle.
In fact, March through May can be one of the best times to go. The water might have a bite of cold, but there are fewer crowds to contend with.
Watch out for hurricane season as well. Hurricane season typically occurs between July and November, with the most activity taking place between August and September.
The Florida Keys are so full of diving spots that there’s bound to be something for everyone to enjoy. From novices to advanced divers, the incredible shipwrecks, corals, and wildlife can be found at a number of depths. Even snorkelers will have the opportunity to enjoy some of the most breathtaking dive spots in America.
Diving in the Florida Keys is fantastic, and it’s almost impossible to see everything in just one trip. The best advice is to plan what you want to see beforehand, so you don’t miss out!