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Dive into Key West

Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg Shipwreck

Photo by Don Kincaid at Florida Keys News Bureau

The Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg is the southernmost stop on the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail, a series of intentionally sunk vessels that runs the length of the Florida Keys chain.

If you’re an underwater explorer on a quest for a diverse snorkel and dive experience, look no further. The 220-mile island chain that makes up Key West and the Florida Keys is home to the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States and the third largest in the world, with more than 6,000 species of marine life roaming the waters. Attracting nearly 800,000 snorkelers and divers each year, the reef runs along the entire length of the Keys, and sits only five miles off the Key West shoreline. From shallow waters and coral formations to deep dives and shipwrecks, Key West is not only an island paradise, but an underwater paradise as well. Don’t waste a minute upon arrival—grab your snorkels and fins and dive into some of Key West’s best snorkel and scuba spots.
 

Key West Marine Park 
Operated by the non-profit organization Reef Relief, Key West Marine Park is just minutes away from Duval Street and is the perfect spot for beginning snorkelers and those looking for a quiet, leisurely beach outing. Created to protect the near-shore coral reef ecosystem, this public underwater park is home to abundant coral and seagrass life, serving as a safe haven for a variety of ocean critters such as parrot fish, grunts, queen angelfish and even the occasional barracuda.
TAKE NOTE: Buoyed areas in the water for swimmers and snorkelers are closed off to motorized vessels, making for a safe and stress-free day in the water.

       
Hawksbill sea turtle swimming. Photo by Alicia Earle Renner at AER Photography.com.
       

General Hoyt S. Vandenberg Shipwreck 
Only a few miles off the coast of Key West lies a shipwreck of monumental proportions. Sitting in nearly 150 feet of water and stretching the length of two football fields is the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg. Sunk in 2009, it’s the second largest ship in the world to be made into an artificial reef. Adventure seekers and diving enthusiasts come in droves to explore the wreck and make friends with the more than 100 species of fish who have made this popular dive spot their home. Intended for more experienced divers, the ship descends from 40 to 145 feet deep below the surface. Novice divers can dive at lower depths without going inside the shipwreck.
TAKE NOTE: The Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg is the southernmost stop on the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail, a series of intentionally sunk vessels that runs the length of the Florida Keys chain.

Ann Labriola’s Stargazer Underwater Sculpture
Ann Labriola took the concept of public art to a new level when she constructed a series of metal sculptures and sunk them in the shallow waters of the Atlantic in 1992. Today, her unique 200 foot-long creation—the “Stargazer Project”—is a short five miles southwest of Key West. At a depth of 22 feet, it’s easy for snorkelers and divers to admire the art surrounded by marine life.
TAKE NOTE: Who said you needed to wait until night to see the stars? The holes cut out on the tops of the metal sheets of the “Stargazer Project” are actually in patterns of star constellations.

Sand Key 
Travel seven miles southwest of Key West, and you’ll see an old lighthouse poking out of the water marking the enormously popular snorkel and dive spot known as Sand Key. Sitting atop a small patch of sand, Sand Key is surrounded by coral reefs.
TAKE NOTE: Sand Key earned its popularity among avid snorkelers and divers because of its reefs' varying depths and ability to cater to all skill levels.

Night Dive at Cayman Salvager Shipwreck 
Dating back to 1937 and intentionally sunk in 1985, the Cayman Salvager—a 185-foot Coast Guard buoy tender—is an exciting dive, especially at night. Captain’s Corner, one of the major dive centers located in downtown Key West, offers a twilight dive for $55 to $85 during the summer months.
TAKE NOTE: Some major marine life has been known to frequent this wreck. Be on the lookout for the reoccurring 200-pound Jewfish and six-foot long moray eel.

       
Reef scene at Looe Key. Photo by Alicia Earle Renner at AER Photography.com.        

Looe Key 
Just a short drive away from Key West is Looe Key, which offers some of the best opportunities to encounter rare marine life. The deep reef slopes down to more than 100 feet, but there are areas of the reef that are as shallow as 20 feet. Visitors to these waters can see angelfish, eagle rays, sea turtles and even a whale shark or a manta ray on a lucky day.
TAKE NOTE: Looe Key is home to a complete reef ecosystem, ranging from ridges formed by ancient fossilized corals to turtlegrass and large star and brain corals, attracting possibly one of the most varied combinations of marine species in the hemisphere.

 

Want to learn more about the Keys’ underwater ecosystem? Check out the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, operated by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in Key West. Explore a replica of the world’s only underwater ocean laboratory and learn about the ecosystem of the Keys through interactive exhibits and aquariums. Admission is free to the public. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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