Dubbed the Diving Capital of the World, Key Largo offers some of the best dive sites in the continental United States. Diving in Key Largo attracts thousands of divers each year to explore many diving options under its warm sub-tropical water.
Key Largo, just south of Miami, is a small island below the southern tip of the continental United States in Florida. It’s the first in the chain of the Florida Keys. It takes about 1.5 hours to get there from Miami. Of course, traffic can be notoriously bad, so plan for that. This is especially true if you’re traveling from Miami International or Fort Lauderdale airport in late afternoon.
Some of the places to stay in Key Largo, Florida
Key Largo offers many options for accommodations, ranging from the post Key Largo resorts to a modest Florida camping site. If you’re diving in Key Largo, you can rough it and camp in John Pennekamp State Park, next to some of Key Largo beaches. You can also choose some of the national Key Largo hotels, such as the Holiday Inn Express, the Marriott, the inexpensive Bayside Inn, and the Courtyard by Marriott Key Largo.
The Courtyard by Marriott Key Largo
It is a slightly outdated and mid-range option, but its approximate location to the main Key Largo Marina makes it one of the most desirable place to stay for divers. Many of the diving operation boats are based at this marina.
John Pennekamp State Park
This state park is a great location for Key Largo snorkeling.
Suffice it to say, camping in the heat when you have to do a couple of days’ diving in Key Largo is not a great idea. We ended up spending our third night with a friend who, sanely, spent her night at the Holiday Inn Express. But, of course, you can always come back to do your water activities here. John Pennekamp State Park has one of the best sites to do snorkeling in the Keys.
It was a nice hotel and the rooms were clean and comfortable, as you would expect from a Marriott property. The price tag was a bit crazy, however, about $250 a night. Definitely not our style, but it was Richard, Michael, and another friend, so it was OK, since they split the costs. Definitely consider them as one of the options for your Key Largo, Florida hotels.
The Bayside Inn is, shall we say, a little dated and in desperate need of an update. The beds themselves were perfectly comfortable and the bathrooms were clean. That’s enough to meet my standard any day. But the paint was chipping off the faded yellow walls! Two nights at the Bayside Inn set us back $270, about double what it was worth – even in Key Largo. I sort of recommend it, if you have to, but there are far better options in Key Largo besides this Norman Bates-ish property.
Key Largo Diving Sites
Looking for things to do in Key Largo? You can find a few Key Largo public beaches, which are mainly located in the John Pennekamp State Park. But the main draw to Key Largo tourist attractions is SCUBA Diving. Here are some of the best sites for Florida diving.
- Elbow Reef. From above, this shallow diving site looks like an elbow, with several famous ship wrecks such as City of Washington, Mike’s Wreck, and Tonnawonda Wrecks. This reef system is located in the northern part of Key Largo, and it is part of John Pennekamp State Park.
- Christ of the Abyss (the Grecian Rocks). The 8.5 feet (2.5 meter) high Statue of Jesus rests under 25 feet of water and is definitely a Key Largo landmark (watermark?). This is some of the highlights of Florida Keys diving. If you have the option to dive here, ask to go to the nearby Grecian Rocks, as they are all located within the same reef system.
- Molasses Reef. This reef system is considered to be one of the best preserved reef systems in Florida. The Coral Restoration Foundation (read below) have been putting in a tremendous amount of work to restore this reef system, and it has paid off. You can see many hard and soft corals, as well as many fish, invertebrates and SCUBA divers, as this happens to be a very popular spot to visit.
- Pickle Reef, French Reef. Key Largo’s shallow water provides ideal conditions for many corals and reef systems to thrive. They are great spots for scuba divers to view the diversity of corals and other small animals within the system. Look around for the spiny lobsters!
- Snapper Ledge. It is a highly recommended dive site, where you can find many yellowtail snappers (hence the site name).
- Carysfort Reef Lighthouse. Located about 6 miles off the Key Largo coastline, the 112 foot high lighthouse is one of the oldest in the United States, completed in 1852. The boat journey takes about one hour, but you will be rewarded with a four mile long trench with many species of corals and other underwater animals.
- USS Spiegel Grove. This 510-foot long ship wreck is the second-most visited landmark for diving in Key Largo after the Christ of the Abyss statue. USS Spiegel Grove was a huge Thomaston-class dock landing ship that was scuttled in 2002. This is a deep dive site, with the ship sitting in 60-130 foot deep water.
- Benwood Wreck. This 285 foot long wreck is one of the few off the coast of Key Largo that wasn’t sunk intentionally. This Norwegian merchant ship collided with another ship in 1942. It was attempting to avoid the non-existent German U-Boat that was rumored to patrol the area. This is a popular night dive site.
- USCG Bibb and USCG Duane. These two decommissioned US Coast Guard ships were intentionally sunk to provide an artificial reef for many species of corals. If you are certified to do so, you may be able to explore the openings and cabins. They now rest in 95-130 foot water.
Key Largo dive center: Rainbow Reef
There are several reputable dive shops on Key Largo, and Rainbow Reef is the largest one. Rainbow Reef is also a full-service PADI 5 star Instructor/Career Development Center.
We’ve used Rainbow Reef several times while diving in Key Largo and the experience is consistently very good. Safety and organization are their main goals. The boat captains are the leaders for each dive excursion and they are fairly strict (in a good way!) about enforcing the rules on the trip. They start by dividing divers into appropriate groups and boats, calling out dive rosters, conducting dive briefings, and then doing debriefings. Don’t forget to leave tips for the boat crew, as well as your dive masters, in the provided tip jar on the boats. They really deserve them because they do work pretty hard for you.
Rainbow Reef has several diving boats, varying in size and capacity. A typical day would have at least one, and sometimes all of them to go to different dive sites, depending on the dive groups and their needs. You are given a colored wrist band unique to a particular boat, so pay attention and clarify before boarding.
These people show you that they truly want (and will work to earn) your business. From the moment you get there, you’re taken care of. You are genuinely welcomed to the boat by staff who make it very clear they are there to make your experience great. They know how customer service can make or break an operation, and their commitment to customer service is clear. After the captain’s welcome, your dive guide will introduce him or herself and explain exactly what’s going to happen and ask you if there’s anything special you want to do.
Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF)
One of the Key Largo tourist attractions for SCUBA divers is the Coral Restoration Foundation – CRF. It is a great non-profit organization to volunteer with if you want to make a difference in our oceans. Their main objective is to restore the destroyed coral reefs off of Key Largo (and the Florida Keys in general). These corals have been depleted due to over-development during the late 70s and early 80s.
As a volunteer in the program, you’ll learn general information about corals, especially the two that are native – Elkhorn and Staghorn. You will also learn how to cultivate Staghorn Corals, which includes their fragmentation technique. They’ll show you how to carefully select them from the Coral Tree Nursery and bring them to the designated coral reefs. There you will “plant” them using non-toxic marine epoxy.
You must attend the practical workshop to learn to use the epoxy to plant them on the ocean floor. After your orientation, you’ll head to Molasses Reef to plant your tagged Staghorn Corals in their new homes.
If you do get a chance to visit South Florida, and wondering on what to do in Key Largo, diving here should be on your list. It’s a great place to dive. You will have a lot of fun with the variety of sites you can visit. So…
Pick a good operator like Rainbow Reef.
Find a nice place to stay.
If you can, volunteer with CRF.
You’ll have a great time!
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