Exploring the Undersea World in the Upper Keys

By Karen Rubin

The world beneath the sea is more vast than the land on the surface, and though it has beckoned a special kind of explorer for hundreds, even thousands, of years, this “underworld” is largely unknown and unexplored.

A highlight of snorkeling in the Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is seeing Christ of the Deep, one of the most photographed underwater attractions in the world (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The most famous explorer was Jacques Cousteau, who popularized and inspired many to pursue scuba diving in much the same way that Christopher Columbus inspired generations of explorers.

I hadn’t appreciated how long man has quested to explore the depths of the sea until I visited the History of Diving Museum, in Islamorada in the Florida Keys.

This is a relatively new museum that reflects the life-long passion in scuba diving of its founders, Drs. Joe and Sally Bauer, who hold one of the world’s largest collections of historic diving equipment and research documents.

During their careers (Joseph was a specialist in General, Laser and Colorectal Surgery, and Sally an Emergency Medicine physician), the Bauers pursued avocations as Marine Biologists, SCUBA Divers and as Diving Historians. Their passion was to learn the evolution and history of man’s entry into the sea, and to share this largely untold story with others. Their focus and expertise is on the early history of diving and technology, prior to the development of SCUBA. They were founding members of the International Historical Diving Society of both the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Bauers amassed their collection of Diving Helmets, hand-operated air pumps, armored suits, lights and other accessory gear, plus memorabilia, prints, photographs, books, film and video over the past 40 years, gathered in more than 30 countries.

At the History of Diving Museum, you realize that the quest to explore the Undersea World is centuries old (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

I find the museum’s Timeline of Diving Gallery, eye-opening – there are artifacts and materials that cover more than 3,000 years of diving history from naked, breath holding pearl divers through the early development of diving machines, the diving helmet and up to modern day SCUBA. You can climb inside a replica of the diving bell invented by Edmond Halley, of Comet fame, in the 1690 (it looks like an upside down wooden barrel with a cutout).

Even today’s divers are surprised to learn that the regulator was invented nearly 200 years ago. Most of us who are new to these ideas will gain new appreciation into what the introduction of helium, which allowed divers to go deeper and longer.

A whole room is dedicated to the “Origins of the Mark V” helmet, which was the standard for military diving. The 40 that are on view are worth more than $1 million, alone. (In Key Largo, a scuba diving outfit lets you dive with a Mark V helmet.)

“Into the Abyss,” offers an assortment of spectacular and unique diving armor and authentic apparatus to take man, the air-breathing land-dweller, down underwater into the deep sea – and to bring him safely back again.

There are “fun stops” scattered throughout the Museum for kids to engage in interactive play and to experience hands-on some of these Wonderful Diving Machines.

Helmets from 24 different nations on display at the History of Diving Museum show the universality of diving (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The Bauers are particularly proud of an entire room, “Parade of Nations,” which demonstrates the universality of diving. On display are the some of the best diving creations from 24 nations, side by side in an interactive exhibit.

(The History of Diving Museum, 82990 Overseas Highway, at MM 83 (bayside), Islamorada, FL 33036, 305-664-9737, info@divingmuseum.org,www.DivingMuseum.org.)

All charged up from our visit to the History of Diving Museum, we get our own chance to explore the marine world, albeit less dramatically than with scuba, snorkeling at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the star attraction in “Key Largo” (made famous by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and you can still see the African Queen, the actual boat Bogart skippered in that movie).

Named for a Miami newspaper editor who championed local environmental preservation, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was the first underwater preserve in the U.S.

Dramatic sunsets are par for the course in the Florida Keys (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Located at MM 102.5, near the upper boundary of the Florida Keys, it offers a delightful variety of water-related activities including scuba, snorkeling (which we enjoy thoroughly) and glass-bottom boat excursions to the coral reef. These are offered by the state concession, and we were impressed by the quality and efficiency of the operations; they also are less expensive than the plethora of commercial operators, but these offer more extensive trips and even can arrange underwater weddings.

The snorkeling trip, offered aboard two boats, The Encounter and the Dolphin, is 2 1/2 hours, including about 11/2 hours of water time depending on the location. Departures are 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. Adult rates are $29.95; child under 18 are $24.95. Masks and fins can be rented for $2 each and you get to keep the $5 snorkel.

I found the park’s excursion to be very professionally run, as good as the commercial snorkeling trips I have taken (though on this day, we didn’t go to the most spectacular of underwater attractions, the “Christ of the Deep”. This was because of the strength of the underwater currents on that day, and probably the commercial operators would not have gone either. You can ask the captain to go there, and if the conditions allow, they will do their best to comply.)

The scuba trip is aboard the Reef Adventures, a 35-passenger boat that departs daily at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. for two-tank dive trips to two area sites. Participants must be certified divers.

The sun melts into the Gulf of Mexico (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, covering about 2,800 sq. nautical miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamp, on both sides of the Keys island chain, encompassing waters of Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

A thrilling highlight of the undersea park adjacent waters, all incorporated in the marine sanctuary, is the dramatically set, nine-foot-high “Christ of the Deep.” This is a 4,000-pound bronze statue installed as an underwater shrine that can be appreciated by snorkelers.

Created by Italian sculptor Guido Galletti, the statue stands on a 20-ton concrete base in 25 feet of water. A duplicate of the “Christ of the Abyss” situated in 50 feet of water off the coast of Italy, the “Christ of the Deep” was a gift to the Underwater Society of America from industrialist and undersea sportsman Egidi Cressi. It has become one of the most photographed underwater sites in the world and is a popular spot for underwater weddings.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is a destination in itself, offering camping, swimming (Canon Beach features remnants of an early Spanish shipwreck 100 feet offshore), fishing, boating and picnicking (MM 102.5, PO Box 487, Key Largo, FL 33037; for camping reservations, 305-451-1202 or 800-326-3521; for reservations on boat tours, 305-451-1621; for info, 305-451-6300, www.pennekamppark.com).

More serious scuba divers can explore the 510-foot Spiegel Grove. A retired U.S. Navy Landing Ship Dock,this is one of the largest ships ever intentionally sunk to create an artificial reef. An excellent multilevel dive, the huge ship attracts legions of fish and other marine life. The ship can be viewed by scuba divers, snorkelers and even glass-bottom boat patrons. The Spiegel Grove is positioned about six miles off Key Largo in 130 feet of water. Several mooring buoys provide convenient tie-off points for boaters.

Sunset over the Gulf of Mexico from the Mile Marker 88 restaurant (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Experienced scuba divers also can investigate two vintage sister Coast Guard cutters purposely sunk off Key Largo in 1987 to serve as artificial reefs. Positioned just south of Molasses Reef, the 327-foot vessels rest on white sand in 120 feet of water. (Diving either of the two wrecks is not for novices and should be attempted only with a Keys-based dive-charter operator.)

A sunken Spanish galleon of 1733 is the focus of the San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve off Islamorada. Little remains of the underwater wreck after nearly 275 years, but it continues to be a favorite of snorkelers and divers, and curators of the site have added authentic touches, including seven concrete cannon replicas and an 18th-century ship’s anchor.

Dove Creek Lodge

Kayaking at the Dove Lodge(© 2009 Karen Rubin).

A superb hub for our fishing/snorkeling/kayaking encounter is the Dove Creek Lodge (MM 94.5), nestled on a small cove that opens up to the ocean.

Dove Creek Lodge is a fisherman’s camp but rather than stark cabin-style accommodations you might expect, it offers fine suites, with classy furnishings (not the rustic stuff), with complete living room and kitchen, and charming resort-style amenities, including a waterfront with kayaks that you can borrow, a small pool, a small sand beach (they stock with shells for the children to find), and a charming lounge and terrace area where each morning a lovely breakfast buffet is offered.

You can sit at a desk in the lounge and find all the tools you need to make your lures (at breakfast, a guide comes in to tie flies). There is also a library of DVDs and board games, and make show movies and make popcorn – enough to keep you amused and content even if the weather doesn’t accommodate.

The lodge provides gear lockers to store fishing, boating, diving or other gear and a fish cleaning station at the marina. From the Dove Creek Lodge, you can join a fishing charter.

Dove Creek lodge is small, personalized (a front desk concierge is wonderfully helpful), homey. Lovely, laid back, a real retreat without being isolated in the outback, this is a fabulous place for families or couples (they do destination weddings) even if not everyone enjoys the pleasures of fishing.

Dramatic weather while kayaking at the Dove Creek Lodge, Key Largo (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

One and two-bedroom suites have a mini fridge, telephone, two televisions, high speed internet access, in-room safe, screened in porch, coffee maker, hair dryer’ two-bedroom suites. Deluxe Luxury Suite and Luxury Suite have a full kitchen and dining area, 2 telephones, 3 televisions, high speed internet access, in-room safe, private screened in patio, hair dryers, 2 separate full bathrooms (the Deluxe suite even has an 8-foot pool table, which doubles as a board-room table).

Dove Creek Lodge sits next to Snapper’s Waterfront Saloon and Restaurant, which has the same owner and is home of the famous Turtle Club (a local favorite) with live entertainment, offering a delightful waterfront dining experience, with fish so fresh, it basically comes in from the dock (www.snapperskeylargo.com).

Look for special deals online, like a “Stay and Play weekend” where you stay for Friday and Saturday and don’t check out until 4 p.m. on Sunday, or summer rates starting at $129; Scuba Diving Package, with three-nights in the two-bedroom suite, daily continental breakfast, two days of two tank dives including tanks and weights, unlimited glassbottom kayak usage ($525 pp/based on four persons per suite); a Snorkeling Package; and a Honeymoon/Anniversary Package (Dove Creek Lodge, 147 Seaside Ave, Key Largo, FL , 305-852-6200,www.dovecreeklodge.com).

Our snorkeling experience at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was the end of our journey through the Florida Keys. It had begun in Key West, with a flight from Fort Myers on a small (colorfully painted with Hemingway’s image) Key West Express plane operated by Cape Air (they also operate from Cape Cod to Nantucket), where we met our group and traveled by van up the Florida Keys, and back to Miami International Airport for the return trip home.

The tranquil ocean view is the appetizer at Lazy Days restaurant, Islamorada, MM 79.9 (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

You could replicate this trip by renting a vehicle in Key West and returning it at Miami International.

Alternatively, you could rent a vehicle at Miami International, and then travel south, stopping midway at Marathon for a one or two night stay, and then going down to Key West for a two or three night stay, and then on the return, staying over at Key Largo for a one, two or three-night stay, returning to Miami International.

To help you plan your visit, contact the Florida Keys & Key West Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 1147, Key West FL 33041, 800-FLA-KEYS (800-275-5397), www.fla-keys.com.

See other stories on the Florida Keys:



Monday, 07 September, 2009

© 2009 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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