A first time in Key Largo for a diver from California, plus lots of key lime pie, and a surprise encounter with a goddess.

Key Largo, May 21-29, 2004

I had read about diving the Florida Keys for many years, but our travels had not yet taken us in that direction. Our friends, Marc and Teresa, who spent their honeymoon on Key Largo two years ago, were putting together a group for a return trip on their anniversary, so we signed up. Frequent flier miles, coupled with a package deal with Sea Dwellers Dive Shop and the Holiday Inn, made it a relatively cheap vacation, even from the west coast.

Unfortunately two weeks before we left, Deborah was thrown from a horse, broke her collarbone and a couple of ribs, so I was diving without my favorite buddy. I think it was Ian Fleming who wrote, "Horses are dangerous on both ends and uncomfortable in the middle!"

Friday morning: Our buddy Margaret graciously took us to LAX for our 9:15 am non-stop flight to Miami on American Airlines. It was an uneventful flight... we sure like the extra legroom in coach on American. We picked up our rental car at the airport in Miami and headed out into Friday night, stop-and-go, rush hour traffic at about 6:15 pm. Once we got to the turnpike and south a ways, traffic opened up. Highway 1 into the keys is a two-lane road, but not bad. We made good time and rolled into Key Largo about 7:45, checked in to the Holiday Inn, ate dinner (prime rib buffet) at the hotel, and I sampled my first piece of key lime pie for dessert. Early to bed...for tomorrow I dive.

Saturday: We took advantage of the included buffet breakfast at the hotel and then walked across the highway to the Sea Dwellers Dive Shop to show my C-card and sign a waiver for the afternoon dive boat. Teresa, Marc, Matthew, and Luciana had also arrived late last night, with the rest of the group coming in later. We decided to pay a small premium and switch our "parking lot view" room to "marina view" to be closer to the water. (While settling in to our new room, we heard loud sounds coming from the adjacent room; a woman was shouting, "please...please...please..." Deborah was ready to call the cops until we realized what was going on! Marc and Teresa, who are on the other side, said the same neighbors had partied the previous night until 4 am! Better living through chemicals? Welcome to the Keys.)

Marina View

We had arrived at a bad time for diving the Keys. A high-pressure ridge had been sitting off Bermuda for the past two months, generating strong, easterly winds of 20+ knots and 6-8 foot seas outside the reefs. Diving had either been bad or non-existent for a while, but the weather forecast said the winds were supposed to abate this week and we had our fingers crossed. It was blowing pretty hard this morning with the huge American flag in front of the Ramada Inn next door standing full and proud.

We met at the boat, the Sea Dweller III, docked right next to the hotel, for the afternoon dive trip at 12:45 pm. It was a full boat with two OW classes on board. We donned our wetsuits as the boat navigated the rough water and narrow channels out to a nearby reef. A nice big boat with lots of shade, the SD III holds ~30 divers plus three crewmembers. She has twin ladders on the stern that can be walked up with fins on. When you are on the swim step, the crew removes your tank, you sit down to take off your fins, and then walk back to your station for a fresh tank; this is unlike any other operation we've ever dived with; certainly easier than trying to navigate across the deck in a pitching sea with a tank on your back. Weights are issued every day, so you must put together a weigh belt each time you go out on the boat. Tanks are Al-80's filled to over 3000 PSI, but larger or smaller tanks can be reserved. Sea Dwellers doesn't pump Nitrox, but you can make arrangements to bring your own tanks. There are no set limits on diving other than maximum one-hour dives or 500 PSI left in your tank at the end of the dive. Buddy diving was encouraged, but not strictly enforced. Facilities for cameras are fairly limited, but they did have a freshwater rinse tank for cameras and put a second one on the boat when the number of cameras warranted. The diving is very much like off California boats: giant stride off the boat, go that way into the current, and navigate back to the boat at the end of the dive, but warmer, much warmer. Nice crew.

First dive was at "Pillar Coral": 25 foot max, water temperature 80 degrees F. The winds have died a little, but because it was an afternoon dive the seas on the outside were a little too much and they chose a couple of easy sites within the reef that are more protected. There's lots of pillar coral here - duh! - thousands of sea fans, lots of trumpet fish, grunts, and misc. reef fish. Lu found one flamingo tongue for me.

After a very brief surface interval, we moved a short distance to "Pickles." Again, only about 25 feet deep with sand channels between low reefs covered in sea fans. We found one hogfish and a scrawled filefish among the myriad grunts.

Dinner at Coconuts...way too loud for these old folks, but the food was good. I tried the conch chowder, conch fritters, and, of course, some more key lime pie. The horny neighbors are gone; thank God or the Holiday Inn, for that.

Sunday: We ate the breakfast buffet at the Holiday Inn and I met the rest of the crew (Teresa/Marc, Lu, Lori, Maurizio, Brad, Matthew, Mark, Gary, John, Joe, Sue and Don) for the 9 am boat. The wind was about the same as it was on Saturday and the ocean was still rough, with 3-4 seas inside the reef. There was lots of surge on the bottom and visibility sucked with a lot of sand in the water column, but it was wet which is a whole lot better than dry!

Wreck of the Benwood: a WWII British freighter that collided with another boat running without lights and was run aground in shallow water where she sank. She was used as target practice by the Navy and is pretty busted up, but is still a very nice wreck with lots of fish, Nassau groupers, black groupers, schools of grunts, schools of goatfish, a few angels, parrotfish, juvenile fish of all kinds, et al. This must be a really nice dive in good visibility.

French Reef is a shallow, relatively high-relief reef with some swim-throughs under the coral. There were several medium size barracuda on this reef that were not shy at all. I found a black grouper being cleaned, and a southern stingray was disturbed by the divers and sailed over the reef. I attempted a picture of a pale blue parrotfish but the color captured by the camera just doesn't do justice to the beautiful, soft blue that I saw on the reef.

We drove down the highway to Islamorada (eye-la-more-AH-duh) to eat dinner at the Islamorada Fish Company. The weather in the Keys was pleasant, with the east wind blowing, partly cloudy skies, and maximum daytime temperatures in the mid 80's. Just too bad the wind was so strong, hurting the diving. On our way down the highway, we saw the big conch, the big angelfish, and, of course, the big lobster! The Keys are weird!

Monday: Our group had the boat pretty much to ourselves with only four other divers. The ocean conditions are vastly improved and so is visibility on the reefs. We did two more shallow dives this morning.

Snapper Ledge: aptly named reef with more snappers, grunts, and goatfish than I've ever seen in one place. Visibility was much better than it has been so far, with lots less sand and particulates in the water. There are lots of other species here too. I spent some of the dive watching a bunch of neon gobies on a large brain coral cleaning a parrotfish.

Pickles: we were moored near the wreck with the pickle barrels from which this site gets its name. The wreck was carrying pickle barrels full of cement when she went down. The barrels have all rotted away, but the concrete "barrels" are still there. This place is "sea fan city;" they're everywhere. I spotted a school of eight midnight parrotfish, but couldn't get close enough for a picture. Lots of juvenile barracuda hovered over the reef watching for some fish to limp. If you wave your hand in the water, the barries are curious enough to swim over to you for a closer look. Other divers reported finding a couple of nurse sharks under the ledges near the wreck and one big green moray.

Dinner at Calypso's with some of the group, a local's hangout; she-crab soup to die for! (cash only, no credit cards).

Tuesday: The winds had died and the water was flat! This was the best weather they've had in the Keys for the past two months. Hurrah! The boat left the dock a little early this morning, at 8:30.

Spiegel Grove: Finally, we got to do the famous wreck of the Spiegel Grove. She was sunk as a huge artificial reef two years ago and is very popular dive spot. The wreck is over 500 feet long and lies on its port side in one hundred thirty five feet of water to the sand. To complicate what is a deep dive, the current is usually strong here. The tanks supplied for this dive were overfilled to 3500 PSI. The dive boat used a "granny line" to the mooring line on the wreck and asked divers to go no deeper than 100 feet and to return to the mooring line after no more than twenty minutes on the wreck. I should have left the camera on the boat for this dive; lots of bubbles stirred up in the current caused too much backscatter for any good pictures, plus visibility wasn't all that good. We were moored amid ships and were able to see the anti-aircraft guns and look into the open hatches on the deck. A few large jacks cruised the wreck and a school of baitfish exploded past us, getting out of the way of some unseen predator.

Racetrack: An unmoored dive spot consisting of a very pretty, shallow reef surrounded by a sandy "racetrack." There are lots of soft and hard coral with lot of varied species of fish. Lori found three little nudibranchs on a sea fan! I looked at about a zillion other sea fans and didn't find any more. Alan Shepard helped with the identification: Tritonia hamnerorum.

Dinner, just the two of us, a romantic sunset dinner at the Bayside Grill, more great seafood and another slice of key lime pie!

Wednesday: Today was even better than yesterday, a beautiful day in the Keys with light breezes, clear skies, and temperatures in the mid eighties.

Spiegel Grove: Flat seas, no current and visibility of about 75 feet, great conditions for a repeat of this wreck dive. We talked the captain into letting us have a little more time on the wreck since we all carry dive computers. The mooring we picked up was on the stern of the ship this time and we dropped down on the starboard propeller before working our way around to the helicopter pad and the rear crane. An amazing amount of growth has attached itself to the wreck in the two years since she was placed here. The ascent up the mooring line at the end of the dive was a piece of cake with the great visibility and no current. I can now say, "I dove the Grove!"

Mark Koch finished his advanced open water certification on this dive! Way to go, Mark. "Make way, advanced diver coming through!"

Freighter Reef: a shallow, low reef...how many reefs are named after the wrecks of ships? There were fewer fish on this site, but lots of stuff to look at. I spotted a parrotfish lying on the bottom and went over to investigate. The fish swam off as I approached and I saw why it was there; underneath were at least three cleaning shrimp in a corkscrew anemone. The parrotfish was getting as close to the bottom as it could to get cleaned of parasites and detritus. Under the corkscrew anemone I spotted the red and white striped antennae of a pistol shrimp, but he wouldn't come out to get his picture taken.

As I was cruising the reef, Luciana came and pulled my fin, motioning for me to follow her. We swam a few yards before she pointed at the bottom to something small. OMG! IT'S A RED-TIPPED SEA GODDESS NUDIBRANCH! Lori had found it and Lu was kind enough to come get me. Now, I'm a nudibranch aficionado, but this one is really special. The goddess is an alien species in Florida, probably brought to these parts in the bilge of a freighter via the Panama Canal from its native eastern Pacific. It has been reported in Biscayne Bay, north of the Keys. Needless to say, I was thrilled and spent the rest of the dive taking image after image after image just to make sure I had a good picture to take home.

Red-tipped sea goddess (Glossodoris sedna)

This was Marc's birthday. The group reserved a large table on the dock at Calypso's for a celebratory dinner. I ordered some of their wonderful she-crab soup, followed by the crab stuffed dorado; excellent! Teresa brought key lime pies for the group.

Thursday: The winds had died completely and it was beginning to get warm in the Keys. The ocean was flat and there were no clouds in the sky. It was another fantastic day for diving.

Duane: a minesweeper (correction: Coast Guard cutter) that was put down as an artificial reef in the 80's. She's upright on the sand at 125 feet with the main deck at 100 feet. We had great conditions, no current and good visibility. I was the first diver in the water, as I wanted to be first on the wreck with my camera. One of the dive masters went in with his, gasp, film camera! There were many, many big barracuda stationed above the wreck; a school of jacks breezed through, scattering the smaller fish. I looked down on the sand off the port side of the wreck and spied a six-foot bull shark cruising towards the stern. It was too far away for me to get close, but I could see the dive master had gone down to try and get a picture, but the shark wasn't having anything to do with him. I took some wide-angle shots of the wreck itself and some of the other divers in our group. With no current, I was able to do a blue water safety stop just below the boat. I thoroughly enjoyed this most excellent wreck dive.

Molasses Reef, "winch hole": This probably the most heavily dived reef off of Key Largo. There were a dozen boats scattered over the many moorings on this large site. I dropped in and stayed under the boat for most of the dive until, alas, my hour was up and it was time to return to the boat, climb the ladder and put away my gear, not a bad dive to finish up the trip.

The group met at Sundowners for a final meal together and to watch the sunset. I enjoyed scallops and shrimp with crab stuffing. Would you believe I didn't have room for any key lime pie?

Friday: We drove down the Overseas Highway to mile marker 49 in Marathon to find Keys Fishery and order their world famous lobster Ruben sandwiches. Keys Fishery will Fed Ex one to you anywhere in the US! On the way, we passed the really big dolphin.

Diving in the Keys was, in many ways, very different from what I had pictured it to be. The dives were a little more challenging on the deep wrecks and much less challenging on the shallow dives. Surface intervals between dives were very short; the dive sites are relatively close together and the second dives are usually so shallow that you could consider your second dive to be an hour-long safety stop. The reefs were not as colorful as I had thought they would be, but are certainly alive with large numbers and varieties of tropical fish species. I've never seen so many sea fans...nor eaten so much key lime pie! Maybe I'll order myself one of them manatee mailboxes and stick it in my front yard.

To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart, "We'll always have Key Largo."

Camera and stuff: I used an Olympus C5050 in a PT-015 housing with a single Ikelite DS-125 strobe and manual controller. For wide angle and macro, I have Olympus WAL and macro lens adapters. A few of the photos were cropped or slightly modified with Photoshop 7.0, but most are right out of the camera. I was a little disappointed in the amount of backscatter that I encountered, but I do have some keepers...and the goddess!

Key lime pie.

Key limes are also known as Mexican or West Indian limes. If you can't find them in your area, substitute bottled Key lime juice. We've tried several different brands in our test kitchens, and prefer the taste of Manhattan.* This recipe is modified from the classic one found on many condensed milk and Key lime juice labels; we've added additional lime juice for more tartness. Active time: 20 min Start to finish: 10 hr (includes chilling) For crust 1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs from 9 (2 1/4-inch by 4 3/4-inch) crackers 2 tablespoons sugar 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted For filling 1 (14-oz) can sweetened condensed milk 4 large egg yolks 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh or bottled Key lime juice (if using bottled, preferably Manhattan brand) For topping 3/4 cup chilled heavy cream Make crust: Preheat oven to 350F. Stir together graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and butter in a bowl with a fork until combined well, then press mixture evenly onto bottom and up side of a 9-inch (4-cup) glass pie plate. Bake crust in middle of oven 10 minutes and cool in pie plate on a rack. Leave oven on. Make filling and bake pie: Whisk together condensed milk and yolks in a bowl until combined well. Add juice and whisk until combined well (mixture will thicken slightly). Pour filling into crust and bake in middle of oven 15 minutes. Cool pie completely on rack (filling will set as it cools), then chill, covered, at least 8 hours. Make topping: Just before serving, beat cream in a bowl with an electric mixer until it just holds stiff peaks. Serve pie topped with cream. Cooks' note: Pie (without topping) can be chilled up to 1 day. *Available at Manhattan Key Lime (212-696-5378). Gourmet, May 2003