Dry Suit Diving In the Florida Keys? It’s a Reality this Winter!
DiverWire contributing writer Polina Reznikov has just returned from a trip to the Florida Keys. She talks about her recent scuba diving adventures where cold waters forced her to wear a dry suit – not that there’s anything wrong with that……
Stepping off the plane in a tank top and shorts, I was looking forward to some mid-winter warm-water diving. However, I was not prepared to be greeted by the Arctic blast barreling into South Florida with temperatures in the 40’s. Iguanas were literally falling from the trees and laying motionless on the ground going into hibernation, and turtles washing up on shores from becoming lethargic due to the cold. I had to ask myself “am I really in Key Largo”?
My objective was to experience diving the famous Key Largo wrecks and fishy reefs under the expertise of a local guide, and to come back with memorable images. The sun was shining, the air was a bit nippy, and I was hop skipping with joy at the prospect of my upcoming dives.
The first dive was the wreck of the USCG Duane. This 329-foot cutter was decommissioned in 1985 and intentionally sunk in 120-feet of water to serve as an artificial reef in November 1987. Being closer to the Gulf Stream than most wrecks in the Keys, the Duane lies outside the reef line and is frequently engulfed in ripping current. On this dive however, my dive guide and I spent considerable time admiring the towering wreck from the front of the bow in still waters.
The Duane presents itself as a perfect photographic subject vibrantly encrusted in sponges, gorgonians and hydroids. The hull and railings are cloaked in brilliant splashes of all colors of the rainbow. Schools of barracuda, parrotfish, grunts, and angelfish swarm the ship’s flanks and open rooms.
Ducking into one of the open hatchways I was bedazzled with the visual experience. I was constantly weary of my mounting deco obligation while positioning my willing model/dive guide in various configurations. Finally, I begrudgingly started my ascent and deco obligation. Even on the ascent line, my dive was not over. I was accompanied by a curious barracuda that was just as interested in reviewing the pictures on my camera screen as I was.
The surface interval could not be over fast enough. Our second dive was Snapper Ledge, the fishiest dive I have experienced in some time. The marine life is astoundingly dense. Hordes of Grunts and Yellowtail Snappers obscure the sight of my dive guide in a continuously moving wave of gold color. With the scene changing in the blink of an eye, I find it challenging to compose my shots with any predetermined vision. I start corralling the fish into formations with the help of my rodeo partner, who catches on immediately as to what I am trying to do and poses obligingly. The most notable formation on Snapper Ledge is a pristine giant Brain Coral at least four foot in diameter, which serves as a cleaning station for the visiting Groupers and Snappers.
The winds picked up on the following morning, so I placed a call to Ocean Divers to gauge the likelihood of diving today. Despite 6-foot swells and 22 mph winds in the forecast I was assured that conditions would be divable. With air temperature in the 50’s and water temperature in the low 70’s, I make a wise choice and bring my Whites Fusion drysuit. The same marvel of drysuit design that served me well in the 32˚ waters of Newfoundland will now keep me warm and dry in the water and on the boat post-dive.
Like music to my ears, the captain announced that both dives are to be on Spiegel Grove. After gearing up as fast as I could, I precariously made my way to the dive platform, and timed my giant stride to avoid hitting a wall of water. Descending down on the Spiegel I admired how seductive she looked reclining on her starboard side, the curving hull gracefully arched. The ship beckons the novice and experienced divers alike.
When divers make their way to Key Largo, Spiegel Grove is at the top of their list. This 510-foot navy landing ship was being prepared to go down as an artificial reef in May 2002 when she suddenly began to take on water. Welders on board had to literally run for their lives leaving their tools behind. The ship capsized and to everyone’s dismay, unceremoniously went to the bottom landing upside down with her bow out of water. Three weeks later the Spiegel settled on the bottom on her starboard side. Despite her premature sinking, Spiegel Grove became a massive magnet for marine life almost immediately.
Three years later Hurricane Dennis produced currents of staggering strength and righted Spiegel Grove to its originally intended position. Imagine what that must have been like for lobsters, eels, and other denizens to suddenly get lifted and tumbled by the surge.
The ship lies in 135 feet of water, but is accessible at 65 feet. The mazes of rooms and swim-throughs introduce endless exploration at each turn. Every coral-encrusted porthole opens to a glimpse of more intriguing rooms laced with rays of light and hidden elusive critters. Algae, sponges, and coral along with over 100 species of fish vie for your attention. The wreck offers four levels of corridors and entries that allow for exploration by advanced divers. However, there is so much to see on the exterior that there is no need to penetrate the ship.
With plenty of pictures in hand, I give a parting look to the family of Goliath Groupers hanging out by the gun turns. I proceed to complete my deco obligation and fight my way onto the ladder in 6-foot seas. Through blistering cold and dense fog, we make our way back to shore. I patted my Fusion drysuit for making me the only non-shivering diver on the boat.
Who knew that in such unlikely weather, I still had the most amazing dives in Key Largo.
For more of Polina Reznikov’s work, go to www.PolinaReznikov.com