Scuba Diving in The Florida Keys

The Florida Keys have some of the best scuba diving in the entire world, thanks to its many shipwrecks as well as the Great Florida Reef — the only living coral reef in the continental United States and third largest coral barrier reef system in the entire world. Below is information on wreck diving and reef diving separated into the primary islands and cities of the Florida Keys:

Besides reviews of the actual diving locations, I have also included reviews of scuba dive outfits I have personally gone with. For a detailed 1-week long Florida Keys scuba diving itinerary click here.

Florida Keys Travel Guide

Map of The Florida Keys

Map of the Florida KeysA map of all the major wreck scuba diving sites and cites in the Florida Keys.

Best Scuba Diving Sites in The Florida Keys

Scuba Diving in Key Largo Spiegel GroveThe fantastic wreck of the USS Spiegel Grove, the third largest artificial reef in the world.

Key Largo Scuba Diving

The primary reason to visit Key Largo, FL is not on land but in the water — Key Largo has proclaimed itself “The Diving Capital of the World”, an honor, even though somewhat dubiously awarded, turns out is well justified. While the Florida Keys as a whole have the best tropical scuba diving in the entire continental United States, the best within the keys could arguably be under the blue waters surrounding Key Largo. With world-class wrecks and reefs for all skill-levels, Key Largo is teeming with dive shops, all highly-reviewed and all vying for your business… Best of all, that competition makes the cost to dive in Key Largo some of the cheapest in South Florida.

With so many great options to choose from you really cannot go wrong with any dive shop in Key Largo but we decided to go with Rainbow Reef Dive Center because they offered the best multi-day package specials. We had our own masks, fins, wetsuits and computers so we rented a BC, regulator and tanks; all of their rental gear was newer and in great shape. A larger operation, they have locations on either side of the canal, a separate retail store down the road and multiple boats going out all the time giving you lots of dive sites to pick from daily. Their boats were clean, not overcrowded and their crews were fabulous — they answered all of our questions, helped us when setting up our gear and explained each dive plan in detail. Included in the price was a dive guide/master who accompanied us on all of our dives, a service which could be particularly helpful for those newly certified or those who might not have dove in a while. Reef-safe sunscreen, water, snacks and mask defogger are all on the boat so help yourself. Somewhat unusual (but becoming more common) is that they require each diver to have their own personal dive computer, so if you don’t have one you will be forced to rent one from them at an additional cost. Perhaps the most unique part of diving with Rainbow Reef Dive Center is that after each dive you get 1 spin-of-the-wheel at their retail location for a chance to win a free dive trip, free merchandise, discounts and other cool stuff.

The best dive in Key Largo without a doubt the USS Spiegel Grove, the third largest artificial reef in the world and one of the best dives in the Florida Keys. Built for the US Navy in 1955, she is a Thomaston-Class dock landing ship. When the Spiegel Grove was original sunk in 2002 she came to rest on her side but in 2005 Hurricane Dennis put the ship back on its keel where it remains to this day. It will take you several dives to see the entire wreck. Look for the American and Conch Republic flags proudly waving in the current. Our favorite part was the fantastic swim through along the corridors of the wreck, but always be careful when penetrating a wreck.

Another fantastic wreck is the USCGC Duane a Treasury-Class cutter which served in WWII on convoy escort duty and later in the Mediterranean. Sank as an artificial reef in 1987, she is lying upright on a sandy bottom and normally has a strong current. The wreck is listed on both the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Shipwreck Trail and the National Register of Historic Places. Her sister ship, the USCG Bibb was sunk the day after the Duane was about half-a-mile away. The Bibb does not receive nearly as many divers because she came to rest on her starboard side instead of upright like the Duane.

A historical WWII shipwreck, the SS Benwood sank after colliding with the USS Tuttle in 1942 as both ships were traveling at night without lights to avoid being detected by German U-boats. Since the Benwood was later used for target practice by the US Navy, there is not much left of her today. However, its abundance of sea life makes this an excellent wreck for both divers and snorkelers. The Benwood is commonly done after the Spiegel Grove for the second dive.

Best Key Largo Wreck Dives

Name Length Type Launched Sank Depth Range Deck Depth
Spiegel Grove 510’ Navy Supply Ship 1955 2002 60’-130’ 90’
Duane 327’ Coast Guard Cutter 1936 1987 70’-130’ 100’
Bibb 327’ Coast Guard Cutter 1937 1987 100’-130’
Benwood 345’ Cargo Ship 1909 1942 25’-50’

Best Key Largo Reef Dives

Name Depth Range Comments
Carysfort Reef Light 30’-80’ Near a 112’ tall lighthouse
Elbow Reef 10’-45’ 4 historic wrecks
Christ of the Abyss 15’-45’ Key Largo dry rocks
French Reef 20’-45’ Many coral swim throughs
Molasses Reef 10’-60’ Lots of fish
Pickles Reef 5’-30’ Civil War-era wreck

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Scuba Diving Islamorada DuaneThe wreck of the USCGC Duane, which can be done from either Key Largo or Islamorada.

Islamorada Scuba Diving

The town of Islamorada, FL is primarily known for sports fishing but it has fantastic scuba diving as well. Because of the Islamorada’s proximity to Key Largo, there is some overlapping with dive companies from both locations doing some of the same dive sites. The most famous dive off of Islamorada is The Eagle, part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Shipwreck Trail.

Best Islamorada Wreck Dives

Name Length Type Launched Sank Depth Range
The Eagle 287’ Freighter 1962 1985 70’-110’
Alexander Barge 120’ Barge 1984 80’-105’

Best Islamorada Reef Dives

Name Depth Range Comments
Conch Reef & Wall 50’-100’ NOAA Aquarius Sea Base
Davis Ledge 20’-55’ Statue of Buddha
Hen & Chickens Reef 15’-25’ Star and plate coral
Crocker Reef 15’-45’ Small canyons
Alligator Reef 25’-70’ 1825 schooner wreck

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Scuba Diving Marathon ThunderboltThe coral encrusted wreck of the Thunderbolt off of Marathon, FL. Watch out for fishing lines and hooks.

Marathon Scuba Diving

At the mid-point of the Florida Keys is Marathon, FL — the perfect base to explore the fantastic scuba diving of not only the middle keys region but the lower keys as well.

We went with Captain Hooks Marina & Dive Center at their Marathon location but they also have shops on Big Pine Key and Key West. We had our own masks, fins, wetsuits and computers so we rented a BC, regulator and tanks — all their rental gear was in good shape and well-kept. Prices were good and included a complementary dive guide/master who accompanied us on our dives — this is something that will be extremely helpful for anyone recently certified or anyone who has not dove in a while. The boat was small, clean and comfortable and the crew were fantastic — helping us with our gear and giving us a detailed dive briefing. There is ice water, basic snacks and mask defogger on board so help yourself. The only issue we had is that we original booked 2-days of diving with them but they canceled our first days dive on short-notice because not enough people were booked to go; besides that, this is a solid recommendation.

The best wreck off Marathon is the Thunderbolt and is part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Shipwreck Trail. Originally named the USAMP Randolph, she was built and served during WWII as an Army mine planter. After the war she was transferred to the Navy before being sold — eventually she was purchased by Florida Power & Light for use as a platform for lightning research and took so many lightning strikes during this time she was re-christened Thunderbolt. Sunk as an artificial reef in 1986, she sits perfectly upright, intact and is covered by a thick coating of sponges and coral. The wreck is noted for a strong current and is covered in fishing line and hooks (so wear gloves).

Best Marathon Wreck Dives

Name Length Type Launched Sank Depth Range Deck Depth
Thunderbolt 189’ Mine-Laying Ship 1942 1986 85’-120’ 100’

Best Marathon Reef Dives

Name Depth Range Comments
Sombrero Reef 10’-30’ Near a 142’ tall lighthouse

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Big Pine Key Scuba Diving Looe KeyLooe Key reef is part of the National Marine Sanctuary and within a Sanctuary Preservation Area (SPA).

Lower Keys Scuba Diving

The lower Florida Keys include all the islands between Seven Mile Bridge and Key West and is the least populated region of the keys. This area includes Big Pine Key, the largest island in the keys. The best wreck in this region of the keys is the Adolphus Busch Sr. which sank in 1998.

We went scuba diving with Looe Key Reef Resort & Dive Center, located on Ramrod Key about a 30-minute drive west of Marathon. As the name suggests, this place is both a hotel and a dive shop (we did not stay at the resort). We called up the morning-of and were able to reserve last-minute spots without any problems. Since we had our own masks, fins, wetsuits and computers we rented a BC, regulator and tanks — all rental gear was in very good shape. The dive boat is a 48-foot catamaran and was very comfortable — best of all there was a was super-friendly dog who accompanied us on our trip. The boat crew were awesome, helping us with our gear and answering all of our questions. When we returned to the docks the captain gave us each a coupon for a free drink at the Looe Key Tiki Bar & Grill, which is part of the resort complex. The entire restaurant is under a huge tiki hut with a bar, stage for live music and lots of big-screen TVs (this would be a good place to watch a football game). They also have great happy-hour specials so we ended up ordering a few appetizers and everything we got was good. Our waitress had a quirky personality and was a lot of fun.

Located off of Big Pine Key is Looe Key and while you might think because of the name that this is an island, there is actually nothing above the water here. Looe Key was once one of the best coral reefs in all of South Florida but has been devastated by a series of unfortunate events. First, Hurricane Irma in 2017 and more recently a disease which is killing the coral at an alarming rate — worse yet, it is possible that the disease is being spread around by snorkelers and scuba divers. In the late 1990s I spent a lot of time diving at Looe Key and coming back over 20 years later the difference is stark — by my visual estimates at least 50% of the coral is bleached/dead but it is probably well over 75%. All this despite Looe Key being part of the National Marine Sanctuary and within a Sanctuary Preservation Area (SPA). Hopefully this once amazing place will return to its former glory but right now things are not looking promising. Unfortunately what is happening here, is happening to coral reefs all around the world.

Best Lower Keys Wreck Dives

Name Length Type Launched Sank Depth Range Deck Depth
Adolphus Busch Sr. 210’ Cargo Ship 1951 1998 70’-110’ 90’

Best Lower Keys Reef Dives

Name Depth Range Comments
Looe Key 10’-30’ Finger corals and within a SPA

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Key West Scuba Diving VandenbergThe massive wreck of the USS Vandenberg, the second largest artifical reef in the world and the best dive in the Florida Keys.

Key West Scuba Diving

While the Florida Keys has some of the best reef diving in the world, Key West, FL is the exception as much of the coral around the island is not as healthy as the rest of the keys and visibility is not as good either. They do however have the USNS Vandenberg, the second largest artificial reef in the world and the best wreck dive in South Florida. Originally named the USS Taylor, she was built during WWII as a troop transport ship and served in the Pacific theater of operation. After the war, she was transferred to the US Air Force, renamed and converted into a missile satellite tracking ship. Ever since the Vandenberg was intentionally sunk in 2009 she has frequently ranked amongst the best wreck dives in the entire world and was our favorite dive of the trip. The dive itself is known for having strong currents so hold on to the line when descending and ascending. Look for the Duval Street sign, small Conch Republic flag and the giant American flag.

Do a double-dip on Vandenberg with Captain’s Corner Dive Center, one of the best dive outfits we used in the keys. The entire staff was very professional, organized, friendly, explained the dive plan in great detail and answered all of our questions. A dive guide/master is not included in the cost but you can choose to hire one if you want. Since we had our own masks, fins, wetsuits and computers, we rented a BC, regulator and tanks; all of their rental gear was newer and in very good condition. There are basic snacks, ice water, a cooler with ice (if you want to bring your own drinks with you) and mask defogger on board, so help yourself. Make a note that check-in is not at the dive shop but at a small outdoor stand at the marina about a block away (right by the Conch Republic Seafood Company). Prices are very competitive considering the quality of the service so I would highly-recommend.

Best Key West Wreck Dives

Name Length Type Launched Sank Depth Range Deck Depth
Vandenberg 523’ Missile Range Ship 1942 2009 40’-140’ 95’
Cayman Salvage Master 187’ USCG Buoy Tender 1937 1985 60’-95’ 75’
Joe’ Tug 75’ Shrimp Boat 1986 55’-70’

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Top Florida Keys scuba diving spotsScuba diving in the Florida Keys and on the Great Florida Reef is an unforgettable experience.

With so many fabulous shipwreck and reef dive spots throughout the Florida Keys, this is just a sampling of some of the best and most popular locations. If you think I left an amazing place out please let me know in the comments below. Click here for a detailed 1-week Florida Keys travel guide and itinerary.

Florida Keys Travel Guide


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