The long peninsula of Florida, bordered by warm, clear waters on all sides, offers some of the best scuba diving in America. There are colorful corals, abundant sea life, including marine mammals, and ship wrecks galore. The rich diversity of diving sites make Florida both a natural destination for a diving trip and one of the best places in the U.S. to learn how to dive.
USS Oriskany, Pensacola
The aircraft carrier Oriskany was deliberately sunk in 2006 to become an artificial reef. It is the biggest ship ever sunk for this purpose, and great care was taken to ensure that the ship settled on the sea floor intact and on its keel. The result is one of the top recreational wreck dives in the world. Much of the wreck is at depths that are only suitable for experienced, Advanced Open Water divers. Being nitrox-certified wouldn't be a bad idea either. The top of the ship's island (control tower) is at 70 feet, and the flight deck is at 130 feet. That is just inside the depth limit for recreational diving. The "Big O" as the ship was sometimes called is a challenging, but rewarding recreational wreck dive.
Manatee Diving, Tampa
A curious paradox about Florida law is that swimming with dolphins in the wild is illegal, but swimming with the state's other marine mammal is not. Tampa is one of the best places in Florida for diving trips up to the Crystal River, which supports the largest all-season population of manatees in the state. However, the best time to see manatees, especially in large numbers, is between the end of October and the end of March. These are gentle, slow giants, with the average male being about 10 feet long and weighing between 800 and 1,200 pounds. Because these animals prefer shallow water, scuba equipment is not necessary to see them, so snorkelers can join in on the fun, too. However, scuba diving with the manatees offers certain advantages. Shallow dives consume air slowly, so a diver can simply put on extra weights, sink to the bottom and stay there for an hour or more on one tank of air. That is a lot of bottom time to spend with such a fascinating marine mammal.
Dry Tortugas National Park
The Dry Tortugas are a small group of sand bars and tiny islands due west of the Florida Keys. The park is almost entirely marine in nature and has been declared a Research Natural Area. This means that not only is it illegal to fish in the Tortugas, but it is also illegal to drop an anchor anywhere except in the designated dock at Fort Jefferson. There are also shipwrecks to explore, such as the clipper ship Windjammer. The result is arguably the best place for corals and sea life in Florida waters, including rays, amberjacks and sharks. Dive options take two basic formats. One is to join a dive trip from the Florida Keys. There are both day trips and multi-day live-aboard boats that tour the Dry Tortugas. The other option is to charter your own boat and go solo. Fort Jefferson has a campground, which means even a small boat can support a decent scuba party for a multi-day trip. This requires some planning. For example, your group must bring along all the air cylinders it might need, since there isn't an air compressor at Fort Jefferson. However, it is a way for independent divers to explore the Tortugas without having to make multiple commutes back to the Keys.
Fort Jefferson (Dry Tortugas National Park)
P.O. Box 6208
Key West, Florida 33041