A sunset in Key Largo with words "scuba diving Key Largo, FL" written over it.

The Ultimate Guide To Scuba Diving In Key Largo

Considered by some to be the diving capital of the world, the beautiful Florida Keys are home to some spectacular diving. From the beautiful barrier coral reefs – the only ones in North America – to wrecks, a scuba diver could spend a lifetime diving in the Keys and still not see all they have to offer.

Key largo beach with a few palm trees.
Fun in the sun in beautiful Key Largo.

Today we’ll focus on one of my favorite sites in the Keys, Key Largo. Part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which encompasses almost 3,000 square miles with over 6,000 species of marine life, Key largo is home to Molasses reef and French reef. With the shallow reefs, snorkelers and divers alike will find much to do both below and above the waters.

Getting To Key Largo’s Dive Sites

Most travelers will fly into Miami or Fort Lauderdale and drive to Key Largo. From Fort Lauderdale it is about a 2-hour drive and from Miami, it is about an hour-and-a-half drive depending on traffic.

Mural located in Fort Lauderdale of the sunken ship with fish surrounding it.
The mural in the Fort Lauderdale airport lets you know you’re in for some good diving.

An added benefit of renting a vehicle is that it allows you to explore some of the surrounding areas and attractions (see below for other activities to check out).

Traveling on historic Route 1 on Overseas Highway – which runs all the way down to Key West – you’ll notice no shortage of dive shops and stores, one of which is the ever-popular Diver’s Direct that offers a wide array of all things needed for scuba diving trips.

Key largo diving shop.
Key Largo has plenty of dive shops to suit your scuba needs.

Diving In Key Largo

Key Largo scuba diving ranks at the top of must-dive lists for many scuba divers. As part of the upper Florida Keys, Key Largo is home to abundant marine life including eagle rays, parrotfish, sea turtles, barracuda, and nurse sharks that populate the coral reefs.

The coral reef is in good shape and a good deal of effort has been spent to protect it and keep it that way. Travelers will notice that there are many mooring buoys for boats to tie off to in order to keep them from dropping their anchors on the reef.

Scuba Diver underwater in Keylargo.
Scuba Jay enjoying that weightlessness of diving in Key Largo.

Also, while diving/snorkeling, you may see tags on the coral to monitor new growth.

Dive centers and accommodations

There are multiple dive operations offering boats for charter to get you to the multiple sites off of Key Largo for both diving and snorkeling excursions. Two of these operations are Rainbow Reef and the boutique style Sea Dwellers.

Rainbow Reef boat ported at the dock.
Rainbow Reef is one of the larger dive operations in Key Largo.

Either dive center is a good choice and both work with some of the local hotels including a Courtyard Marriott and Holiday Inn. I have personally stayed at the Holiday Inn on several dive trips and have always enjoyed my stay. At this location there are two beautiful pools – one with a waterfall – that are separated by a nice tiki bar.

Key largo, Holiday Inn pool.
Scuba Jay and daughter Ava enjoying some family time in the Holiday Inn pool.

Also, the Holiday Inn is about a minutes walk to the marina where you board the boat for Sea Dwellers, making lugging your equipment an ease.

People on a boat.
Sea Dwellers provide a fun day of diving.

Dive sites

The two main coral reefs off Key Largo are Molasses Reef and French Reef. In addition, there are a few shipwrecks that have become artificial reefs and, of course, abundant colorful marine life as well. All of this adds up to a scuba diving photographer’s dream.

Coral underwater in Keylargo.
Make sure to bring your camera to capture the beautiful reef.

Also, don’t be surprised if after completing your last dive for the day you spy some dolphins playing in the wake of boats on the way back to port.

Dolphins swimming.
Dolphins playing in the wake of our boat added to our diving day.

Molasses Reef

Key largo scuba diving wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Molasses Reef. Most dive operators make this scuba diving site a priority.

Lying Southeast of Key Largo island, Molasses Reef, is one of the most popular dive sites in the Florida Keys, if not the world.

Scuba Jay standing with his daughter Sofia holding scuba diving gear.
Scuba Jay and daughter Sofia getting ready for a day of diving on Molasses Reef.

Known for it’s clear warm water, Molasses Reef is filled with sea fans and boulder coral. It’s also home to numerous variations of fish including nurse sharks, green moray eels and sea turtles.

Also located within the reef is an 8ft winch that came off of the wreck of Slobodna, a ship that stuck the reef in 1887. At the far South side of the reef can be found an old coral encrusted anchor thought to be from a 16th or 17th century Spanish ship.

Wreck of Slobodna underwater in Key largo.
Winch off of the Slobodna.

While the entire reef is a great scuba diving site, the many shallow portions of the reef also make it ideal for snorkeling tours. This is also a great spot to take in some night dives.

french reef

Lying Northeast of Molasses Reef is French Reef, another impressive reef teeming with aquatic life. Triangular in shape, French Reef offers many swim-throughs and caves that even novice divers can enjoy.

The most popular site on the reef is Christmas Tree Cave, named after the Christmas tree worms that are in abundance in the formation.

This beautiful reef has large undercuts big enough to swim into and sometimes through. This makes the reef a diver’s playground and a good place to practice buoyancy control. With depths around 30ft, divers can get plenty of bottom time to enjoy the scenery.

French Deep, located in the Southeast corner of French Reef is another popular spot. As its name implies, this site is deeper, at about 55ft, with a drop-off of about 85ft on the seaward side of the reef.

The deeper depth allows for the potential to see some other aquatic life including occasional reef sharks and hammerhead sharks.

Wreck diving in key largo

There is plenty to do and see if scuba diving shipwrecks are your thing. The wrecks off of Key largo range from those sunk on purpose to create artificial reefs, to those that met with disaster.

Honestly, no matter your experience level, you can find a wreck to dive that fits your scuba diving skills level here.

SS Benwood anchor underwater in Key Largo.
Anchor from the SS Benwood.
USS Spiegel Grove

One of the main attractions in all of the Florida Keys is the Naval dock landing ship the Spiegel Grove. An advanced dive, the wreck sits Northeast of French Reef in 130ft of water. However, you can hit the top of the wreck at around 62ft.

At 510ft long, with multiple mooring buoys, you’ll need much more than one dive to take in this impressive ship.

The Spiegel Grove was intentionally sunk in 2002. Unfortunately, at the time of its sinking it settled on the bottom of the ocean on its starboard side. In a lucky twist of fate, storm surges from Hurricane Dennis in 2005 moved the wreck so that she now lies upright.

Scuba Jay holding up flags underwater in Key Largo.
Scuba Jay on the USS Spiegel Grove, her colors still flying.

She has nicely completed her final mission of creating an artificial reef and is now encrusted in coral and is home to various fish – including goliath groupers – that are attracted to her interior.

While those with the proper training can penetrate the ship, divers beware! There have been several fatalities associated with this wreck.

Over twenty years later the Spiegel Grove remains one of the world’s largest artificial reefs and a must-see scuba diving dive site.

SS Benwood

Located between French Reef and the Spiegel Grove is another very popular wreck off of Key Largo, the SS Benwood. This 340ft metal freighter was built in 1910.

She sank on a fateful night in 1942 when she ran into a larger ship. Both vessels were running under blackout conditions due to a threat of German U-boats.

This is a nice easy dive as at her deepest she sits in about 48ft of water. Worth noting though is that there can sometimes be a moderate current around this wreck, so it’s best not to stray too far from it.

Now, in addition to the marine life that encompasses the wreck, scuba divers can get some good photographs of the wreck itself – including the anchor and some bollards.

SS Benwood shipwreck underwater in Key Largo.
Bollards of the Benwood.

While this wreck is rather broken up, it still makes for a nice dive for all experience levels.

uscgc duane

Another advanced wreck dive is the Coast Guard Cutter Duane.

Like the Spiegel Grove, the Duane was sunk in 1987 to create an artificial reef. She lies South of Molasses Reef in 125ft of water, but divers can hit her deck at about 100ft and her crow’s nest at about 50ft.

At over 300ft long, this is another wreck that will take multiple dives to fully appreciate. The wreck sits upright and in addition to the normal reef marine life, sometimes aquatic visitors include Great Barracuda and whale sharks.

Christ of the abyass

One of three identical 9ft tall bronze statues. The original statute was placed in 1954 off of San Fruttuoso, Liguria Italy. The second was placed in 1961 off of St. George’s Grenada and the third was placed in 1965 off of the coast of Key Largo.

Christ of the abyss underwater in Key Largo.
Christ of the abyss.

Located in 25ft of water, North of French Reef in a sand channel in Dry Rocks Reef, the statute sits atop a concrete base.

The top of the statute is just about 9ft from the surface, so this is a perfect spot for snorkel trips as well. Mooring buoys surround the statue, so divers/snorkelers may have to hunt around a little before they see this famous Christ statue, but it’s worth the searching!

Other Activities

Whether you’re in between dives or traveling with non-divers, there’s plenty to do in and around Key Largo. From activities such as boat tours to seeing museums, there’s something on the island for everyone.

Activities in Key Largo

Not all the fun in Key Largo is found underwater. There are plenty of things to do in Key Largo above the waves as well.

Glass bottom boat tours

Either online or in the Holiday Inn gift shop, you can purchase tickets for a tour on a glass bottom boat and/or the African Queen…yes, that African Queen! both of these tours are less than a minute’s walk from the Holiday Inn.

Key Largo Glass bottom boat tour.
Passengers heading back from a tour on the glass bottom boat.

The glass bottom boat tour will most likely take you over some of the sites you dove that day, giving you a new perspective on what you saw. Also, it’s a nice way to show non-diving members of your trip what you saw as well.

And, what’s just as nice as the view is the drinks aboard the boat. There’s a bar on the top deck where you can grab some adult and non-adult beverages alike.

Scuba Jay and his wife on the Glass Bottom Boat holding up drinks.
Scuba Jay and the wife enjoying some adult beverages and a tour on the glass bottom boat.

You don’t have to be a fan of the old Humphrey Bogart movie to enjoy a nice tour on the African Queen. Step back in time as you board this historic boat used in the movie and enjoy a nice relaxing time on the water.

Hepburn and Bogart.
Hepburn and Bogart….the original crew of the African Queen.
African queen boat in Key Largo waters.
Folks out for a pleasant cruise on the Queen.

Everglade Boat tours

There are many other tours in Key Largo, including Capt. Sterling’s Everglades Eco-Tours where you can tour the Everglades National Park.

For our tour we had Capt. Tony. He did a wonderful job explaining the wildlife, mangroves, and local lore.

Tree growing on top of coral rock
Tree growing on top of coral rock. Look closely and you may see fossilized imprints of sea fans from long ago.

water sport rentals

If you are looking for some fun on the waves, there is plenty to do. Whether it’s zipping around on jet skis or paddling a kayak, there are various operations – such as Keys Skis – for finding some entertainment at your own pace.

There are also many boating operations available to take you out on the ocean for a fishing trip.

Activities Close By

There are several fun attractions to check out just 20 to 30 minutes from Key Largo. In Islamorada, history buffs, food junkies, and shoppers will all find something to enjoy.

Histoy of Diving muesume

An impressive display of diving equipment through the ages? check! Display of recovered old Spanish treasure? Check! gift shop and a whole lot of fun? Check and check!! Both divers and non-divers will enjoy the History of Diving Museum.

History of Diving museum Sign.
An excellent stop to learn about diving history.

Going through the Museum, one can only imagine the brave soles that tried some of the earliest scuba diving equipment.

Here you’ll learn not just about scuba diving though. You’ll also learn about recovering sea treasure. And you can take your turn trying to lift a 70lb silver bar found on the wreck of the Atocha by Mel Fisher and his crew.

Different devices to scuba dive, shown in the Diving Museum.
Those magnificent men and their diving machines.

Theater of the sea

If you have some younger travelers, they may enjoy a visit to the Theater of the Sea. Although, the young at heart may like swimming with – and petting – dolphins and sea lions just as much as the young ones.

One of the oldest marine mammal facilities in the world, visitors can walk through the park and take in the lagoons and tropical gardens. You can also enjoy the dolphin and sea lion show and see various animals including alligators, turtles, and parrots – which any good pirate would enjoy.

Robbie’s of islamoada

For a unique dining experience, Robbie’s of Islamorada is a great place to go. An open air restaurant/grill, Robbie’s is a solid stop for its food and entertainment.

Scuba Jay with friends getting lunch.
Scuba Jay getting his lunch on with fellow travelers.

After you have concluded your meal, make your way over to the dock to buy a bucket of minnows to feed the tarpon.

These fish can grow up to 8ft long, so be careful! They’re pretty hungry and their heads will come right up out of the water to grab the minnow that you are dangling above them.

Tarpon fish in water, next to a dock.
I think we’re gonna need a bigger dock.

And they are not the only hungry animals about. Several pelicans patrol the dock waiting to snatch the fish from the hand of the unaware.

Pelican standing on a dock.
You’re not sneaking up on me buddy!

While on the dock, you may also see some nurse sharks and manatees swimming about.

Manatee looking up to a dock.
Gentle giants….look at those manatee eyes.
Nurse shark swimming in water.
Nurse shark among the tarpon.

Rain Barrel Village

For a different kind of gift shop experience check out Rain Barrel Village. The open air shops offers souvenirs such as arts and crafts from local artists, as well as other unique items.

Rain Barrel Village in Key Largo.
Rain Barrel Village is a nice spot for a different type of gift shop experience.

While there you can also grab a bite to eat and take a picture with the famous Betsy the giant lobster.

Lobster statue.
Betsy the lobster…Where’s the butter.

If You’re Up For A Drive

If you are up for a little bit of a drive, take a day trip to the popular Key West. The drive down to Key West from Key Largo is a little over 2 hours, but offers some beautiful sights. And you get to travel over the cool Seven Mile Bridge!

Once in Key West, you can easily fill a day with tram tours of the city that stop at local attractions such as The Butterfly & Nature conservatory and the Earnest Hemmingway Home & Museum. Make sure to check out the Shipwreck Treasure Museum for a little history of Key West and for a spectacular view form it’s 65ft tower.

Key West shipwreck museum.
The Shipwreck Treasure Museum is a neat stop to learn about the formative years of Key West…..”Wreck ashore!!”

Another favorite stop is the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. Here you can see some vast treasures brought up from the wreck of the Atocha, a Spanish treasure gallon sunk off of Key West in a hurricane in 1622.

Gold piece brought up from the Atocha wreck.
Recovered gold from the Atocha……think they’ll miss a bar or two?
Scuba Jay posing next to a pirate statue.
Scuba Jay doing his best pirate pose outside of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.

Before heading to Mallory Square for the sunset festivities, make sure to stop by the southernmost point for a must-do photo-op.

Scuba Jays daughters posing against the southernmost point.
Scuba Jay’s daughters Ava and Sofia at the southernmost point of the continental united states.

Wrapping Things Up

The Florida keys are a beautiful place to visit and key Largo is an excellent place to add to your list of travel destinations. And, as I mentioned before, the scuba diving in Key Largo is some of the best scuba diving in the world. It’s an experience not to be missed.

With that said, one visit alone will not be enough time to take in all that there is to see and do on the island. In fact, I’ve been to Key Largo multiple times now and I’m still discovering new parts of the island.

Anyway, trust me when I tell you that even before your trip to Key Largo is done, you’ll be thinking about planning your return visit. There’s just that much fun awaiting you on this island. As you board you plane to head back home, you’ll be singing to yourself “we had it all…”

Interested In Visiting Florida? Check Out These Other Locations That You’ll Love:

“How boring would the world be if everywhere and everyone were the same. Safe travels and good adventures.” Scuba Jay

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