Are you among the thousands of scuba divers and snorkelers who visit the Florida Keys each year? Then chances are you’ll want to take part in the “Become a Reef Explorer” program, which spotlights the Keys’ coral reefs with a specially created souvenir journal.
It’s designed for first-timers, families and fun-loving outdoor enthusiasts of all experience levels — in fact, for anybody who wants to log dive or snorkel adventures on reefs between Key Largo and Key West along the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef.
How does it work? Simple … you receive a journal from a professional dive or snorkel operator so you can collect validation stamps indicating that you’ve visited one or all of a region’s reefs highlighted in the journal.
In Key Largo, popular snorkel and dive spots include Carysfort Reef, Elbow Reef, Grecian Rocks, French and Molasses reefs — many characterized by high-profile tongue-and-spur, brain and pillar corals and massive quantities of tropical marine life. Thanks to the cleansing waters of the Gulf Stream, visibility is consistently clear.
In the waters surrounding John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which is within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, you’ll find Dry Rocks. There, the nine-foot-tall bronze “Christ of the Abyss” statue rests in approximately 20 feet of water surrounded by large brain, staghorn and elkhorn coral formations (and often a four-foot barracuda that seems to enjoy being photographed).
In Islamorada, highlights include the unusually named Pickles, Hens & Chickens, Alligator and Conch reefs. At Crocker Reef, depths range from 30 to 60 feet, and its south end slopes along a wall of spur-and-groove coral formations and coral mounds that extends for more than 400 feet, gradually reaching depths to nearly 80 feet.
It’s common to see large schools of blue-striped grunts, large groupers, spotted eagle rays, nurse sharks, sea turtles, green moray eels, barrel sponges and sea fans. Nearby Davis Reef is easily navigable along the top of the reef and its sandy ledges. Large groupers and moray eels cruise among the cliffs and canyons, gullies and archways in depths from 15 to 40 feet.
Among Marathon’s notable patch reefs and spur-and-groove formations is Sombrero Reef, marked by a large lighted tower. Watch spotfin butterflyfish circle in a courting dance, French angelfish nip and peck at reef plants, huge schools of grunts slide back and forth in a gentle tidal surge or a stingray scour the sandy bottom for a snack.
Coffin’s Patch is not a single reef but a conglomerate of six distinct patch reefs, each with a uniquely predominant coral species, including Pillar Coral Patch with dozens of intact pillar coral heads. Snorkelers especially appreciate the shallow elkhorn forests found throughout the site in less than 20 feet of water.
In the Lower Keys, the most significant shallow-water undersea spot is Looe Key Reef, an area of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary approximately six miles south of Big Pine Key. A complete reef ecosystem is found there, including a rubble ridge of ancient fossilized corals, a reef flat composed of turtle grass and a fore reef made up of large star and brain corals arranged in a spur-and-groove coral formation sloping from 20 to 40 feet.
A deeper reef slopes to more than 100 feet, providing a spectacular opportunity to view species including eagle rays, turtles and, on occasion, the rare and wonderful whale shark or manta ray.
Key West’s largest protected coral reef is Western Sambos, a popular snorkeling site that’s part of an ecological reserve created in 1997. Several other extensive shallow reefs off Key West, including Eastern Dry Rocks, Rock Key and Sand Key, are abundant in corals, gorgonians and fish, and range from five to 45 feet in depth.
After you collect one reef stamp in each of the five regions of the Keys, simply email email@example.com. You’ll receive an access code so you can download, personalize and print a Florida Keys Reef Explorer poster ready for framing — to remind you of your fascinating underwater adventures in the intriguing island chain.