As spring turns to summer in the Florida Keys, nearshore winds lay down, visibility increases, and the reefs of America’s only drive-to-dive paradise fill with color.

In the Upper and Middle Keys we’ve enjoyed a hot, dry spring with fewer than normal windy days. This means area reefs are in top form and water temps are rapidly climbing. With a number of specialty scuba events like Looe Key Underwater Music Festival in July and the world famous Lobster Mini-Season just a month away, Keys dive shops are readying for the latest influx of divers eager to explore the underwater world.

Easily identified on Keys coral reefs, rowdy schools of rainbow parrotfish, sleek southern stingrays, and the occasional lazy nurse shark are sure to pique the interest of any diver who pays them a visit. However, they’re just a small sample of what can be found below.

Just in time for summer’s dive season, strap on your scuba gear and see if you can spot some of these hard to find Keys reef creatures. Each of these animals was sighted on a shallow Keys coral reef system, and all pose for unique photo opportunities – if you can spot them.

Look hard, these 5 aren’t always easy to see, but snapshots of any or all of these animals should remain favorites in any diver’s underwater photo album.

Jellyfish, big ones

Ever wanted to take a dip with a noxious cnidarian? You probably wouldn’t unless armed with a camera and ready to risk a sting for a photo. With deep-dropping tentacles designed to grab fish and trail them into its gaping maw, jellyfish are most often spotted during the late summer and fall, when they have grown to a large size and the currents begin to sweep them closer to shore. While not a threat to most divers, it’s best to stay out of their way. However, divers with passion for pictures usually can’t resist.

Spotted Moray Eels

Pushed out of the spotlight by its well-known green skinned cousin, the spotted moray shares a similar habitat with the huge green moray easily identified by most divers. Hiding in shallow reefs and rubble beds during the day, spotted morays lay in wait for small fish and most often hunt during the evening hours. If you want to see one, schedule a night dive on a local patch reef. You’ll almost always turn up one or two.

Basket Stars

Curling up into a fleshy ball the size of a walnut during the day, the lowly basket star unfolds and begins its furtive campaign in the cover of night. Twisting its long tendrils around tall sea fans and prominent corals, the underwater marauder competes for the best place to snag a bite in the night currents. Like a tiny mountain climber with a ‘Napoleon Complex,’ these creatures are fun to look at, and even more fascinating to study. A night dive on Alligator Reef near Islamorada scored this unique picture.

Beautiful reef fish at cleaning stations

While the queen angelfish pictured here is quite stunning, what she (or he) is secretly up to is more important. Caught like a beauty queen in a stinky bathroom, this remarkable angelfish had stopped near a particular sponge just so tiny gobies would peck out the parasites in its skin and gills. Many divers know that large predatory fish are serviced by underwater cleaning stations of this type, but how about beautiful reef fish? You can find them by looking closely on mid to deep water spur and groove reefs in the Florida Keys.

Coral polyps at night

While scuba divers are used to observing the beauty of coral reefs during the day, the tiny living polyps that actually create the reef only come out at night. To see them, grab a buddy, an extra flashlight and be prepared. Extending their diminutive bodies from their limestone hovels, these colonial organisms snatch microscopic meals from the night currents. Use your flashlight beam to slowly lure plankton and small worms to their waiting clutches. In this way, you can actually see the coral eat.  Be careful, and never touch the coral. These delicate creatures are easily damaged. 

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