Photos by Jason Koler
This past Sunday, the National Weather Service in Key West reported an easterly wind of 15 mph as the temps reached 90 degrees. At the Castaway Restaurant in Marathon, a group of guides wolfed down sushi, sodas, and babyback ribs as three knuckleheads prepared to dive offshore.
Their report: white caps and a cold bottom – dismal fishing conditions, but when you live and work in the Keys sometimes you just have to toss caution into the 13-knot gusts and say, “Screw it.”
“Screw it. I don’t care how much it’s blowing. We’re going,” exclaimed John Mirabella, our dive captain and the owner of the Castaway Restaurant. A former Navy diver and nuclear operator, his scrappy, wire-tied 22’ Grady White would serve as our reef hopper.
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“We’re going to “the Gap,” Mirabella said. Located 5 miles south of Key Colony Beach in 50-70 ft of water, he said the site had plenty of structure and marine life. A spear gun, nets, and tickle sticks were tossed onboard.
Automated Weather Service Recording: “Waves inside the reef at 2-4 feet. Waves outside the reef at 3-5 feet.”
The cruise through Boot Key Harbor gave us a feeling of foreboding. The wind was whipping through the mangrove and across one of the most well protected harbors on the eastern coast.
An hour later line was shooting off the end of boat as the anchor plunged into the sandy bottom on the edge of the reef.
“We’re rolling good, so let’s let all that line out,” Mirabella said as our dive buddy began chumming the water with the remains of an IHOP breakfast of eggs, toast, hash browns, and other non-descript foodstuff.
The chum dispersed behind the boat and anchor went straight down.
We could nearly see the bottom, but the waves tossed the 22’ vessel like Caesar Salad (Available at the Castaway with homemade dressing and anchovies for only $7.95).
With one stomach on empty, we yanked on our fins, spit in our masks, tossed our BCDs overboard, and jumped into the water. When the seas are rolling, divers can conserve energy by putting on as much gear as possible in the water. Please note: people with heart conditions, experiencing labor pains or those without integrated weights should not attempt this entry.
We did a quick safety check in the water and then descended into the blue to check on the anchor.
Dropping through the cool cobalt blue water, we cleared our ears and focused on the sandy bottom. The reef covered the ocean floor like a thick shag carpet and was teeming with marine life.
Blue Angels, Queen Angels, Blue Tangs, Spade Fish, Snapper, Grouper, and countless other species were darting through the coral in a synchronized display of aquatic aerobics.
On the surface, the boat was being slammed by waves, but 70’ away; we could hang above a coral head without moving an inch.
We didn’t spot any fish big enough to eat, but the amount of juveniles dancing on the reef was a reassuring sign that the Florida Keys reef is living up to its billing as one of the greatest dives in the world.
Jason Herr inspects a large coral head in 70’ of water.
John Mirabella (left) and Jason Herr perform a safety stop in 15’ of water.
The Florida Keys provide some of the great diving in the world and offer a chance to see brilliant coral and tropical fish in a natural setting.
The seas were rough that day, but everything was right on the reef.
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