|Eastern Dry Rocks
|Eastern Dry Rocks
Travels to Key West
Our trip to Key West was wholly planned as a dive trip, one day each for arrival and departure, and three days of reef diving with Captain’s Corner, where cousin Derek Bardini works as a dive instructor.
Our departure was on the red eye from Sacramento, though delayed an hour and we missed our Key West connection flight. Instead of arriving at noon, we arrived in the early evening on Wednesday. Still arriving in time for three days of diving, we checked in on Wednesday to the Parrot Key hotel, went out for an arrival dinner, then got to bed to prep for our first afternoon of dives.
Sand Key – I’m Not Lost!
Miscommunication with Derek (he thought we were late to the whole first day, not just our arrival) meant that Tripp and I headed out on day one as unguided divers. We got to the boat around 1pm for a 2pm dive time.
Gear setup and ready, the captain gave us a rundown of our first dive site, Sand Key, and how the reefs are laid out in the Marine Sanctuary. We got down to depth and I saw plenty of coral and life, so we headed out to view what Florida had to offer. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t understand well enough the description, and we followed coral and life, but didn’t head out in the correct direction and missed the main reefs for the first half of our dive.
Visibility was moderate at best, though the warm waters were a nice treat. We spent about a half hour swimming through the coral, then caught one of the reef “fingers” for the last fifteen minutes of the dive site. Tripp would say I was lost, but I would say that I knew where we were relative to the boat fine (we came up within twenty feet of the boat), but we did miss out on a lot of what we could have seen.
With about ten minutes to go, Tripp pointed out (whether in “Oh cool, look at that!” or “Oh crap, look out!” I can’t be certain), a group of jellyfish at the surface. We swam for a few minutes longer at the reef, yet when getting back onto the boat, Tripp was stung in the leg! Fortunately, these aren’t horrible, just about the equivalent of a bee sting, and a bit of vinegar helped denature the sting. Three total divers were stung, as about ten jellies were hanging out at the boat ladders.
Eastern Dry Rocks – Reef Fingers
Tripp and I headed out to the reef following the captain’s instructions properly for the second dive. A few trips around the fingers of reef and we saw quite a bit more life on this dive than the first. We also ran into a lot more of the other divers this trip, and enjoyed viewing the plethora of coral and life along the reef. Unfortunately for the dive (and the first), we missed the shark, the sting ray, saw only one grouper, and generally all the “awesome” items to see in the Florida Keys, though we did have a great and beautiful dive. Visibility is only about 20 feet, and the surge was getting pretty strong by the end. In fact, the boat ride back was in 3-4 foot waves, and Tripp was looking a bit green before and after the dive, but altogether, this was a pleasant and fun dive trip, and much more successful navigation.
Eastern Dry Rocks – Day Two
Derek joined us on the ship today, taking us back to the same two dive sites from the previous day. The boat has limited locations for diving when the winds are heavy, so while things were a little more calm on day two, we stuck to the same sites as before.
Two big differences exist on these reef dives versus what I’m used to. The first is the start time; I’m quite used to dives starting early morning, but because Captain’s Corner dives the Vandenburg in the morning, the reef dives happen in the afternoon. The second is the surface interval. Typically, I’m used to a thirty to sixty minute boat ride between locations, which also happens to be the surface interval. But because the reef area is pretty compact, and because the dives are generally less than thirty feet deep, the surface interval is just enough time to switch tanks, and we’re back in the water. Today’s dives started earlier than the 2pm start time, because there were boat races happening in Key West that made accessing the harbor impossible at the normal start time, so we began today at 11am instead.
The sites are plenty big enough to show a good variety in life each day, and with a guide to allow me more time to focus on the reefs and less on navigating, I was content in seeing plenty of new things. Tripp also felt a lot more comfortable on these dives, bringing along his camera for this trip.
The keys are heavy with fan coral, brain coral, parrotfish, wrasse, tangs, and most things you find in warm water tropical dives. What’s different between these and Hawai’i, for example, are the nurse sharks, the groupers, sting rays, jellyfish, green morays, and more. While we again didn’t see any sharks or other big ticket items, the dive was plenty full of great flora and fauna, if a bit low on visibility.
Sand Keys – Day Two
The other item to note on today’s dives versus the previous is that Derek also had a Discover SCUBA student and a very new diver in the group with us. This is always risk; the depth of these reefs is perfect for a Discover dive, but someone with only a couple hours of pool experience may burn through their air in a few minutes, may need to surface and stop the dive, or any number of additional risks to their dive and ours. Fortunately, David (the DS newb) and Manju (the beginning diver) both did great, and we had a nice long dive together.
Our second dive of Sand Keys meant we spent the whole dive in the reef, not “lost” among the coral. Here we see our first lionfish, a spiny lobster and a lobster carcass, some beautiful huge brain coral, and a significant amount of life. This was a much better day than the previous, and left a lot of hope for an even better third day of diving.
Day Three – Hay Stacks
Our final day of diving brough us to two new dive sites. Unlike the “fingers” of coral on the last two days, our first dive site today brought us to various independent reef formations, each with their own life and coral on them. Joining us today was a semi-frequent diver with Derek who came as a solo diver to make our group four. A beneficiary of the current remote workforce, he moved down to Florida since his work only requires a good internet connection and proximity to an airport.
The highlight of the first dive was the smallest turtle I’ve ever seen on a dive. Probably just two feet long, head to tail, he was swimming alone among the reefs. Tripp has seen a plethora of turtles among his dives, so while not a unique experience, always a highlight item for any day of diving, and fortuitous since we saw several on our boat trip in, and I was hoping that wasn’t our only turtle visitation.
Our final dive site of our trip was Cannonball Cut, named after the former existence of cannonballs dropped from ships as they had to lower their weight to pass through the shallow reefs. Here, we saw the best items of our entire trip.
Day two showed us our first grouper. This last dive showed us several. From a beautifully camouflaged grouper lodged in the coral, to a three-hundred plus pound goliath swimming with two other groupers, this would be the one unique item among my diving history.
We also did a fun passthrough beneath some of the coral, saw a second and very beautiful lionfish (the one pictured above), and finished with the best dive of the trip.
Thank you Derek Bardini for taking us out in your home town, thank you Captain’s Corner for the great coordination and support, and thank you to my family for letting me take Tripp away for a few days.