"It's only a nurse shark," consoles Lourdes as she ties back her long, dark hair and dons her mask. "It won't hurt you."
If you go
- Getting there: Key Largo, in the Florida Keys, is about a two-hour drive south from Broward County.
- Staying there: Key Largo has a variety of lodging options, many of which cater to divers; check the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce (1-800-822-1088; floridakeys.org) for a complete list. Here are several suggestions:
* Amoray Dive Resort, Mile Marker 104.2, which offers learn-to-dive courses and diving and snorkeling excursions, has 19 distinctive rooms and suites with refrigerators; some have full kitchens. Rates start at $75, double occupancy. Call 1-800-426-6729; amoray.com.
* Bay Harbor Lodge, MM 97.7, on Florida Bay, has waterfront cottages, efficiencies and rooms. Rates start at $55. Information: 1-800-385-0986; thefloridakeys.com/ bayharborlodge.
* Ramada Key Largo Resort and Marina, MM 100, has rooms and suites with refrigerators; continental breakfast is included. Rates start at $125. Charter boats at its marina offer deep-sea and back-country fishing, as well as snorkeling and diving excursions. Information: 305-451-3939; ramadakeylargo.com.
- Snorkeling: Such excursions are easy to find in Key Largo; ask at your hotel or a marina for a recommendation. Usually, the bigger the boat, the less you'll pay. The Quicksilver catamaran, for instance, charges from $22 up for a snorkeling trip (snorkeling equipment is extra); call 1-800-347-9972 or see quicksilversnorkel.com. We brought our snorkeling equipment along and paid Capt. Robert Laurin (305-453-3095 or 305-394-5488) $30 per person for our three-site snorkeling trip, which lasted about four hours.
Charter captains with small boats are plentiful in the Keys. If you're looking for someone with a "six-pack" license, which allows the captain to operate with up to six people aboard, ask around at area marinas, restaurants and bars.
- Information: For more information on visiting Key Largo, call its chamber of commerce at 1-800-822-1088 or see floridakeys.org.
As I reach him, I see the long shadowy figure of the shark near the bottom about 30 feet away, swimming up the spine of a wrecked ship. It is the City of Washington, or what is left of the coal transport after she plowed into this reef in 1917.
After a few minutes, the shy shark slips away in the murk. As we swim, though, I throw a look over my shoulder now and then. Nothing.
I am just beginning to relax when I feel as if I'm being watched. Turning to my left, I see a long sliver of a fish -- a 4-foot barracuda -- about 10 feet away. It seems to be baring its sharp teeth as it breathes rhythmically through its toothy mouth. Still, after the shark, I find the encounter spooky. As we swim along, it shadows us. Maybe it's looking for a handout; I've read that this site is one where barracudas are sometimes fed by divers. Thankfully, though, the fish keeps its distance.
We poke around the shipwreck, diving from the surface occasionally to examine what's left of the ship's hull. The coral is more sparse than at North Dry Rocks. Still, I bag my first sighting of an elkhorn coral, which looks, quite literally, like an elk's antlers.
Back on board, Steve reports seeing a dozen or so 4- to 5-foot barracudas hanging below the slim metal legs of a navigational light that marks the shallow reef for boat traffic. I'm suddenly glad I didn't swim over that way; the one I encountered was quite enough.
Later, though, as we skip south across the waves to our last site of the day, the shallow Cannon Patch, I realize that in just a few hours, the richness of my experiences has far outweighed the uneasiness I first felt.
Beating rush hour
Cannon Patch is a shallow patch reef -- a mere remnant of its larger cousin -- about a mile from shore. As we pull up to an anchoring buoy, the water is flat and calm, a big change from the waves that are rolling over the reef farther out. A quarter of a mile away is a large catamaran, the Quicksilver, which holds 20 or so orange-vested snorkelers who are about to enter the water. Had we not found Robert and his small charter boat, we would have been among them.
Suddenly, I feel an urgency to explore the diminutive Cannon Patch before snorkeling rush-hour starts. When Bill enters the water, I am right behind him, swimming 200 or so yards over a grassbed that gives way to sea rods, brain coral and sponges, all just several feet below us. Were I to let my arms trail down in the water, my fingers would brush the tops of soft coral. But, like Bill, I keep my hands clasped in front of me, arms close to my body as I swim.
We see many of the same reef inhabitants as we did on North Dry Rocks, but because of the shallow water, they are close enough that I can pick out intricate details. When we see a large brain coral on the bottom, Bill dives to point out Christmas tree worms, their hairlike appendages bristling in the shape of a holiday tree. He wiggles a finger at them, and the shy creatures retract, snapping into a tight cone.
When we spy a barrel sponge, we take turns inserting our fists into its middle -- careful not to touch it -- to feel the water circulating through it. Nearby, a blue-and-gold queen angelfish swims by in a shimmer of color, and a flat-snouted hogfish glides through a thin forest of sea fans, its dorsal streamers trailing it like a trio of antennas.
We are on the edge of the reef, working our way back to the boat, when we come across a 3-foot hawksbill turtle among the coral and sea grass. It clutches the tendrils of a regal sea fan between its body and its brown-spotted front flippers, holding itself in place against the current.
It is still, its small unblinking eyes wide open. It regards us quietly, as if thinking: Do you see me? I don't think you do.
Beak-nosed hawksbills have been hunted worldwide almost to the brink of extinction. They are treasured for their dark amber shells, which are fashioned into such things as combs, jewelry and eyeglass frames.
Although they have been protected in the United States since 1970, the endangered species is still hunted, especially in the Caribbean and Central America.
We hang in the water about 10 feet from the turtle, watching in wonder. After a few minutes, the turtle shakes loose of the coral and launches over the reef.
Like a bird, it flaps then glides, flippers stretched wide, over a red and orange forest of coral, leaving us in the bubbles of its underwater wake as it swims magically away into our memories.
Lisa Roberts can be reached at Lroberts@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5598.