On the deck, I hang onto a handrail and look down at the rolling Atlantic Ocean. Here, 3½ miles from shore in the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary in the Florida Keys, we are floating above the largest living barrier coral reef in North America. This site, called North Dry Rocks, is the first of three we will sample during a day of snorkeling.
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.
Lexi, a precocious brown-and-white Jack Russell terrier that belongs to our charter captain, Robert Laurin of Key Largo, has no such qualms. She toes the edge of the boat's aft platform.
"Lexi!," Robert shouts. "Lexi, no!"
Like a disobedient child, she flings herself into the sea.
I watch her dog-paddle in circles, a catch-me-if-you-can look in her eyes, then, while Robert rounds the pup up, I slip on neon-blue rubber fins, pull on my mask and carefully lower myself to the aluminum ladder at the boat's heaving stern. As I watch the horizon rise and fall, I feel as if I'm on a kiddie-coaster ride. Next stop, the Fun House.
Then I reason: If a 7-pound dog can take on the Atlantic, what do I have to fear? With a deep breath and leap of faith, I plunge face-first into the water. It envelops me like a warm blanket, the salt water giving me buoyant wings. I relax on the surface, and my body swings with the waves, which rock me like a baby.
Below me teems a Technicolor world of startling colors, many of them worn by creatures I've only seen in Jacques Cousteau documentaries. Lavender sea fans, slender crimson wands of sea rod, and lime-green tendrils of sea grass pulse to and fro with the wave action. Myriad fish -- purse-lipped French grunts, zebra-striped sergeant majors, yellowtail snapper, bluehead wrasse and elegant disk-shaped surgeonfish -- swim among the mounds of coral that jut from the ocean's shallow alabaster-white sand bottom. I feel like Alice in Wonderland, gone through the looking glass. Only in this case, it's more as if I've plunged into a scene from Finding Nemo.
But there are no clownfish that I can see; just my friend Bill gesturing excitedly. My eyes follow the point of his finger, and I turn to come face to tentacle with a small school of Caribbean reef squid. Five of them are suspended several feet from us in formation, their long side fins fluttering like thin silk ruffles caught in a breeze. Their large black eyes seem to look us over, as if they are as curious about us as we are about them. Slowly, with their tentacles stretched in front of them, they glide away.
We turn, swim a few yards and hover over a huge clump of stony coral. The water is from 15 to 25 feet deep here, and the coral comes to within 5 or so feet of the surface.
As I adjust to the dazzling underwater scene, I begin to pick out the reef's features. There on the bottom is a huge round mound of rust-colored spherical brain coral, its surface exhibiting polyp-filled mazelike folds that resemble brain tissue. Near it, a dark-lipped rainbow parrotfish nibbles around a graceful orange-red sea fan that is anchored to a stony mound, the calcified skeletons of coral probably thousands of years old. A school of thousands of tiny minnows swirls around clumps of branching corals that stretch thin fingers toward the surface. The fish move as one, changing direction in a start-lingly bright glint of silver.
I am new to this reef -- part of the system that stretches the 220-mile length of the Florida Keys -- and I am amazed by its color and life. But I'm told by those who have frequented Florida's reef system for decades that the health of the coral has declined dramatically.
Think of coral as the sea's equivalent of the canary in the coal mine, its health indicative of that of our near-shore waters. For all its hard-as-stone appearance, it is a surprisingly delicate ecosystem that reacts with volatility to changes in water temperature, purity and clarity.
Even its popularity jeopardizes its health. Though charter captains and snorkel and dive operators admonish those they take to the reef to look but don't touch, some reef-goers can't keep their hands to themselves. Touching a piece of hard coral or brushing against the stalk of a sea whip can damage or cause the death of it, as can dropping an anchor atop it.
Cool, a shark!
As we approach our second snorkeling site, a deeper out-of-the-way spot called the Elbow, north of Dry Rocks, I see several white anchoring buoys bobbing among the emerald waves, placed there by the sanctuary to protect the reef from the anchor damage.
Steve, a Key Largo writer who, with his girlfriend, Lourdes, is sharing the charter boat with us, snares one of the buoys with a long aluminum gaff and ties the boat to it.
Bill is the first in, and almost immediately his gleeful voice rings over the water: "Wow, nurse shark! Get in!"
My reaction is immediate: "No way!"
"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."
Curiosity wins out, though, as I slip into the water with as much stealth as I can muster, I note that Lexi is staying aboard the boat. She grins at me, tongue lolling, as I swim toward Bill.
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.