A trivia question for you: You arrive by plane in the morning and by afternoon dive in 80 degree water over coral, sponges, sea fans, and tropical fish—yet when you surface and face west, a few hundred yards away is the mainland continental U.S. and a major city. What is that major city?
When most of us West Coast divers think of diving Florida, we think of the Keys, the long string of islands off the extreme southern tip of Florida. It’s easy to understand why. Florida Keys coral reef diving is fantastic, and it has gained a lot of press. But the warm Gulf Stream runs far up the coast and where there is hard substrate, marine life grabs a foothold and abounds.
Offshore from the south Florida city of Fort Lauderdale, there is a great deal of coral limestone ridges, and the marine life is astoundingly prolific and relatively unknown except by avid local divers.
The reefs are patterned in three parallel stringers running along the shore, often coming close enough to the coast for a very satisfying tropical beach dive. The ridge closest to shore is low, rising only a couple feet from the bottom but attracts abundant fish. Depths on this first ridge are as shallow as 8 feet and rarely deeper than 20 feet. Shallow and close to shore in spots, this is a good area for snorkelers. A few spots along the second ridge are also reachable from shore. The second ridge has a more pronounced structure with mini-caves, arches, small drop-offs and more. Depths on the second reef range from 15 to 40 feet.
The second and third reefs are usually dived by boat because of boat traffic, distance from shore, and currents. The outer reef has depths of 30 to 70 feet.
The marine life you would expect to see here is typical to Caribbean and Bahamian reefs. You’ll see butterflies, angels, grunts, turtles, morays, nurse sharks, and more. With water temperatures that range from the mid-70s to low 80s, coral flourishes. Although it is not as abundant and large as seen at the Keys to the south or the Bahamas to the east, I was pleasantly surprised by mounds of brain and star coral that were the size of beach balls. Other corals were present as well. More prolific, however, are the soft coral sea fans. They are obviously healthy and abundant because of the steady Gulf Stream that brings them current-borne food on a constant basis. Another benefactor of this floating feast is the sponges. Off the limestone ridges of Fort Lauderdale they are abundant, diverse and large. I especially liked the variety of colors of the whip sponges. The barrel sponges are large and vase sponges, neon bright. The sponges are not as big as you might see at, say, Grand Cayman, but what they lack in size they make up for in abundance.
But what I enjoyed the most was the tropical fish. Photo opportunities abounded. And, because there are “blank spots” in the reef, I was able to settle down and photograph to my heart’s content without worrying about damaging coral.
If the reefs are not enough, this section of the Florida coast is peppered with numerous sunken wrecks, both accidental and intentionally sunk. Some have a great history, others just create fantastic artificial reefs. All are home to abundant fish. Goliath groupers, up to five feet long and several hundreds of pounds in size, make some of these wrecks their home. Most of the wrecks have been made safe for divers with passages cleared (but not all, so be careful and enter only if you have had special training). Some of the wrecks are literally laid end to end, so you can visit more than one wreck in a single dive. Also, the wrecks are at a variety of depths, ideal for all experience levels. And it’s not just ships. The artificial reefs include an airplane and decommissioned oil platform.
At all these dive sites the Gulf Stream is nearly always felt but is frequently manageable. Many of the shallower reefs have permanent moorings and charter boats will tie off for the dive.
Further from shore, stronger currents kick in and drift diving is the plan of attack. Visibility varies from about 30 feet, upwards of 100.
Perhaps, one of the biggest benefits of diving Fort Lauderdale is you have a very cosmopolitan beach city to enjoy on your surface intervals. Beach front hotels are numerous, luxurious, and affordable. Fort Lauderdale is host to some of the finest restaurants in Florida, shopping is excellent, and the Everglades are just a stone’s throw away.
Getting to Fort Lauderdale is easy and surprisingly affordable from California. Direct flights from LAX can be as little as a couple hundred dollars.
If you want a quick jaunt to someplace different, and on the tropical side with city amenities, try a few days diving Fort Lauderdale. If you find yourself on business in Miami, Orlando or any Florida city nearby, take the time to soak your head along the reefs and wrecks of Fort Lauderdale.
For more information, visit the website of the Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitor’s Bureau at www.sunny.org.