Key Dives in Islamorada, Adventure Underwater

May 10, 2015 Updated: April 28, 2016

A weatherbeaten fisherman was getting ice from bait lockers at Bud ‘n Mary’s
Marina. The place is legend in Florida’s Keys at Mile Marker 79.9, just north of
the Tea Table Relief bridge, right on the Atlantic Ocean. There’s a large
concrete deck that overlooks the marina. A perfect place to relax in early
morning before sunrise. Commercial fishing boats turn over their diesels and are
usually the first to leave, deep sea fishermen anxious to get lines in.

Just next door Mike Goldberg’s Key Dives shop opens at 8. Divers check in for
the morning trip aboard ‘Giant Stride,’ their 42-foot Newton. “It is powered by
two 8.1 liter John Deere’s, Bertha and Rita,” Captain Ken Wangen said. Captain
Ken hails from Rapid City, South Dakota, a pretty far cry from the Atlantic
Ocean. Captain Ken worked 25 years for Yellow Book. His last posting was in the
Florida Keys.

“That was in 2009. I started diving in the Keys. I quit Yellow Book and
traveled for two years. Did a lot of diving in Mexico. When I came back to the
Keys I was running out of gold,” Captain Ken laughed. “I got my divemaster and
captain’s licenses and have been diving and driving ever since.”

“I like the middle-keys. There is less traffic and less people. This is the
best reef right offshore here. The best of the best was when I saw a 15-foot
great white shark on the wreck of the ‘Eagle.’ I was tied off to the wreck when
I saw it on the surface. When the divemaster surfaced I told him to go over and
take a look. I told him I think there is an injured dolphin over there. He swam
over and back-paddled fast. The great white swam away and took a look at divers
still on the wreck. They got some pretty good photos of it. When I showed the
pictures to a shark expert he said she was pregnant and likely would drop her
pups very soon after the picture was taken.”

This was an exciting prelude to what we might see underwater off Islamorada,
about midway between Key Largo and Key West. Inside Key Dives owner Mike
Goldberg was sitting on a leather couch in the lounge deciding which of his four
pots of curry he would sample next. “I’m a curry fan. Who doesn’t like curry?”

From the reaction of his divemasters, quite a few apparently. Divers could join
them at the table, talk with Mike and discuss diving. He hails from San Pedro,
California where he grew up. He took his degree at Northern Illinois University
in finance and became a bond trader. He moved to Los Angeles where he obtained
his dive instructor certification then moved with his lawyer wife Marci to the
British Virgin Islands. In BVI both doffed the garments of stressful careers for
diving.

“We bought this business when it was derelict. Marci and I put our experience
diving in the BVI to use and it’s good. I’m a big fan of customer service. When
we came to the Keys, dive operators were not known for customer service. We
imported our style up here. We tag everyone’s gear and shuttle it back and forth
to the dive boat. We treat divers like they are on vacation. We take pride in
what we do.” Mike found a new innovation, passing a bag of curd around so his
dive masters could dip it in any of his curry pots.

“My wife and fourteen year old daughter Jeri dive. She’s been diving since she
was 8 and is almost as passionate about diving as my wife and I.” With his curry
almost gone, Mike packed up the rest, welcomed the last divers at the counter
and got them organized for the dive.

The 42-foot Newton is designed as a dive boat. There is ample room, a marine
head, hot showers and Key Dives equips buckets to rinse masks separately from
cameras. Everything is in place on board. Tanks are set up with diver’s gear,
rental or personal, by the time they board. Captain Ken gives a safety briefing
and comes down from the bridge to present a site briefing when they tie up to
permanent moorings on the reefs.

Our first dive was on Alligator Reef. Divemaster Samantha Schuff served as dive
guide. The reef was twenty feet deep. Massive coral heads loomed up to within
ten feet of the surface. Sandy valleys led between them. Large groupers were
everywhere. Since spearfishing is not allowed in the Keys sanctuary area the
fish are not afraid of divers. I was content snapping pictures of bountiful
spiny lobsters and reef life when I looked up and saw a veritable sea monster.
The Goliath grouper must have weighed in at over 400 pounds. This gentle giant
just looked at me and swam under a ledge.

I was alone with Samantha and one other diver. The others had wandered further
around the reef guided by Mike. The big guy served as my model for the next
half-hour. It cracked out loud noises when it was annoyed and swam to another
ledge. From one reef to another I took its picture. The great Goliath grouper’s
finale was at an overhang. There it settled determined not to move any more and
to let me snap as many photos as I wanted. The thing opened its giant maw. I
understood how the claim came into being that it was a Goliath grouper, not a
whale that swallowed Jonah.

I motioned for Samantha to swim around to get her in the picture. Wouldn’t you
know the optical cable on my strobe broke. No matter, I turned on my SeaLife
Dragon video light and illuminated the giant’s mouth and throat. SeaLife’s
optically corrected 18 millimeter wide angle lens did the job perfectly. The
Goliath did not move when Samantha swam in beside it. There it was, perfectly
aligned. Little Sam and Big Mouth.

Eventually the other group of divers arrived. I moved away and motioned for
them to come in and take a look. A woman with a camera housed in a plastic case
took one picture. How anyone could take just one picture amazed me. Then they
went back to the boat and I returned to my photo taking.

Maybe divers think they get that kind of a photo-op all the time. Back on board
‘Giant Stride,’ I was pretty enthusiastic. I wondered what Captain Ken had in
store for us next. He didn’t move far, only to another mooring ball on Alligator
reef. There is not much surface interval when diving in 20 to 30 feet so the
crew switched over our tanks and we were back on the reef. This time Captain Ken
was divemaster and Captain Jason Adams stayed aboard. Mike Goldberg took his
group of divers down first.

The reef is a series of valleys and coral heads. I was content to follow
Captain Ken and take pictures of small critters along the way. The divers in our
group surfaced with Captain Ken. I still had 2500 psi in my tank, sad to waste
it but we were about out of time. I looked down and saw a gigantic turtle
swimming over the reef. I looked at Captain Ken who was already holding onto the
tag line, preparatory to helping me aboard. He pointed to the turtle and off I
went.

It was gigantic. An aged male loggerhead. The big tail was tucked under its
shell. The loggerhead looked at me with its ancient, cataract ridden eyes, then
proceeded to continue its search of the sandy bottom. I took several pictures.
The turtle dropped at a place in the sand near the reef. It picked up a small
conch shell. Dropped it, picked it up again, dropped it. When the loggerhead
picked up the live conch shell a third time and was satisfied it was correctly
positioned in his mouth there was a loud crack like a rifle shot. Captain Ken
was sixty feet away on the tag line looking down. He said he heard it clearly.

With powerful jaws the turtle crushed the conch, sorted out the part it wanted
to eat then spit out the broken pieces. I took a sequence of pictures. The
turtle’s chomping threw up sand. The pictures clearly display its dinner
manners. When the hundred year old loggerhead moved on, I followed. Another
shell, another crack and it devoured the edible portion spitting out the shell.
This ritual went on to another shell. I took more pictures, looked up at Captain
Ken who was still hanging on the tag line behind ‘Giant Stride.’ I decided I’d
better not overstay my welcome so joined him on the dive ladder.

“I never saw anything like that,” Mike Goldberg said when we told him about the
loggerhead’s crushing the conch shells in its jaws. Indeed a rare encounter
underwater.

The next day Captain Ken scheduled a dive on the ‘Eagle.’ I couldn’t get him to
promise that the great white shark would be there. Captain Jason Adams took
‘Giant Stride’ out and tied us to the ‘Eagle’ float ball. Part of the artificial
reef program in the Keys, the shipwreck is one of the most photogenic in the
area. Ken briefed us on the wreck using laminated drawings. He warned that there
was always current and we should grab the line immediately and pull ourselves
down to the wreck. We were not to let go until we were sheltered from the
current by the wreck.

Water temperature was a warm 79 F on the surface, five degrees colder on the
bottom. Captain Ken regretted that he left his wetsuit back at the shop. He
braved the dive and guided us from stern, where a permanent mooring is set up,
through a broken apart mid-section, to the bow. A shy Goliath grouper swam into
a hole and didn’t come out. Depth is about 100 feet. The current was running 2
1/2 knots. The dive was amazing with ample opportunity to get pictures of the
shipwreck in clear water.

There was fellowship and conviviality on the run back to Bud ‘n Mary’s Marina
where the crew took care of all the dive gear in what Mike calls valet service.
Key Dives crew are fun to be with, careful and competent. It is Florida Keys
diving at its best.

I wanted to hook up with an old friend and fellow NAUI instructor Captain
Spencer Slate. Everybody just calls him Slate except maybe me since I’ve always
called him by his first name. Captain Slate has been instructing diving in the
Florida Keys for 37 years. He showed me a picture of himself dressed in a pink
bunny costume during his annual Easter egg hunt. I’ve dressed as Santa Claus on
Christmas dives, was even in tuxedo at an underwater wedding; I am not daring
enough to wear a pink bunny costume underwater.

There he was, eventually. “I love my boss dearly. But he is always late,”
Captain Skip said with good humor. I had not been diving with Captain Slate in
23 years before we got a dive in last year. We made a rendezvous to go diving
together in 2026. Since I was a little early, Captain Slate could be excused for
being a little late. He had frozen ballyhoo with him.

“It’s my gig. we go out beyond the three mile limit and I feed.”

Captain Slate was on the cover of the May 1989 Skin Diver Magazine feeding a
large green moray eel. It is what he does and is renown across the planet. We
went out to a reef they call Pleasure aboard his 30-foot Island Hopper, ‘Spiegel
Eagle.’ Captain Slate operates his dive shop and boats out of a marina at Mile
Marker 90.7, oceanside. It is close to the ocean and a quick ride to the reefs.
He has five dive boats including a 32 foot Delta and Burpee work boats.

Captain Slate has a bait holder he can reach into to remove fish he uses to
feed critters underwater. As soon as he is on the bottom he is trailed by a
retinue of reef fish. Every so often he’ll offer tidbits to the minions. Their
excitement often brings his favorite moray eel out to greet him. We searched the
reef. No moray eel. I took photos of Captain Slate feeding reef fish. Nothing
big arrived on the scene where he expected his moray eel. After a half-hour,
looking clearly disappointed, Captain Slate surfaced. I continued taking
pictures of reef critters then joined him aboard.

“They killed it. I’m sure of it. I don’t know how you can put this but they
killed my moray deliberately. It’s my gig.” Captain Slate is a tall man. He’s
been instructing divers and taking divers out in the Florida Keys for 37 years.
That someone would kill his pet moray eel was clearly distressing to him.

A family of three snorkelers were aboard from the Boston area. They had great
fun. Captain Skip took us to nearby Davis Reef. Back in the water Captain Slate
took his bait holder with him. He found a green moray under a ledge. The eel was
shy and only came out a short distance, grabbed the ballyhoo, then ducked back
into its hole. My photos were not good since the moray shuffled up a lot of sand
in the process and never came out from under the ledge. It takes time for a
marine creature to develop confidence with a diver even when being fed.

Back aboard Captain Slate described his twice weekly ‘Creature Feature.’ “We do
wrecks, reefs, eco-tourism. We work with the Coral Restoration Foundation and a
reef conservation society. With the feeding we want our divers to respect these
creatures and not think they are vicious animals. I enjoy interacting with them.
Some divers get back on the boat and say it is he best dive they ever had. I
don’t have an aquarium. The ocean is my aquarium. It is better to see creatures
in the ocean. The most dangerous creature out there has been the man-‘o-war
jellyfish. The most popular dives in the world are shark dives. We are not
catching them. We are not hurting them. We are not putting them in an aquarium,”
this Winston Salem, North Carolina native drawled. He was still dismayed knowing
that someone killed his pet moray eel on Pleasure Reef.

Islamorada has many attractions to enjoy. Not to be missed is Old Conch Harbor.
It is a gift store, art gallery, boutique. Straight through the open air store
is a small, sheltered marina. Berthed here is ‘Warrior,’ a completely restored
53-foot Hatteras. Captain Stephen Stough takes guests deep sea fishing. Lobster
boats are docked at the marina and it is likely visitors can see fishermen
building traps. Old trap frames have been made into picture frames and mirrors.
The art gallery has many antique photographs of the Keys the way they were.

Old Conch Harbor is a unique place. Visitors are welcome to a cup of coffee or
soft drink and can sit on the large deck facing the dock. Cuban fishing boats
that brought refugees across and were left on shore are in the water at Old
Conch Harbor’s dock. A lobster tank keeps live lobsters handy for those wanting
their own special cook-out. Everyone is friendly at Old Conch Harbor. It is the
way the Keys were fifty years ago.

Fine dining abounds in the area. There is a wide variety of restaurant fare to
chose from. Chef David Matlock and his partner Yoel Sanchez opened their own
restaurant and whiskey bar at Mile Marker 81 oceanside. They call it Oo-Tray,
derivative from the French word that means out of the ordinary. The cuisine is
extraordinary. Chef David won the Best Chef award at the Florida Keys Island
Festival. Other awards grace the portico to the kitchen. For those that enjoy
good whiskey, Oo-Tray’s list is daunting. Dining is inside in air conditioned
comfort or outside in the bar area.

Right on the water at Mile Marker 85.5 bayside, immediately south of the Snake
Creek Bridge, is Smugglers Cove Resort, Marina and Restaurant. Andrew Hirsch
recently took the operation over and expanded it to a tiki bar and dining area
out on the dock area. Dining is a great pleasure on an open deck that gives out
to the marina. The food is good and plentiful, the bar and outside dining area
relaxing.

“Do you know Islamorada Sand Bar?” Andrew asked. “Any weekend there are 400 to
600 boats up on the sand there for parties. We created this tiki bar with a
sandy beach area for after party parties. We also have weddings and affairs that
rent the whole space,” he said.

A newly opened restaurant at the Amara Cay Resort, at Mile Marker 80 oceanside,
offers fine dining inside the hotel’s main lobby. The enclosed restaurant gives
views to the resort’s swimming pool and ocean beyond. The restaurant offers
intimate dining and a modern bar. A giant grouper painted on translucent glass
behind the bar makes it a must for divers. The menu has everything a-la-carte at
reasonable prices. The staff is considerate. I left my car lights on. It
wouldn’t start when I got back. I called AAA. They said it would be an hour or
more. Sylvan, at the door, offered to help me. He had long jumper cables in his
personal vehicle and got me started quickly. A super-plus for Amara Cay Resort’s
staff.

There are a lot of places to stay in the area. Hotels, motels resorts and even
one special secret. If you are going diving with you club or family you can rent
cottages right on the ocean. It is an area of billionaire’s mansions yet this
little piece of paradise has been preserved much the way it was when life in the
Keys was simpler. Two cottages, one a two bedroom and one a studio, with all
modern conveniences inside, offer private, peaceful tranquility outside. There
is a private dock and beach. Pets are welcome. Jorge and Angel Cabrera call them
Peacock Cottages derived from wild peacocks that roam the area and are heard to
call out nearby. Kayaks, paddle boards, surf boards and fishing gear is
available free for guests as is a small pool.

Islamorada remains a paradise for divers, fishermen and ocean sports
enthusiasts. The reefs beckon with ocean discovery. There is fine food and
accommodations to make the area a key destination in the Florida Keys. It is a
place where you can relax and take time to enjoy nature.

If you get a rainy afternoon, or have an interest in history, a visit to the
History of Diving Museum is a must. Located bayside at Mile Marker 83, the
museum is a remarkable place to do research in their large library. Enjoy
exhibits that include the most extensive collection of hard hats and commercial
diving rigs in the world. The collection is a labor of love put together by Dr.
Joe Bauer and his wife, also a physician, Dr. Sally Bauer. Be sure to leave
enough time at the museum to enjoy their video presentations as well as the
exhibits. There is true substance here and it will prove to be a highlight of
any visit to the Keys.

For more information contact Islamorada Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center
toll-free at 1-800-FAB-KEYS or 305-664-4503 or visit www.islamoradachamber.com.
Key Dives can be reached at 305-664-2211, www.keydives.com. Captain Spencer
Slate is at 305-451-3020 or toll-free at 1-800-331-DIVE, ww.captainslate.com.
Peacock Cottages at Old Conch Harbor can be reached at 305-853-1010 or
www.oldconch.com. Oo-Tray Restaurant 305-922-2027 or www.oo-tray.com. Smugglers
Cove Resort, Restaurant and Marina 305-664-5564 or www.smuggscove.com. Oltremare
Restaurant in the Amara Cay Resort at 1-877-783-2124, www.amaracayresort.com.
The History of Diving Museum is at 305-664-9737, www.divingmuseum.org. For deep
sea fishing visit www.teamwarriorsportfishing.com or call Captain Stephen Stough
at 305-877-9583.

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