The Family That Dives Together …
Underwater adventures in Key Largo
Some kids have birthday parties inside a cavernous entertainment venue, while others celebrate in the vast ocean with barracudas, lionfish and blowfish, exploring a coral reef around a statue of Christ wrapped in fire coral. This is what Ryder Wagoner did on his 11th birthday in Key Largo, Florida. Ryder and his dad, Bryan Wagoner, and family friend, Scott Caroll, all went diving, carrying GoPro cameras to capture the stunning views.
At the age of 11, Ryder had already completed 10 dives, including two in Key Largo, and, recently, two more diving for shark’s teeth in Venice. For the Wagoners, scuba diving has become a special father-son, under-the-sea hobby.
Key Largo is a unique corner of the world where ocean currents combine with warm Gulf waters to create an ideal environment for a coral reef. In order to descend with scuba tanks into this panoramic landscape, you need to be a certified diver. Divemaster Chris Beckman with SCUBAdventures in Naples helps guide people through the training process.
Beckman decided to become a scuba instructor because he wanted to work outside and get paid for doing what he loves. He frequently leads classes to Key Largo, which, according to Beckman, “is one of the only reefs that is growing instead of declining in the world. They are doing a lot of restoration with the staghorn corals, which are excellent reef builders. The reef is also naturally blocking a lot of the freshwater that is dumped into the Gulf from Lake Okeechobee.”
If you are not a certified diver, you can still experience the reef by snorkeling off Key Largo, where Christ of the Abyss, a submerged bronze statue of Jesus Christ, is a good place to observe the dreamy world of coral life just beneath the ocean’s surface. Here reddish sea anemones, sea fans as delicate as purple lace, star corals, sea plumes and 7-foot-high antler-like staghorn or elkhorn corals sway toward a sandy valley along the sea floor. Another adventure that awaits divers off of Key Largo is the City of Washington, which is a shipwreck from 1917 that has a naturally growing reef system attached to it.
The types of corals that speckle the world below
—Divemaster Chris Beckman We like to treat the reef like it’s a museum. You don’t want to touch anything down there.”
make this an inviting place. Beckman describes what divers can see around Key Largo: “Fan coral are purple guys that wave in the wind. There are lots of barrel corals that are different colors. The fire coral is mustard colored with white tips and grows on the Christ statue.” Fire coral has little stinging cells called nematocysts, which itch more than sting, but, Beckman says, you don’t want to go rubbing around it. In fact, preserving the world below is basic dive code. “We like to treat the reef like it’s a museum,” he says. “You don’t want to touch anything down there, especially because things you touch might like to bite back.” In other words, you don’t want to disrupt the fragile reef ecosystem.
Becoming a certified diver gives you the best vantage point for viewing the reef. “All it takes is coming in and figuring out what schedule works best for you,” says Beckman. Classes meet in a group setting either twice a week, which takes three weeks; or once a week, which takes five weeks—so it’s a nice slow retention-based process.
The first session meets in a classroom where students get oriented and go through the early chapters of the student manual, covering mainly the physiology of diving and what’s dangerous about it—“protecting yourself from the devil you don’t know,” notes Beckman. “This sport is extremely safe if you have a clue. But if you don’t, it can be dangerous.”
The next sessions take place at a swimming pool where students practice buoyancy and learn the skills required in safe diving: what the regulator does, how to save a dive buddy who runs out of air, how to save yourself if you’re out of air, and a multitude of related skills that will prepare you for diving in open water. The training culminates with four open-water dives at the National Marine Sanctuary off Key Largo.
Although scuba gear can be rented, many people like to buy their own, because “you grow to have a relationship with it all, especially with the right mask,” Beckman says.
Besides Key Largo, Beckman takes people on dives elsewhere around Florida, such as diving for megalodon teeth in Venice, exploring caves and caverns a little farther north or wandering through coral-laced shipwrecks in Pompano. All these dives are perfect for family trips, as the Wagoner family will happily attest.
Clockwise from top left: The author and her son beneath the surface; Ryan Wagoner next to Christ of the Abyss in the waters surrounding Key Largo; an ideal environment for colorful corals.
Clockwise from top left: A trunkfish, sea anemone and barracuda are among the thrilling underwater sights for Key Largo divers. Reddish sea anemones, sea fans as delicate as purple lace, star corals, sea plumes and 7-foot-high antler-like staghorn or elkhorn corals sway toward a sandy valley along the sea floor.