The Fam­ily That Dives To­gether …

Un­der­wa­ter ad­ven­tures in Key Largo

Times of the Islands - - News - BY PAULA MICHELE BOL ADO Paula Michele Bo­lado is a free­lance writer and pro­fes­sional ed­u­ca­tor liv­ing in South­west Florida.

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

We like to treat the reef like it’s a mu­seum. You don’t want to touch any­thing down there.” —Dive­mas­ter Chris Beck­man

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.

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. Clock­wise from top left: A trunk­fish, sea anemone and bar­racuda are among the thrilling un­der­wa­ter sights for Key Largo divers.

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