Marathon, an ocean-obsessed town encompassing 13 of the Florida Keys, is the perfect dive hub for reefs and wrecks with fewer crowds than the famed Key West. It also offers plenty of topside attractions for salty surface intervals: It’s home to Mote’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration and site of its annual Coralpalooza, a celebration where divers outplant coral to restore the country’s largest reef. You’ll also find the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, which nurses and releases sea turtles, and the Dolphin Research Center.
1. Looe Key Marine Sanctuary
Looe Key, part of Big Pine Key, is one of the most popular diving spots in Marathon. Its 210-foot-long wreck, the cargo freighter Adolphus Busch, was shipped from Haiti before being scuttled as an artificial reef 110 feet deep in 1998. This advanced wreck has large holes cut in the side to allow for swim-throughs. Natural coral formations in the region are thousands of years old and house over 150 marine species, including barracuda, grouper and sting rays.
2. Sombrero Reef
This shallow reef is one of the most magnificent coral reefs in the Middle Keys. With great visibility and a max depth of about 30 feet, it is ideal for beginner and first-time divers. You can expect brightly-hued corals, swaying sea fans and schools of fish so thick they can obscure anything else. There is also Flagler's Barge, a vessel that used to supply railroad overseas workers. Today, it’s so covered in coral and sponges (including fire coral, so watch your buoyancy!) that it is unrecognizable except for a few I-beams.
3. Coffin's Patch
This shallow reef (max 20 feet) three miles offshore is home to Pillar Patch, a collection of threatened pillar coral. Such vertical growths—which resemble a “cluster of cigars,” according to NOAA—can live for hundreds of years in the Atlantic Ocean and wider Caribbean region. Pillar Patch is one of six coral assemblages at the reef, where divers can see a wide variety of fish, including Puddingwife fish, snappers, blue angelfish and striped parrotfish.
4. Bahia Honda State Park
This dive site is a mere 20-minute drive south of Marathon. The state park, founded by 20th-century industrialist Henry Flagler in hopes of turning Bahia Honda Key into a tropical destination, offers boat trips to their local reefs for diving and snorkeling adventure and is ideal for beginners.
5. Delta Shoals
This coral reef is ideal for underwater photography lovers. Located five miles east northeast of Sombrero Reef, the water here is clear and shallow, (25 feet max depth) with mild currents and good visibility. Expect to see tropical fish, like angelfish, parrotfish, and damselfish, colorful coral, spiny lobster and a barge wreck covered in coral.
Are you ready to step up, help save the ocean, and #LiveUnfiltered at the same time? Sign up for a PADI Open Water Diver course now.
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