No Passport Necessary: The Best Diving You’ve Never Heard of
By Lauren Haller / DivingTop100.com
The Best Diving – Dry Tortugas
For a travel experience unlike any other, look no further than the Florida Keys. For a diving experience unlike any other, look just a little bit further – Just 70-90 miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve is a much-overlooked gem of the Florida Keys. Some of the most vibrant, colorful and fishy reefs in the Caribbean can be found here. The Gulf’s best diving is in the Dry Tortugas.
Dry Tortugas diving is perfect for 80/80 divers (80 degree water, 80 feet visibility). The water is relatively warm and clear year round. Temperatures range in the high 60s even in wintertime, and are as warm as mid 80’s in the summer. Visibility ranges from 60 feet to virtually limitless.
The Tortugas offer diving opportunities that appeal to recreational divers of all tastes. Literally hundreds of dive sites cover Tortugas Bank, where you can find anything from shallow sea grass beds to deep reefs and ledges. The Dry Tortugas are home to some of the best diving in the Caribbean, according to Frank Wasson, owner of Spree expeditions, one of the three liveaboard boats that service the area.
“Each dive site has it’s own unique character. Some are excellent for night diving, some are quite deep, some have massive pinnacles that rise from the sand bottom to within 30 feet of the surface,” Wasson said. There are countless buoyed dive sites within the Ecological Reserve and National Park, as well as the opportunity for drift diving the deep ledges of Tortugas Bank. Boat operators familiar with the area can make recommendations based on what divers would like to see.
If what you want is unique wildlife, the Dry Tortugas has plenty of that as well. Due to the remote location of the reefs, there is little diver pressure, and the reefs are home to vibrant corals, large pelagic and reef fish, including rays and sharks. The islands of Dry Tortugas National Park have nesting populations of loggerhead and green sea turtles that return year after year. There is even a family of Sperm Whales that has been sighted consistently over the years.
Wasson has his favorite dive sites based on what he would like to encounter that day. Bat Cave has a large swim-through and is abundant with small reef fish. Large grouper, snapper, tarpon and Eagle Rays are often spotted at Cooper’s Reef, one of the more colorful sites in the North Reserve. You can actually successfully navigate the site by fish, thanks to a large school of dog snapper that is always one pinnacle north of the mooring. The pinnacles are covered in colorful sponges and leaf algae.
Great Every Time is a favorite night diving spot, and has lots of basket stars and macro-critters. Texas Rock is an incredible night diving spot in the National Park. The wreck of the Avanti is an excellent shallow dive site where you can always find a goliath. Finally, the live coral cover is better than 60% at Sherwood Forest, making it a popular site, and possibly the best-known in the Tortugas.
For American travelers, a US based destination removes the need for passports, visas, and other international travel requirements. The need for baggage fees is also eliminated – feel free to haul all of your favorite dive gear and camera equipment with you to fully experience and capture the beauty of the Dry Tortugas.
Fort Jefferson is a pre-civil war fortress that was never quite completed. The fort grounds are now a National Park, open to the public from sunrise to sunset. Fort Jefferson is on Garden Key, one of four visitor-permitted islands of the Dry Tortugas National Park. Camping is permitted on the island for a small fee. The remainder of the islands are pristine, low-laying sand islands inhabited only by birds, turtles and native vegetation.
Interpretive rangers are available at the Fort Jefferson guest center for guidance, and there is a clearly marked self-guided walking path through parade grounds and structures of the old brick fort. The spring migratory season is prime time for birdwatchers to visit to encounter songbirds and warblers. The islands of the Dry Tortugas National Park are home to the only nesting colony of Magnificent Frigate birds left in the continental United States, and are also the only known nesting ground for Sooty Terns in the US.
The remote location, limited diver pressure and protected status of the Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve suggest that it would suffer from fewer conservation issues than other reefs. However, reefs are fragile ecosystems that are subject to a number of ecological and anthropogenic stressors. Water quality, ocean acidification and vessel groundings are all concerns for coral reef ecosystems similar to the Dry Tortugas.
More specific to the Tortugas, overfishing has taken a toll on the natural balance of the ecosystem. Oftentimes, the term “marine sanctuary” is a misconception. Marine sanctuaries often exist to protect submerged cultural resources such as wrecks, or whales and marine mammals, and most of the time offer little to no concern or protection of reefs or fisheries. And only the Sanctuary’s North and South Ecological Reserves and the National Park’s Research Natural Areas are closed to fishing. Fishing, including spearfishing, is allowed and perfectly legal in most of the waters of Tortugas Bank.
Spree Expeditions runs a variety of research expeditions as well as recreational trips. The research involves everything from Reef Visual Census (counting fish), to whale and turtle tagging, side-scan sonar, water and mud sampling, side-scan sonar, and drilling core samples of coral.
The objective of this research is usually to determine the health of a population, whether it is corals, fish, or whales. It is also to determine the age and composition of the ocean bottom, or to observe how currents are changing around the Dry Tortugas. Their research expeditions involve partnerships with several universities, as well as NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, US Geological Survey, and with Texas, Louisiana and Florida Wildlife and Fish Conservation agencies.
Melanie and Frank Wasson took over Spree Expeditions in 2002, and have since expanded their operations in both scope and area. They have added new dive destinations and offer technical diving charters. The Spree has been modified with many diver-friendly amenities, and has one of the best online booking systems in the industry.
Spree Expeditions does not allow fishing of any kind, and therefore dive exclusively in the park and ecological reserve, where spearfishing trips are not allowed. Their crew possesses an extensive knowledge of the area, and Spree is a US flagged vessel – meaning it is inspected annually by the US Coast Guard for safety and crew performance. Having a US flagged vessel requires immaculate conditions and performance by the vessel, equipment, and staff, and is not common within the liveaboard industry. It ensures that every expedition will be safe, smooth and enjoyable.
For more information about the Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve, National Park or Tortugas Bank, visit…
For more information about Spree Expeditions, visit www.spreeexpeditions.com