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LOCAL DIVING LOOE KEY C M Y CM MY CY CMY K small schools of grunts, snapper and sergeant majors. For our next trip to Looe Key we decided on a private charter to explore the deeper areas of the reef and the wreck of the freighter Adolphus Busch, which was sunk in 1998 between Looe Key Reef and American Shoal. The ship was sunk within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, so explosives were not used because the concussion might harm marine life. Instead 12 holes were cut in the ship above the waterline, and water was pumped into the hull. The 210-foot-long ship slipped beneath the waves on Dec. 5, perfectly upright at 110 feet. Adolphus Bush IV, an avid diver and greatgrandson of one of the founders of Anheuser-Busch, donated $200,000 to help purchase, prep and sink the vessel, which was then known as the Ocean Alley. The ship was rechristened the Adolphus Busch Sr. and is part of the Florida Keys Wreck Trek, a series of nine wrecks from Key Largo to Key West. Conditions were again excellent, with water so clear we could see almost the entire ship from the mooring ball. We had the Busch to ourselves, and the descent down the mooring line was easy with very little current. The marine life was timid, and the three resident goliath groupers kept their distance, watching us cautiously. A school of barracuda eyed us intently as we got nearer to the wreck. A school of permit patrolled the wheelhouse at around 70 feet. Two lionfish declared themselves captain and first mate and were two of only a few of that invasive species that we saw on all our dives. In summer the wreck is thick with silversides as warmer Gulf Stream waters move closer. Moray eels, lemon sharks and schools of grunts and snappers frequent the site. The vibrant colors of the corals and sponges were muted somewhat by a layer of silt covering the wreck. The deep reef area has flat, gently sloping terrain in depths from 50-100 feet. Currents can be strong at depth. Two reef sharks greeted us, while angelfish, schools of grunts and Atlantic spadefish swam among the soft corals and large barrel sponges. Our final dive of the day was at the eastern end of Looe Key, an area where the reef is more dramatic with steeper coral formations and more pronounced ledges. Barracuda were plentiful, large rainbow parrotfish chomped on the coral, and schools of gray snapper and yellowtail were abundant. This reef was absolutely stunning in the late-afternoon light. A trio of eagle rays gracefully patrols the reef just above the coral. 38 | FALL 2016

HOW TO DIVE IT Getting There Big Pine Key is 26 miles north from Key West International Airport and 20 miles south of Florida Keys Marathon Airport. Shuttle buses, taxis and car rentals are available at both airports. As is typical throughout the Florida Keys, most air arrivals connect through Miami International (MIA) 133 miles to the north. Flying into Miami allows diving in other Keys spots along the way southward. If you have the time, they have the dive diversity. Dive operators leave for Looe Key from Big Pine and Ramrod keys. Conditions Diving is year-round, though the summer features calmer seas, warmer water and better visibility. The Keys have a subtropical weather bias — very warm in the summer and mild in the winter. Air temperatures range from 75°F to 80°F in winter and 85°F to 90°F in summer. Water temperatures range from a low of 72°F in winter to 85°F in summer. Topside The Lower Keys are home to the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex, which encompass 410,000 acres of protected land and water. The complex comprises four refuges: Key West National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Great White Heron NWR, Crocodile Lake NWR and National Key Deer Refuge. The National Key Deer Refuge is the only habitat of Key deer. This is the smallest subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer and is federally listed as endangered. Most easily spotted on Big Pine Key at dawn or dusk, these animals are highly protected to ensure their survival in their natural habitat. Once almost extinct, they now number close to 1,000. Speed limits are aggressively enforced in Big Pine Key, specifically to protect Key deer from being killed by cars. Bahia Honda State Park, often appearing on lists of the top-10 beaches in the U.S., is 12 miles south of Marathon. The 524-acre park offers boating, camping, kayaking, fishing and snorkeling trips to Looe Key. The sun setting behind the pilings of the abandoned Bahia Honda Rail Bridge, a remnant of Henry Flagler’s “Railroad that Went to Sea” (the Florida East Coast Railway Key West Extension), is a treasured and iconic Keys visual. silver cinema of dreams A few days later we dived with one of the local dive operators. Unfortunately, the beautiful conditions we’d experienced earlier had deteriorated, and visibility was only 30-40 feet. The dives were still enjoyable, and we explored beyond the tips of the coral fingers in the flat sandy areas thick with giant barrel sponges and were fortunate to witness the wondrous display of spawning sponges. This spawning may have contributed to the diminished water clarity, but it was inspirational to observe the fecundity of the sea. Our return to shore was a special treat, as we enjoyed a close encounter with a large pod of bottlenose dolphins joyously surfing our stern wake. Visitors to the Florida Keys should not miss Looe Key. A scenic hourand-a-half-long drive south from Key Largo or a half-hour drive north from Key West will bring you to this Lower Keys paradise where there are dives appropriate for all skill levels. The shallow reefs and bright white sands provide wonderful lighting for underwater photography, and the lovely corals and plentiful marine life will beguile divers and snorkelers alike. It’s almost certain you’ll be welcomed by one of the large resident goliath groupers, a success story in marine conservation. AD New housings out now! SEACAM silver CANON EOS 1DX MKII SEACAM silver CANON EOS 5D MK IV SEACAM silver NIKON D5 SEACAM silver NIKON D500 800-451-3737 ALERTDIVER.COM | 39 SEA_016_09 IN USA 2.125x9.125+NewHousings_V2.indd 27.09.16 1 11:29