When I first moved to Miami Beach, I knew this neon-hot tourist area would be a convenient base for dive destinations to the Florida Keys and a host of other Caribbean sites. Due to its large Hispanic population and convenient location, Miami has become a crossroads for the Americas. That means easily and inexpensive access to the Bahamas, the Grand Caymans, Honduras, and a host of other world-famous dive destinations.
What I quickly learned was that great dive destinations were closer than I'd ever imagined. The area boasts one of the highest concentrations of underwater wrecks anywhere, and scuba diving has recently become a popular vice for Miami residents and visitors alike. Only Truk Bay Lagoon, in the Pacific Ocean, offers a more concentrated collection of diveable wrecks.
In the past, divers stopped in Miami to change planes or to rent a car on their way to the Florida Keys. But veteran and new divers looking for something different are learning that, thanks to an active artificial reef program, they can stay in Miami for unusual diving, excellent conditions, and many above-water distractions.
The dive boom follows in the wake of the cultural boom in South Beach. This sizzling Art Deco District serves as one of many Miami-area waterfront neighborhoods that serve as perfect places to stay and explore during a tropical wreckreational dive vacation. Those who think South Florida doesn't have a history, above or below the surface, will be surprised by the range of possibilities in this region.
Miami was a natural spot to become an artificial reef Mecca. Shipwrecks and other manmade items may not seem to fit into the ocean ecosystem at first, but it doesn't take them long to become an integral part of the underwater landscape. Miami's weather and diving conditions make such structures a perfect fit for the abundant fishlife and invertebrates that thrive in these waters.
In 1981, when Dade County initiated the Artificial Reef Program, there was one dive boat operating in the Greater Miami area. Today, the program is recognized as one of the most successful artificial reef programs in the nation. The number of professional dive boats has increased to more than a dozen, and they offer everything from shallow-water snorkeling on natural reefs to scuba descents on submerged boats, tanks, towers, and other features.
The founding father of Miami diving is be Ben Mostkoff. As former coordinator of the active program, he was responsible for obtaining and coordinating the sinking of most of the wrecks. Without Ben, Miami would still be just a layover on most diver's itineraries.
There are ten designated offshore artificial reef sites -- five situated between the Dade/Broward county line and Key Biscayne and another five between Key Biscayne and Monroe County. Most of the best diving is in less than 130 feet of water and less than two miles offshore. Between the ten sites there are more than 30 ships, two Tenneco oil platforms, a pair of U.S. Army tanks, about than 650 concrete and limestone structures, and many other interesting artificial reefs.
Along with local dive shops and operators, the best general guide for Miami area diving is Joel Auerbach's excellent book, Dive Miami (available through dive shops or by calling 305-944-9055). Last updated after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Auerbach provides a good summary of 45 dive sites in Dade County, and includes history, underwater photography, and Loran C information.
The good ship Orion provides a perfect introduction to Miami artificial reef diving. Sunk in 1981, it was the first ship submerged by the Dade County Environmental Resources Management Artificial Reef Program and is still one of the best and most popular dives. The 120-foot ship was originally named the Trinidad and it guided ships through the Panama Canal for almost 50 years before it was sunk off Key Biscayne. As with most Miami wrecks, the ship has been stripped for safe diving and can be entered. It's a mature wreck with lots of marine life and coral growth.
Perhaps the most unusual dive is the Spirit of Miami, a Boeing 727 jet aircraft. The jet was meticulously cleaned, disassemble for transportation over land, and reassembled for placement on a barge by its owner, Steve O'Neal. On a perfectly calm morning in September, 1993, before a live audience on NBC's Today Show, the jet was lowered intact to the bottom and anchored in place at a depth of 82 feet. Although damaged by Hurricane Gordon in the summer of 1995, the jet remains a favorite of Miami area divers.
The more-recently sunk Doc DeMilly has already become similarly popular with divers and fish alike. Situated just east of the Pacific Reef Lighthouse, the 287-foot steel freighter was built in 1949 as the Nuevo Rio. It was renamed to honor a legendary Miami veterinarian and pioneer. Sunk in 1986, when jet fighters dropped concrete 'bombs' on her and remote-controlled chargers took her to the bottom, the huge ship rests in 150 feet of water, and has a 70-foot profile reaching towards the surface.
Another popular dive destination (especially for new divers) is a trio of wrecks just off North Miami Beach. Dubbed the 'Wreck Trek' by local operators and divers, the site is connected by underwater trails -- designated with steel stakes anchored to the sea bottom as markers. The trek includes the 85-foot tug Patricia; the 100-foot steel fishing vessel Miss Karline; and the unusual Radio Antenna, an old Radio Mambi antenna that was welded into 19 pyramids to make an unusual dive site. There are also some other smaller boats in the area, making this an easily repeatable underwater trek.
In keeping with unusual structures, the Tenneco Oil Rigs are another unusual and popular spot. Though they are located off of Hallandale to the north, these former Gulf of Mexico oil platforms are very popular with Miami dive operators. Donated by the Tenneco Oil Company, five platform sections were sunk in 95-190 feet of water in 1995. The three within safe diving limits make for a lively and mature artificial reef.
Local dive shops are also fond of the Tarpoon, which was sunk in 1988 in memory of local diving pioneer Mike Kevorkian, the founder of Hialeah-based Tarpoon Dive Center (his daughter, Valerie, still runs the shop). The 175-foot grain carrier sits in 70 feet of water just south of Key Biscayne. There's a commemorative plaque on the bridge. A victim of 1992's Hurricane Andrew, the Tarpoon was violently torn asunder by the storm and is now in many pieces.
In 1994, just two miles east of the Eden Roc Resort & Spa, two U.S. Army tanks (complete with their huge gun turrets) were sunk in just 50 feet of water. As you can imagine, this created the ultimate Miami 'two tank dive.'
Nearby, the 1995 sinking of the 180-foot freighter Tortuga (renamed Fair Game) brought the artificial reef program even more publicity. Sunk as part of the Cindy Crawford/Billy Baldwin movie by the same name, the huge ship is easily penetrated and has already attracted lots of barracuda and other marine inhabitants.
Another interesting dive in relatively shallow water is the Rio Miami, sunk by Hugh Downs, an avid diver, during a 20/20 television segment on artificial reefs in 1989. The 105-foot tug is in just 80 feet of water.
In addition, Artificial Reef Program personnel were responsible for placing more than 650 concrete and limestone structures in barren habitats offshore in 1996, with another 400 coming in 1997. The specifically designed structures used in Miami are 6 feet wide, 9 feet long, and weigh about 17,000 pounds. They were designed by Mostkoff to be a cost-effective and functional replica of a small patch reef, with emphasis given to creating a habitat catering to the needs of post-larveal recruits and juvenile fish. "As these artificial reef programs evolve, you will see more and more prefabricated structures, designed for a particular purpose," said Mostkoff on a recent dive.
Of course, there are many other interesting dive sites in the Miami area. Heading from north to south, the possibilities include: the Narwal (steel freighter); the Andro (originally a private yacht); the C-One (a Navy tug boat); the Crane Wreck (an old steel crane that apparently fell off a barge or ship); the Biscayne (a great shallow ship dive and night dive); the Proteus (a huge and shallow steel freighter); the Sheri Lyn (another huge steel freighter); the Sarah Jane (actually a combination of seven different boats); Belcher Barge #27 (a large barge and more than 500 tons of concrete pipe); the Belzona Triangle (a trio of tugs); the Ultrafreeze (a long steel freighter); Emerald Reef, Flamingo Reef, and Fowey Light Reef off Key Biscayne; and, finally, the Almirante (another huge steel freighter).
The sheer number of sites may make the Miami dive scene seem a little overwhelming, but the majority are relatively close, an even on a short visit there are many opportunities to get a feel for the area.
Miami Beach's South Beach is an ideal base for divers visiting Miami, but other possibilities include the Surfside area to the north, downtown Miami, and Key Biscayne to the south. Many operators and hotels now offer land packages specifically for divers through the WaterSports Marketing Council of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce (see the sidebar).
With the nation's largest Art Deco historic district, the trendiest of accommodations options, creative chefs in varied restaurants, designer shopping, and the nonstop action of the ever-so-wide beach, the aqua Atlantic, and Ocean Drive's people-watching, SoBe is the place to be. It's like visiting a movie set (a la Birdcage), but this setting is ever so real.
South Beach is enjoying a tourism and economic boom that springs from the refurbishment of the area's Art Deco District. From cafes and clubs along Ocean Drive, Washington Avenue, and Lincoln Road to the hot hotels and restaurants everywhere, South Beach is sizzling with the vibrant colors of Art Deco architecture and style.
One of the best ways to tour the Art Deco Historic District is through a walking tour run by the Miami Design Preservation League, or another organized tour by foot, bike, car, or bus. With a tour, you'll get a true sense of the history and flavor of the buildings, providing a perfect introduction for returning later to favorite buildings for closer inspection.
Once you've explored the colorful buildings of South Beach, you can pursue as little or as much as you desire. The choices include: swimming, sunning, and people-watching on the wide beach; strolling, biking, or roller-blading along Ocean Drive and Lummus Park; finding a favorite restaurant; or dancing the night away in one of many hot nightclubs.
You may also want to head up to the Holocaust Memorial, 1933 Meridian Avenue (305-538-1663), a stirring memorial that includes a bronze sculpture that depicts Holocaust victims crawling up a huge open hand to freedom, pictures from concentration camps, and the etched names of many victims. It's just across the street from the helpful information counter and shop of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce (see sidebar).
One of the most popular land activities in South Beach is in-line skating. If you didn't bring your own, rent what you need at Skate 2000, 1200 Ocean Drive (305-538-8282), or Fritz's Skate Shop, 726 Lincoln Road Mall (305-532-1954). Along with the Art Deco biking tours mentioned above, rental bikes from Gary's Megacycle, 1260 Washington Avenue (305-534-3306), or Miami Beach Bicycle Center, 601 5th Street (305-674-0150), also offer a convenient way to get around South Beach for a day or more.
For watersports enthusiasts, there are vendors all along the beach that rent equipment for windsurfing, sailing, and jet skis. For inland boating along Indian Creek and Biscayne Bay, head up to Beach Boat Rentals, 2380 Collins Avenue (305-534-4307). For boating (and gambling) further afield, you may check into a short lunch or dinner cruise with Sea Kruz, 1280 5th Street (305-538-8300).
Golfers can enjoy a fun short course at the Bayshore Par Three Golf Course, 2975 Praire Avenue (305-674-0305). If you want to keep up with all of the other hardbodies of South Beach, fitness facilities include: Club body Tech, 1253 Washington Avenue (305-674-8222); Gridiron Club, 1676 Alton Road (305-531-4743); and South Beach Gym, 1020 Ocean Drive (305-672-7499), where you enjoy and ocean view and are just steps away from a cold drink at the ever-popular Clevelander Bar.
Lynn Seldon is a Miami Beach-based freelance travel writer and photographer who specializes in adventure travel in the Southeast U.S. and the Caribbean. He regularly contributes to GORP, most recently on his experiences running the Gauley River.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication