Beneath the surface of the sea is a world that exceeds every dive destination in its diversity, size and scope. On a semi-calm day, visibility in the Florida Keys coral reef is excellent. It is the only live coral reef in North America, and explodes with bright corals and colorful fish. The diving area is absolutely immense - more than 185 miles north to south, this reef system is the greatest stretch of coral in the Western Hemisphere, and encompasses a huge variety of coral including walls, pinnacles, swim-throughs and more. It gets even better because farther offshore sit three enormous rings of coral, known as atolls, which provide hundreds of miles of additional reef.
My sailing adventure began when I boarded a 165-foot state-of-the-art catamaran. I felt the excitement ripple down my spine as I sailed to an unknown destination, the wonders of Mother Nature awaited me.
I sat in the front of the craft, awed by the sundeck, shaded lounge, freshwater showers, and the unlimited sodas and water. I thought, What a wonderful birthday present, the trip of a lifetime. What could be more fulfilling than the taste of salt water on my lips, or the ability to glide smoothly under water, like a ray of the sun, discovering formations of ancient coral and schools of tropical fish? The exquisite water, a warm ocean breeze, and a magnificent sunset as a backdrop: that is what Key West is all about.
When the ship finally stopped after hours of heading out to sea, we were given a set of tedious yet crucial instructions on the behavioral aspects, ethics and safety precautions with which to comply. One helpful hint was, once in the water, to walk backward, since our fins made it difficult to walk forward. If I couldn't find the reefs, a guide would help. If I was out and about exploring the depths of these ominous crevices, and couldn't see any of my fellow voyagers, I would be in deep trouble. Or be eaten by sharks, attacked by pirates, jellyfish, a giant squid, or be magically turned into a mermaid and swim to a clandestine ocean city. Or I could simply find the boat. I had many options.
Suddenly I found myself in the water. I could hear shouts of kids nearby, mothers yelling for them to stay close. A shark! Really, there was a shark. Someone saw it, and the man right before me in line jumped off to took a flash picture. Oh, my underwater camera! Damn, I missed the shark. Oh well, there should be more, the instructor said. Threshers, tigers, great whites and leopards ... someone yelled out that he didn't know leopards and tigers could swim out this far.
The reef was teeming with life: tangs, parrotfish, snappers, blue turtles, an occasional group of barracuda. For a beginner, this garden under the sea was a great place to get used to breathing and swimming. The mounds were colorful and the fish even more so. A diseased elliptical star coral! The flora and fauna, the cultural aspect of it all, millions of species. Literally, millions. I was mesmerized at the sight of these natural fountains of life and the symbiotic relationships with the original inhabitants of the Keys.
It was time to go back to the mainland. I enjoyed the acumen of the tanned lifeguards, their knowledge of the sea, and the soda that was freshly reeled in from the cooler below my seat. I snuggled up with my towel and watched as another perfect day in paradise slipped away on the horizon. ^
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.