As 2022 comes to a close and the staff of Scuba Diving magazine reflect on some of our favorite experiences of the past year, there’s one trip we haven’t been able to stop talking about: the first-ever Florida Keys Reef and Wreck Adventure. Hosted by PADI Club in September, this exclusive event brought Club members together alongside PADI employees, magazine staff and other scuba industry partners for a week of diving, exploration and—best of all—community.
Beginning at Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo, Club members were treated to a rare opportunity—a night dive on the turtle hotel that is the Benwood wreck. For those willing to face the first day’s choppy waters, this dive aboard a sunken merchant marine freighter was a magnificent start, with nooks and crannies hiding all manner of fish, invertebrates and, yes, many a turtle.
The event was the brainchild of PADI Club operations manager Zach Pavkov. When asked why he picked this particular location for a Club trip, Zach said, “One of the best things about diving the Florida Keys is that there is something for everyone. If you’re a new diver, stick to the beautiful shallow reefs. Marine life is similar to many harder-to-get-to destinations in the Caribbean, and the water is usually crystal clear. If you’re an advanced diver, you can’t beat this destination for wrecks so large you can spend multiple dives exploring just one of them.”
Over the next two days, the group sampled three dive operators in Key Largo: Amoray Dive Resort, Rainbow Reef Dive Center and Horizon Divers. Other popular and iconic sites dived near Key Largo included Christ of the Abyss and Grecian Rocks, the USS Spiegel Grove, Elbow Reef and the City of Washington.
The Spiegel Grove, a 510-foot-long U.S. Navy dock landing ship, was a favorite for those lucky enough to dive it. Some of the advanced divers even got an opportunity to penetrate the many passages and swim-throughs cut out of the wreck.
Joining the trip for the first couple of days also meant an opportunity to try Blu3’s Nemo—a battery-powered tankless dive system. To an already certified diver, the attraction might not seem immediately obvious. But when you realize these units are portable, backpack sized and airport friendly, you are quickly sold on the idea. One diver commented that the Nemo felt surprisingly natural, and that he looked forward to trying the version with a hose allowing for exploration as deep as 30 feet.
In what felt like no time at all, the group was moving on to the next stop of the trip, a stay in Islamorada to dive with Islamorada Dive Center and the Florida Keys Dive Center. Here everyone enjoyed their first taste of Islamorada spiced rum.
Once everyone settled in, Eric Billips, the owner of both dive shops, introduced staff and Club members to the new Scubapro Seawing Supernova fins. He demonstrated how they could be broken down and packed away for easy traveling and pointed out that their design meant they were supposed to work equally well for flutter- and frog-kick finning styles.
The next morning everyone grabbed a pair of Seawing Supernovas and giant-strided into the water for their first dive. Here, the wreck of the Eagle was a hit, and the new fins allowed divers to easily traverse this 287-foot freighter, ripped in two pieces by Hurricane Georges in 1998, more than 10 years after its initial sinking.
Subsequent dives focused on slowly drifting over healthy shallow reefs, where divers practiced their videography skills and, in some cases, attracted remoras thanks to shark-patterned rash guards!
Where all previous dives saw Club members split over different dive boats depending on their interests and experience, the final day with Islamorada Dive Center entailed a Seiko-sponsored Dive Against Debris event organized by PADI AWARE community and campaigns officer Jack Fishman and photographed by shark conservationist Rayna O’Nan. For this dive, all hands were on board.
Divers had two options: Clean a deeper reef known to have discarded anchors and rope, or opt to cover more ground on the shallower reef. Islamorada Dive Center staff handled the lift bags, and divers carried mesh bags to assist with collecting miscellaneous trash and line. Toward the end of the final dive, both groups were greeted by gentle nurse sharks so curious they stayed until it was time to ascend. When it came time to weigh in, the total yield of ocean trash was 257 pounds, a feat everyone felt proud of.
At the end of the day, it was time to pack up and move on to Key West for the final days of diving with Lost Reef Adventures, Captain’s Corner and Southpoint Divers. In Key West the thrum of life and the feeling of an always-happening party was tangible. Colored lights littered small alleyways, outdoor bars hosted live music, and here and there chickens and roosters traversed the traffic, mingling as one with the crowd and the smell of Key lime pie.
Before the next day of diving (and the unwanted goodbyes), everyone gathered at the Marker Key West hotel to listen to ScubaLab director Robby Myers talk through how Scuba Diving magazine tests dive gear. The talk soon became an intimate gathering of Club members inspecting Robby’s latest gear: underwater smartphone housings.
The final day was bittersweet but as memorable as every other day. Divers had an opportunity to explore the Vandenberg wreck, another intentionally sunk artificial reef, measuring 522 feet in length. While visibility wasn’t at its best—think pea soup—the lack of current and the immense size of the wreck, as well as the incredible colorful growth on it, made it a bucket-list dive. For those lucky enough to do the dive with Southpoint Divers, a dive briefing from Captain Tropical Mike (the Rap’n Cap’n) was an experience in and of itself, with the entire site briefed in the form of “The Vandenburg Rap.”
The sentiment coming away from the event was jubilant. At the end of the day, everyone returned with smiles on their faces, brand-new dive partners at their side, and memories of new experiences with new friends. The farewell dinner at the iconic First Flight Island Restaurant and Brewery in Key West was a touching and apropos stamp on an unforgettable trip. Club members regaled with new dive stories over wine and great food and said their final goodbyes on the first of many trips to come.
“While the planning was arduous and sometimes difficult, the event was unforgettable,” said Pavkov. “The truth, though, is in the details,” he continued. “The way perfect strangers from different parts of the world found each other. Lifelong friends newly made. Borderdefying dive buddies planning their next trip. Seasoned divers realizing a dive journey really never ends.”