The Florida Keys Reef Tract is the only living coral barrier reef in North America
and is the 3rd largest coral barrier reef in the world.  The first is the Great Barrier
Reef in Australia and the second is the Meso-American Reef in Belize. The reef
extends approximately 221 miles down the South East coast of Florida and runs
parallel to the Florida Keys starting at Key Biscayne near Miami all the way down
to the Dry Tortugas which are 70 miles west of Key West.  The reef is found from
1 mile to 8 miles offshore.   

Inshore reefs are very shallow with the coral growing along the bottom and the
fish hovering over the top.  This makes an excellent place for snorkling.  The
area surrounding the reef appears to only be sand but it is an important nursery
area for a variety of small fish, crustaceans and even young corals.  Because of
this,
it is illegal to stand up anywhere around or on the reef.  Offshore reefs are
high-relief and divers will find themselves cruising down coral canyons
surrounded by schools of multicolored wrasses and parrotfish.  

The depth ranges from inshore to offshore.  Several of the inshore reefs have
sections that stick out of the water at low tide (these frequently have names
ending in "Rocks") and go as deep as approximately 20 feet.   Offshore, the
depth ranges from 15 down to 60 or 70 feet over the reef.  There are several
shipwrecks that have been put down as artificial reefs outside the reef tract.   
Many of these are right at the limits of recreational scuba diving and most are
covered with soft and hard coral growth, multicolored sponges, and schools of
large fish.

Coral Reefs

Coral Reefs are made up of a community of organisms - soft corals and hard
corals.   Soft corals such as the Sea Fan have a soft, flexible skeleton of protein
similar to what makes up human fingernails or hair.  Hard coral such as the
Elkhorn coral form a hard exoskeleton of secreted calcium carbonate  or
limestone. Since the hard corals have a skeleton that is literally rock, it is their
growth that really forms the structure of the reef. Each coral head is really a
colony of thousands of individual animals called coral polyps, which look
something like upside-down jellyfish.

Most hard corals in the Keys grow at a rate of 1/4 - 1/2 inch a year, and it ends
up taking about 50 years for a brain coral to grow to the size of a basketball.
Branching corals grow a little faster at a rate of up to 1 1/2 inches a year.   But
these corals are much more brittle and prone to damage from storms, ship
groundings, or careless divers. Since the soft, jellyfish-like outer layer is the only
living part of any coral head, a diver or snorkeler can easily damage or kill a
coral merely by touching it! This is the reason behind the Sanctuary
Preservation Areas, better known as "No Touch, No Take" Zones.

SPA - Sanctuary Preservation Areas

The majority of the reef system off Key Largo was ceded over to the Key Largo
National Marine Sanctuary in 1975, which was then incorporated into the Florida
Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 1990.  Because of this, the reefs that we visit
are now under heavier protection and heavier enforcement of violations.  The
reefs are showing great benefits from this protection!  Many of the most
sensitive, healthiest reefs are now protected as Sanctuary Preservation Areas, a
designation that was put in place July 1st, 1997.  Being designated as an SPA
makes it illegal to fish, lobster, stand, anchor on the reef, or even touch anything
within the SPA boundaries. This protection has boosted levels of large
gamefish on the reefs and greatly stabilized the overall health of the reef tract.
Florida Keys Diving, Florida Keys Scuba Diving, Diving Florida Keys, Scuba Diving Florida Keys
Scuba divers and snorkelers can choose from
a variety of Florida Keys dive sites for scuba
diving and snorkeling.  We offer wreck diving,
reef diving, night diving, beginner and
advanced diving.  Florida Keys Snorkeling is
always an adventure!