The Sea Is Waiting: Travel & Diving In The New Normal

Ocean First   Jul 05, 2022

Life was rolling along just wonderfully until right about March 12. Our world changed overnight and suddenly things we took for granted were no longer accessible or if they were, they were certainly not easy. For those of us who dive and travel frequently, the abrupt halt to our favorite activities was difficult and a little bit depressing. As our country begins to reopen I felt it was time to get back on an airplane, get back to the ocean, and get back to diving. This last weekend I packed my dive gear and headed to Fort Lauderdale, FL, and then made a beeline straight for Key Largo.

The travel aspect of my trip was pretty much as I expected. I flew Southwest on a nonstop flight from Denver to Fort Lauderdale. Face coverings were required inside the airport and throughout the duration of the flight. Security was a breeze and most passengers on the terminal transit train made an effort to distance themselves from each other. The boarding process was no different from before with the exception of smaller group sizes to adhere to physical distancing. Did all passengers abide by the rules? Yes, most did. Those who did not were politely asked to wear a face-covering and one was provided for anyone who did not have one. Southwest is keeping the middle seat unoccupied (unless you are a family) and state that they will continue to do so for the majority of the summer. The beverage service for flights over 250 miles was limited to a can of water and a bag of snack mix. The plane was extremely clean though I did wipe down my seating area with disinfectant wipes as an added precaution. I did not feel at all uncomfortable during the flight.

Upon arrival in Fort Lauderdale, I fetched my bag and headed to the rental car facility. Unfortunately, many of the rental car kiosks were horribly understaffed given the high number of customers waiting for cars. There were markers to assist with physical distancing that most people adhered to. Masks were required once approaching the agent desk but I saw many folks disregarding this request. I got my car and happily headed into the traffic where there were no crowds in my car!

As I approached Key Largo I felt a sense of happiness and relief; I could smell the ocean and feel the heavy, tropical air. Just knowing that I was going diving in about 12 hours lifted my spirits! I stopped at a grocery store for some snacks and everyone was required to wear a face-covering while inside the store. I checked in, wiped down my room (added precaution, the room was very clean), and got my dive gear organized!

I dove with Sea Dwellers Dive Center, the same operator Ocean First has been using for the past 10 years in Key Largo. Due to new COVID requirements, local dive businesses can only operate at 50% capacity (14 or 16 if there are family members per boat). Although this has to be a significant challenge financially, all operations have the same restrictions. Face coverings are required on board at all times and the crew did a good job of enforcing this in a polite, courteous way. They kindly request that regulators stay in your mouth until you are back at your station and can put your face covering up. I set up my gear and was super stoked to get back in the water!<.p>

Our first stop was the French Reef where there are numerous swim-throughs and the depths are a little deeper than most dive sites in Key Largo (45’ max). We tied up to one of my favorite sites, Christmas Tree Cave, which was full of glassy sweepers, groupers, and a few queen angelfish. Those who know me well know that I cannot stay away from a swim-through. I love checking out these mysterious, open caverns and seeing who is hiding out in there! Swim-throughs are especially gratifying when they are stuffed full of fish. The feeling of freedom and satisfaction overwhelmed me as I made my way down through the water column and said hello to all my marine friends. I felt like I was home after much too long.

The dive sites looked very healthy and robust, full of energy and life! These are not deep sites so there was a bit of surge that I kind of enjoyed. The water was blue and clear and all the usual suspects checked in: blue tangs, sargent majors, grunts, snappers, brown chromis, creolewrasse, stoplight parrotfish, midnight parrotfish, yellow-headed jawfish, smooth trunkfish, blue-headed wrasse, scrawled filefish, and so much more. My favorites also made a showing: eagle ray, green turtle, nurse sharks, reef sharks, moray eels, and of course the darling Pederson’s cleaner shrimp. I also cannot resist getting my nails manicured by these gorgeous, translucent little shrimp!

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Spiegel Grove deep shipwreck was on the menu for Saturday morning. This was awesome as the SG is a fantastic dive that can provide some challenging conditions. Lucky for us we had perfect conditions and were greeted by a squadron of 10+ enormous barracuda who seemed to be guarding the pathway down to the ship. I have dove the Spiegel Grove countless times since it was sunk in 2002. Every dive is different and it was so cool to see the American flag gracefully flowing in the slight puff of current. Deep dives are short so I waved goodbye as I began my free ascent and joined the school of barracuda pointing into the gentle breeze.

After 2 days of solid diving, I was energized both in body and spirit. The reef looked like it enjoyed a much-needed break. There were fish everywhere and life was bustling down below. I have been fortunate to dive the best dive sites in the world over my dive career. It was amazing how excited I was to head to humble Key Largo. The travel part was different and certainly not as comfortable as pre-COVID. Was it awful and scary? No, it was not. I took additional precautions for my personal comfort and was definitely more aware of my proximity to other people. I washed my hands often and gave myself as much space as I could and found that other travelers did the same for the most part. I packed my own snacks so I could avoid getting takeout at the airport. Even in a pre-COVID environment, I maintained a small footprint when I traveled. That has not changed and is more important now than ever.

Although Key Largo diving is not Indonesia diving, it was the best diving I have done in a very long time. As I always say, we must appreciate a place for what it has as opposed to what it lacks. The joy I felt as I took my first giant stride since October (an eternity for me!) was exhilarating. We must be extra cautious and thoughtful now, but we also need to live. The ocean knows and she is waiting for you to come back and immerse yourself. It felt like a big hug and was so, so needed.