A Regular Guy’s Guide to SCUBA Diving in South Florida

Christopher Jon Uriarte
18 min readJan 9, 2024

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An attempt to answer common questions for locals and visitors looking to SCUBA dive in Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade Counties, and the Florida Keys. (Updated: July 2024)

Table of Contents:

About this Guide

The motivation to write this came from a very simple set of circumstances: When it came to giving recommendations about diving in South Florida, I found myself typing the same thing over and over again. Whether it’s people I know in real life or fellow divers asking questions on Scubaboard or Facebook, I try to be as helpful as possible. What I’ve found is that most people have the same set of basic questions, so it would be easier just to point them to something like this. So, here we are.

The focus of this resource is to provide visitors and locals with a general “lay of the land” when it comes to diving in South Florida. I’ll focus more on dive locations, logistics, and charter operations — and less on diving education or advanced diving beyond Advanced Open Water (technical diving). The recommendations made throughout this article are my own, are unbiased and I’m not compensated by any of the shops or dive operators that I reference. Furthermore, this is intended to be a helpful introduction, not an in-depth compendium about diving in Southeast Florida. So, yes, I’m leaving a lot out :)

About Your Author

The most important thing to note is that I’m just a regular guy. A diving enthusiast. I am not an instructor. I’m not a dive professional. I have no affiliation with any local dive shop. I am based in Miami, so I’m blessed to have all of this diving in my backyard, and I do a fair amount of local and international dive travel each year. I have personally flown over 3 million miles and visited almost 80 countries. I’m confident that I’ve hit most of the popular dive sites in South Florida and have also had the pleasure of diving throughout the Caribbean, Hawaii, French Polynesia, the Maldives, and more. I aim to complete about 100 dives annually and am a very happy warm-weather diver (what’s a dry suit?). I have been a certified diver for over 20 years and hold many different certifications, including Advanced Open Water, Rescue Diver, Self-Reliant/Solo Diver, many specialties, and the PADI Master SCUBA Diver (for whatever that’s worth). My favorite type of diving, by far, is wreck diving. I also enjoy cycling and snowboarding and was a former snowboard instructor for many years in the past.

As a general rule, I do not have many rigid or religious views when it comes to diving, and I hope that is evident in my guidance below. I don’t believe there’s only one way to do things while diving, no “best” dive operator, no “best” equipment setup, etc. Hopefully, you’ll find that this resource presents you with good, balanced data that helps you find the diving experience right for you.

A General Introduction to Diving in South Florida and the Best Times of the Year to Dive

Many things are obvious about why South Florida is a great diving destination. Of course, the weather allows for year-round diving, the temperatures are warm nearly every day of the year, and you can dive to 100 feet wearing just a 3mm wetsuit. But the best things, in my opinion, are the variety and accessibility that the area offers to all types of divers: massive reefs, deep and shallow wrecks, shore diving, shark diving, night diving, and more. All of this can typically be had within minutes of anywhere that you choose to stay.

However, the question about timing is often the first one asked by visitors: When is the best time of year to dive in South Florida? In general, I would say that there is no bad time of year to dive here, but the precise answer may depend on your level of comfort and what you’re looking for. Let’s take a look at our dive seasons:

  • May to September makes up our hottest season. Temperatures can be high and the humidity is generally very sticky. It’s typical to dive in a shorty or just a rash guard and swimsuit. Ocean temperatures are high and reach into the 90s (F). One thing to keep in mind is that our hurricane season is in full swing starting at the end of the summer. While we’ve had many years where the big storms have, thankfully, avoided our coast, rain and winds can be frequent. Many a dive boat has been canceled due to rains or rough seas in September and October.
  • October to early December are mild and the humidity has come down quite a bit. Divers start to pull the 3mm wetsuits out of the closet but, if you have a high cold tolerance like me, many still dive in shorties or swimsuits depending on the conditions. Ocean temperatures can still be quite warm, usually hovering in the 80s (F).
  • December to March represents the coolest season. 3mm and 5mm wetsuits are the dress of choice and air temperatures can keep you chilly on the top side. It’s typical for the air temperature to be cooler than the ocean temperature on many days. Nonetheless, diving conditions are still excellent and water temperatures are typically in the mid-70s (F).

Average water temperatures for the Fort Lauderdale area are as follows:

When you’re planning your dives, it’s always a good idea to check both the weather and the Miami-South Florida marine forecast from NOAA.

A final factor to consider may be the type of sea life you wish to see or hunt for. For example, goliath groupers tend to congregate in August and September (although individual groupers are visible year-round). Lemon sharks descend on Jupiter from January to March. Lobster season runs from August to March, with our infamous Mini Season taking place for two days in July.

Understanding Where the Southeast Florida Diving Hot Spots Are

Of course, many things can bring you down to South Florida, so I’ll attempt to address the two most common questions I get about locations:

  • “I’m staying in X. Where should I go diving?”
  • “I want to come down and do some diving. Where should I stay?”

A good place to start to become familiar with our four major diving areas:

  • The Miami area is home to several dive shops and dive boats and provides very good access to many reef and wreck sites located between south Broward County (to the north) and Biscayne National Park (to the south). Dive operators offer a variety of beginner, open water, and advanced open water dives daily, including daily trips to the very popular Neptune Memorial Reef. Several operators offer shallow and deep wreck dives across many different sites. For those staying in Miami and Miami Beach, the dive boats are a short Uber ride from popular tourist areas and hotels.
  • The Broward County area includes the Fort Lauderdale, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea (LBS), and Pompano Beach diving hot spots. Here, you will find many diver operators that offer daily visits to everything imaginable, including some very deep wrecks for technical divers. Well-known for its abundant shipwrecks, you’ll find over 50 shipwrecks across 26 miles of coast, and, in some cases, you can hit up multiple wrecks on a single tank. You’ll also find very long and wide reefs that run the length of the county. In addition, those who like to shore dive have various options from the Lauderdale-by-the-Sea area, known as the “Shore Diving Capital of the US”. Operators access the ocean from either the Hillsboro Inlet (to the north) or the major inlet at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale (to the south). Those staying in Fort Lauderdale, LBS, Wilton Manors, or Pompano Beach will have easy access to many dive boats via a short drive or Uber.
  • Much like Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, Palm Beach County has a similar variety of natural reefs, artificial reefs, and wrecks. Most dive operators are based out of Rivera Beach, Boynton Beach, Jupiter, and West Palm Beach. I tend to think the reefs in Palm Beach are among the best in South Florida, and nearly all reef dives in this area are run as drift dives. In addition to the typical reefs and wrecks, Jupiter is known for its amazing shark dives, which run throughout the year.
  • The Florida Keys are known for their excellent reef and wreck dives, with most dive operators based in the Key Largo area, Islamorada, Marathon, and Key West. Visitors may choose to spend all their time in the Keys or, perhaps, make the quick one-hour drive to Key Largo if they are staying in Miami. Beginners can experience many shallow reef dives, while those with more experience often make the trip to dive the amazing giant wrecks, including the infamous Spiegel Grove, Eagle, Duane, Adolphus Bush, and Vandenberg.

You’ll have access to first-class diving regardless of where you base yourself. Local divers will certainly have no lack of opinions about which areas or sites are the best, but, in my opinion, they’re all pretty good.

The Best Locations to Stay

So, to immediately set your expectations, I’m going to disappoint you by saying there’s no right or wrong answer to the question of “Where is the best place to stay for diving?”. But the good news is that you have a lot of accessibility to many different sites regardless of where you choose to stay.

A quick look at Google Maps will show you that the major dive areas are all in proximity to each other. Here’s some guidance if you choose to base yourself in one of the more popular dive areas:

  • If you stay in Miami, you have close access to Miami-Dade dive sites and are within one hour of dive sites in Broward County and Key Largo.
  • If you stay in Broward County, you have close access to Broward County dive sites and are within one hour of dive sites in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties.
  • If you stay in Palm Beach County, you have close access to Palm Beach County dive sites and are within one hour of dive sites in Broward County.
  • If you stay in Key Largo, you have immediate access to Key Largo Dive sites, you are within one hour of Miami dive sites, and within two hours of most dive sites within the southern Florida Keys, including Key West.

Pro Tip: My time estimates above represent driving times with little or no traffic. However, traffic in South Florida can be terrible during weekends, holidays, and the high season. Be sure to plan accordingly.

There are, of course, many different factors that can contribute to the decision of where you should base yourself:

  • If diving isn’t your only focus, you may prefer Miami's trendier restaurants, nightlife, retail, and culture. Or the vast beaches, restaurants, and family-friendly atmosphere in Fort Lauderdale.
  • Palm Beach and the Keys tend to be quieter, but both also offer many good restaurant and lodging choices. Of course, if you are looking for the most elegant options for beach resorts to compliment your diving (and have the cash to burn), Palm Beach is the home to landmarks like The Breakers, Eau Palm Beach, and The Boca Raton resort.
  • If you don’t have a car available and will be depending on Uber for most of your trip, Miami and Fort Lauderdale tend to be a bit more manageable and have more walkable options when compared with the Keys and Palm Beaches (the exception being Key West, which does not require a car).
  • Key Largo and Key West are among the most popular places for tourists in the Keys, but they are different in so many ways. Key Largo tends to be quieter and more hotel-focused, with all activity centered around the US-1 highway. Just over two hours south, Key West is very busy with many entertainment options but fewer diving options. Some divers opt to stay in Islamorada or Marathon, which offers nice hotels, local diving, and closer access to Key West and Key Largo. It is not unusual for divers to spend, say, a few days in Key Largo and then transition down to the middle Keys or Key West to close out their trip.

What about Dive Resorts and Liveaboards in South Florida? And should you just book everything through your hotel?

Those of you who have traveled to diving-focused destinations like Roatan, Belize, or Bonaire may have stayed at a dive resort — a hotel primarily focused on diving clientele and usually has all diving facilities and resources on-site. There are very few true dive resorts in South Florida, however — one to be precise (the Amaroy Dive Resort in Key Largo). Many resort hotels have close relationships with dive operations and will happily coordinate dive trips for you.

However, I think it’s best to avoid the middleman, skip your hotel, and work directly with local dive operators. South Florida dive operators are well accustomed to dealing with visitors, are generally friendly, are well-run, and offer direct booking options online. Dealing with a potential “dive-unsavvy” hotel concierge can often make things confusing and possibly more costly.

A few small liveaboards depart from South Florida, but they are unlike the large operations you may be familiar with in the Bahamas, Roatan, or many other far-flung destinations.

Popular Dives and Dive Sites in South Florida

Let me get this out of the way first: You’ll have fun regardless of where you dive in South Florida. However, some sites or types of dives tend to be very popular among locals and visitors alike. Here are just a few:

  • Neptune Memorial Reef (Miami area; All diver levels + snorkling) — Considered to be the largest conceived manmade reef in the world, they also claim to be the most visited dive site in the US. This is a manmade memorial site constructed in the fashion of the lost city of Atlantis. Memorialization in the reef is achieved by blending cremated remains with a natural concrete substance, which is then molded and secured within the various artistic structures. It boasts abundant sea life and is frequented many times daily by local dive operators. Although it is the final resting place for many — including Julia Child! — its inhabitants intend for the site to be enjoyed by all of us.
  • The Florida Keys “Big” Wrecks (Key Largo, Looe Key, Key West; Advanced Open Water diving and higher) — There are many wrecks scattered up and down the keys, but the giant wrecks of the Spiegel Grove (510 ft.), Adolphus Busch (210 ft), Eagle (287 ft), Duane (327 ft), Bibb (327 ft), and Vandenberg (522 ft) are the “big girls” of the bunch. These are teeming with all types of sea life and are favorite locations for sharks, rays, and goliath groupers. They are also favorites of advanced wreck and technical divers, many of whom have spent decades exploring the complexities (and dangers) of the Spiegel Grove, Duane, and Vandenberg.
  • John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (Key Largo; All diver levels + snorkeling) — A favorite among tourist and beginner divers, this colorful reef most famously features the underwater Christ the Abyss statue. The in-park dive concession is popular with divers and snorkelers.
  • Blue Heron Bridge (Riviera Beach; All diver levels) — Yes, it’s a highway bridge over the Intercoastal Waterway, but the marine life is exceptional, making for one of the more unusual shore dives in America. Although it may seem simple, newbies may have difficulty with the logistics. Specifically, the tides must be timed well, and nearby parking can be a challenge. It’s recommended that first-timers dive with a local or hire a guide from one of the nearby dive shops.
  • Tenneco Towers (Off of Hallendale Beach and Sunny Isles Beach; Advanced Open Water diving and higher) —A personal favorite of mine, the Towers are a relocated gulf oil rig that was moved to Florida to become an artificial reef. The massive complex comprises several different platforms that start at 60 ft. deep and continue to about 130 ft. This is also a great site for advanced and technical training.
  • Jupiter Shark Dives (Jupiter, Florida; Advanced Open Water diving and higher) — Jupiter is known for its amazing shark encounters that are mainly run by the folks at Emerald Charters (feeding trips) and Jupiter Dive Center (non-feeding trips).
  • Various Wreck Treks (Jupiter, Fort Lauderdale, Miami; All levels of diving, consult the specific dive charter/trip) — Hundreds of shipwrecks line the coast from Jupiter down to the keys. Some sit at shallower (Open Water) levels, while many are for Advanced Open Water (and above) divers. Many dive operators regularly host specific “wreck trek” trips or two/three tank wreck dives.
  • Goliath Grouper Aggregation (Palm Beach County) — From August to October every year, goliath groupers reconvene at several of the same sites, making for an awesome opportunity to see these majestic creatures. Many dive charters in the area will offer goliath aggregation dives during this time.

Popular Dive Operations in Southeast Florida

Below is a list of some popular dive operations in the area. Some of these are dive shops that run dive boat charters, and some only do charters (e.g., they have no shop). This list is not comprehensive, nor does it reflect an endorsement from me. However, each has been used by me, divers I trust, and/or has an exceptional reputation in the area.

Miami Area Dive Operations

  • Diver’s Paradise (Key Biscayne) — Dive shop with two charter boats that go to several shallow and deep locations daily; Strong training program. A short drive from South Beach and downtown Miami.
  • ACE Diving (Downtown Miami) — Excellent dive boat located right in downtown Miami, easily accessible from Miami and South Beach. They are also a training facility for both PADI and SDI.
  • Tarpoon Lagoon (South Beach) — dive shop and dive boat located right in South Beach
  • Grove Scuba (Coconut Grove) — dive shop and dive boat just south of downtown Miami

Broward County Dive Operations

  • American Dream Dive Charters (Fort Lauderdale) — Well-run independent dive boat close to downtown FTL
  • Aqualife Divers (Pompano Beach) — Independent dive boat located right at Hillsboro Inlet that does a variety of shallow and deep wreck and reef dives. Friendly to beginner, advanced, and technical divers.
  • South Florida Diving Headquarters (Pompano Beach) — Popular multi-boat dive operation that hits all the major area sites
  • Sea Experience (Fort Lauderdale) — Well-regarded local operation with many options
  • Miss Conduct (Pompano Beach) — Small six-pack dive boat
  • DX Divers aka Dixie Divers (Deerfield Beach) — Well-regarded dive shop and charter boat

Palm Beach County Dive Operations

  • Jupiter Dive Center (Jupiter) — Known for their variety of reef, wreck, and (non-feeding) shark dives
  • Pura Vida Divers (Singer Island) — Dive operation that has a wide variety of excursions (shallow, deep, wreck, reef, tech). Also provides guided tours of Blue Heron Bridge.
  • Emerald Charters (Jupiter) — Shark dives are what they are known for and pretty much all they do (with an occasional lobster/spearfishing trip)
  • Narcosis Dive Company (Riviera Beach) — Great dive boat that specializes in daily two-tank reef or reef/wreck dives
  • Gung Ho Divers (West Palm Beach) — A more recent entry to the Palm Beach County shark dive scene. I have not had a chance to dive with them, but I have heard many good things from several trusted divers about their charters.

Florida Keys Dive Operations

  • Horizon Divers (Key Largo) — Well-regarded shop, instruction, and dive operation. They operate a shallow boat and a deep boat. Well-known for their daily deep dives to the Spiegel Grove and Duane, accommodating AOW and tech divers. Reputation for having one of the top training programs in the country.
  • Quiescence (Key Largo) — Private dive operation with a well-stocked shop. Maximum 6 divers per boat. Trips are customized to the diver’s requirements.
  • Rainbow Reef Dive Center (Key Largo) — Popular high-volume dive operation that does all types of dives and has a large training program
  • Conch Republic (Key Largo [technically, Tavernier]) — Excellent dive operation and shop that goes to all the major Key Largo sites, including the deep wrecks
  • Captain Hook’s Dive Center (Marathon, Big Pine Key, Key West) — Multi-location dive operation that goes to local reefs and wrecks, including the popular Thunderbolt
  • Islamorada Dive Center (Islamorada) — Dive operator that specializes in all types of dives, located in a popular Islamorada tourist area
  • Captains Corner Dive Center (Key West) — Dive operator in downtown Key West that does daily reef and daily wreck dives, including the popular Vandenberg
  • South Point Divers (Key West) —Another dive operator in downtown Key West that does daily reef and daily wreck dives, including the Vandenberg

Things to Know about Diving on Charter Boats in Southeast Florida: Dive Boat Procedures, Cylinders, Solo Diving, and More

Nearly all dives in Southeast Florida are boat dives. As noted earlier, there are a few exceptions to this (Lauderdale-by-the-Sea-area shore dives, Blue Heron Bridge, etc.). Therefore, you should first become familiar with dive boat procedures and etiquette before venturing out with a dive operator. I used to just assume that everyone knew how to dive from a boat in the middle of the ocean, but then I met many visitors whose entire diving experience was in local lakes, quarries, and rivers. (Apparently, not everyone lives on the ocean!) If you’re unfamiliar with boat diving, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Please read up on it before your visit and ask questions of the captain and divemaster. Every charter will begin with a briefing that includes the boat’s specific features, rules, and procedures.

In South Florida, the default rental cylinders (tanks) for most dive operators are AL80s (aluminum 80cu ft./11L of gas). Many will also give you the option to rent steel HP100s, but these are usually only provided when requested. Air is the default breathing gas, but Nitrox is always available by request if you are certified. Those operators who specialize in deep dives will often provide a Nitrox mix (or mixes) that is best suited to the profile of the day’s dives. Cylinders and equipment are almost always rented directly from the dive operator. Rental equipment may be waiting for you on board when you arrive or will need to be picked up at the shop before boarding the boat. Weights are usually available on the boat.

Nearly all rental cylinders in the US have yoke valves by default. Most can be converted to DIN support by removing the valve insert. If you’re diving with your own DIN regulators, bringing your hex key or yoke-to-DIN adapter is a good idea. It’s also good to give the dive operation a heads-up of your DIN requirement when you reserve tanks.

Most dive excursions are two-tank dives. Several dive operators in the area operate three tank dives, mostly for Advanced Open Water dives (usually deep/deep/shallow profiles). Night dives are usually single-tank dives, with some exceptions. You’ll be expected to know how to set up your equipment before the initial dive and to switch tanks before the next dive.

I’d say 7 out of 10 dive boats that leave the docks in South Florida are focused on standard Open Water dives (60 ft. and less). Given the large population of tourist divers, this tends to be the bread and butter for most dive operators. However, South Florida is flooded with deep diving and technical diving opportunities. You simply must check the calendars of the dive outfits to find the dives that work for you.

If stepping onto a boat solo, you must understand the specific dive operator’s rules and processes. Most dive operators will provide a guide or pair you with an “insta-buddy” if you don’t have one. However, many dive operators do not and it’s up to you to find an insta-buddy or pay for a guide. Many operators will not let you solo dive, regardless of your certification and training. Some operators will allow you to solo dive provided that you show a Solo/Self-Reliant certification and are prepared to dive with a redundant air source. Some diver operators require all solo divers to pay for a guide, regardless of certification and training (as is the case with the very popular Horizon Divers trips to Spiegel Grove and Duane). The punchline here is simple: If you are diving on your own, be sure to contact the dive operator to confirm their policies and procedures.

The final guideline I’ll share is to just be courteous and don’t do anything stupid. South Florida dive operators, divemasters, and captains are generally friendly and helpful — until you do something stupid. Do not dive beyond your NDL time. Do not go into deco on a recreational dive boat. Do not exceed the announced “back to the boat” time. Do not hunt or take marine life back to the boat without permission from the captain and the proper licenses or permits. Do not dive beyond your training or certification. This is pretty common sense stuff, but you’d be amazed at what I’ve seen on boats in the past.

Oh, and lastly, always tip your crew. The customary gratuity is $10 per person, per tank (e.g., $20 for you if you did a two-tank dive, another $20 from your sweetie if they did a two-tank dive). Private (hired) guides and instructors should be tipped separately in addition to the crew gratuity. Divemaster, guide, instructor, and captain positions are not lucrative jobs, and the cost of living in South Florida is among the highest in the country. These fine people depend on your tips to live.

Summary, Comments, and Corrections

If you have additional tips that you think others could benefit from, additions, or corrections, feel free to email me directly.

Otherwise: Dive safe! Dive often!

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