More people go diving in Florida than virtually any other location on Earth and today we are going to take you virtual diving to see some of Florida's most famous sites.
Christ of the Abyss
We start our underwater expedition at the Christ of the Abyss statue - an iconic dive site near Key Largo inside Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
[Tap and drag to look around the reef]
This statue was placed here in 1965. It lies in about 8 metres (26 ft.) of water and weighs 260kg but is secured to 9 tons of concrete on the ocean floor.
The statue, which is made of bronze, is slowly but surely being colonized by encrusting coral, sea fans, and other marine creatures. It is becoming a part of the nearby coral reef.
Back of the Christ of the Abyss Statue by Emma HickersonUnderwater Earth
The back of the statue
Looking at the back of the statue, you can see the sheer amount of life which is now living on the statue. There isn’t an inch spare!
Florida has the third largest living coral barrier reef system in the world. Protecting these marine environments is important and one way to do this is to set areas aside as marine protected areas.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was set up in 1990 to protect this ecosystem and preserve it for future generations. Molasses Reef in the sanctuary is one of the most dived sites in the world.
Coral reefs like this need protection. They provide billions of dollars to the local economy through tourism and fishing, support a host of marine life, provide food and livelihoods to people, and protect coastal communities from storms and waves.
Molasses Reef is a popular, easily accessible site in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary where visitors to Florida can easily and safely learn to dive and start to discover our hidden underwater world.
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Map by NOAAUnderwater Earth
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
The map from NOAA shows the boundary of the sanctuary, protecting 2,900 square nautical miles of ocean surrounding the islands of the Florida Keys, from Miami to the Tortugas.
The Florida Keys is well known for its shipwrecks. The SS Benwood, built in 1910, was sunk here in April 1942. There were rumours of German U-boats in the area, which required the Benwood to travel completely blacked out with no lights.
Another ship, Robert C. Tuttle, was also travelling blacked out in the same area, and the two ships collided, sinking the Benwood. The wreck lies between Key Largo and French Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
After WWII, much of the ship was dynamited to avoid navigational hazards and was used by the U.S. Army for aerial target practice. You can see the remains of the bow here. Today, the Benwood is a protected resource.
Over the years, the shipwreck has become home to many species of marine life. All around the structure you can see shoals of colourful reef fish. The wreck rests in less than 14 metres (45 feet) of water, which makes it a popular dive site.
This section of the wreck is home to numerous soft corals and sea fans (gorgonians), which are filter feeders, feeding on plankton and other organic matter which drift over in the ocean current. They like a hard substrate to attach to, like the Benwood.
Here you can see brain coral growing on the shipwreck, alongside a myriad of other marine life. Brain coral is always easy to spot because its grooved patterns make it look like a human brain!
Cheeca Rocks is a small, well-developed reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and is typical of some of the patch reefs in this area - a little ‘oasis’ surrounded by sand, that provides food and shelter for all sorts of marine life like these big barracuda.
Barracudas are long, lean hunting machines. Their streamlined bodies allow them to dart through the water at speeds of up to 40 kph (20 mph) and they are equipped with a set of razor-sharp teeth to catch their prey.
Although adult barracudas are generally solitary, they do come together as a group to hunt, driving their prey together into schools to increase their success. These groups are called “batteries”.
Barracuda look quite formidable, being equipped with two sets of razor-sharp, fang-like teeth to catch their prey. They’re attracted to shiny, sparkly objects so divers are advised not to wear jewelry when diving near these fish.
Barracuda prey on a variety of fish, including anchovies, groupers, grunts, herrings, jacks and mullets. They swallow small prey whole or use their sharp teeth to tear larger prey into pieces.
The Coral Nursery
In the last 30 years coral cover has declined globally by 50%. The decline has been particularly bad in the Caribbean region due to local human activities beginning the 1950s.
As a result Florida is helping lead the way in developing innovative techniques for repopulating reefs - such as growing corals in this underwater nursery for replanting onto degraded reefs.
Coral nurseries help to replenish declining wild populations of corals. In the nursery, corals may be attached to pedestals on blocks on the seafloor, hung on line nurseries that look like clothes lines, or placed in suspended baskets.
Rescued corals are cared for by marine biologists and volunteers who monitor their health and growth. The goal is to transplant nursery-reared corals back out on the reef to bolster existing coral colonies in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Staghorn and Elkhorn Coral
Staghorn and elkhorn coral are both threatened species which do well in nurseries. They are fast-growing corals and predominantly reproduce by fragmentation, which is when small branches break off and reattach somewhere new.
French Reef Restoration Area
French Reef is an example of one of several reefs in the sanctuary where elkhorn and staghorn corals grown in a coral nursery like this have been transplanted onto the reef, to aid in restoration efforts.
Aquarius Reef Base
One of the most unique sites in Florida is the Aquarius Reef Base. This is the world’s only underwater scientific laboratory and is located 9 kilometres (5.4 miles) off Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, at a depth of 19 metres (62 feet).
Aquarius is a unique underwater habitat utilised by marine biologists and astronauts for research and training purposes. Aquarius scientists are often called "Aquanauts" because they live and work underwater 24 hours per day for missions that typically last 10 days.
Inside the laboratory is space for up to six scientists to live and work, with sophisticated research facilities. Here you can see the bunks inside and a scuba diving photographer outside!
The habitat was deployed in the Florida Keys in 1993, and since then it has become encrusted in corals and sponges. Larvae from nearby coral reefs have drifted in the current and settled onto Aquarius, forming an artificial reef.
The Aquarius Reef Base was deployed in 1993 by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The habitat is now owned and managed by Florida International University - you can see their logo on the habitat itself here.
In the gaps between the habitat structure and under the ledges you can see plenty of fish which call Aquarius home.
Together, sponge species such as these make up one of the oldest, most primitive groups of animals on Earth. Sponges are believed to have appeared on Earth over 600 million years ago!
Front Door POI4, Aquarius Reef Base by Christophe BailhacheUnderwater Earth
Aquarius doesn’t have a normal front door - scientists enter and exit the laboratory by the “wet porch”, which is open to the ocean through its floor. This section is above where you can see the ripples in the water here.
AXA XL, The University of Queensland, Google, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Florida International University, Aquarius Reef Base, Coral Restoration Foundation, NOAA, Panedia, Fourth Element