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.
Florida Keys Reef System
Florida Keys Diving

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.
All About Florida Keys
Scuba Diving, Florida
Keys Diving, Key West
Scuba Diving, Florida
Keys Snorkeling, Key
West Snorkeling,  Florida
Keys Dive Trips, Florida
Keys Scuba Diving
Charters, Florida Keys
Tropical Fish, Florida Keys
Reef System and much
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.
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