Friday, April 12, 2013

Snorkeling at Sombrero Reef

Sombrero Reef Light
     The Florida Reef System is a 221 mile barrier reef strand of living corals that begin at Key Biscayne and span the entire length of the Florida Keys culminating with a pristine reef at the Dry Tortugas 70 miles west of Key West. It is the third largest barrier reef in the world and since it is the only living coral reef in North America it is a national treasure. In 1990 this huge stretch of reef and nearby mangrove islands earned the much needed designation of being a national marine sanctuary. Basically, the designation of a "no take zone" prohibits fishing, anchoring and spear fishing within sensitive areas of the sanctuary boundaries. Snorkeling and diving at the reef are permitted and mooring balls have been installed to prevent damage from dragging anchors.

View of Hawk Channel from Boot Key Harbor
      Sombrero Reef is located 3 nautical miles offshore from Boot Key Harbor and is marked by the Sombrero Key Light. This winter the Keys have experienced numerous cold fronts that have ushered in northerly winds with few opportunities to snorkel or dive at the reef due to rough seas. Last week winds finally subsided and shifted east offering a window of opportunity to head out to the reef. With light winds and calm seas in the forecast, we dropped the mooring lines with an agenda of first fueling up with diesel, then testing the newly installed Lofrans Tigress anchor windlass outside of Boot Key Harbor. With all systems go we motored the three miles out toward the reef. Joe wanted to fire up the engine to ensure that everything was in proper working order in preparation for our passage north to New England in a few weeks. It was a good shake down cruise.

Sombrero Reef from Simple Life
     The motor trip east toward the reef appeared to be ideal. Flat calm turquoise water, with light easterly winds coupled with the anticipation of an enjoyable lunchtime adventure at the reef. As soon as Simple Life rounded the western side of Sombrero Key Light toward the southern edge of the reef it became evident that the seas were up. We managed to pick up a mooring ball with rough seas in relatively tight conditions with previously moored boats, divers and three foot seas. Joe had to lower the suspended dinghy from the davits in order to drop the stern ladder for our snorkeling adventure. With the rough sea state conditions I momentarily feared that the sharp edges of the ladder would puncture the dinghy as the boat pitched back and forth in the seas but, Joe managed to kick the dinghy away from the stern while lowering the ladder.

Joe enjoying his first look at the reef
     The boat rolled about in the sea conditions and it quickly became apparent that I was not leaving the boat. On the other hand Joe eagerly donned his wetsuit and jumped in. Even though conditions weren't as ideal as expected the water clarity was exceptional. With at least 40 foot visibility Joe identified schools of Yellowtail Snapper, Seargeant Majors, Parrot Fish, one Great Barracuda that took a "shine" to him by shadowing his every move, Atlantic Spadefish, and varieties of Angelfish that swam in and out of numerous varieties of corals.

     After snorkeling at a few reef patches for over a half hour Joe returned to the boat. Even though he wore a full wetsuit with water temps averaging in the high seventies he began feeling chilled and thought it would be best to climb aboard and head back to the harbor.

     The reef trip was on Joe's winter checklist of things to do while staying in Boot Key Harbor. He was satisfied with his snorkeling adventure but, would have enjoyed it more if I had joined him. I enter the water only when it's 85 degrees or warmer so even though we're in the Florida Keys it's still too chilly for me. Maybe next time...

Location:Hawk Channel off Vaca Key, Marathon, Florida Keys
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