Picture yourself 40 feet underwater, exploring a pristine reef. Tiny fish dart between coral formations, a massive southern stingray glides by, and before you a majestic green sea turtle soars in from the blue. From where you are hovering, you can watch life play out in an ecosystem that won’t be seen firsthand by 99 percent of humans. But for you, a scuba diver, it is a familiar source of wonder, clarity and excitement unlike anywhere else.
Why not? You are in the Sunshine State — the ideal place to submerge yourself in scuba diving. From crystal-clear springs and expansive caves to massive offshore shipwrecks and colorful reefs, Florida offers all the diving you could ever want right at your fingertips. “You’re surrounded by water, so you’re surrounded by awesome diving,” said Ashley Lee, an avid diver and sales associate at Scuba Monkey Dive Center in Alachua. “Everywhere you turn there’s a place to dive.”
Lee said the thing that drew her to scuba diving was the chance to come face-to-face with oceanic predators. “Originally I got certified because I wanted to get closer to sharks,” she said. “And then the minute I got in the water, I fell in love with it and wanted to be in the water all the time.”
If exciting big-animal encounters are not reason enough, consider some of the many other benefits to diving: it is a great excuse to travel to exotic locations; it is a fun way to meet new people; and it can lead to other new hobbies, like underwater photography or volunteering with conservation groups.
“After I got certified, I started paddleboarding and kayaking, snorkeling with manatees and going to Ichetucknee and Weeki Wachee,” said Lee. “It’s definitely made me want to hang out around the water even more.”
If you have a lust for adventure, a sense of curiosity or a love of water, it is time to take the plunge — literally. “One big thing that hit me when I got certified was that I wished I had done it so much longer ago,” Lee said. “So just go for it.”
How do you get started?
First, find a dive shop and sign up for an open water class. This is the first level of certification, and it is all that is required to dive most places. If later you want to go inside wrecks or visit more difficult dive sites overseas, you will need to get an Advanced Open Water certification or additional specialty training. Next comes gear. Typically, all you will need for your open water class is a mask, fins and a snorkel. While big-box stores offer fine options for snorkeling, you will need to invest in a quality set made specifically for diving. All other equipment should be available through the shop.
Classes vary shop to shop, but they typically cost between $250 and $350 and consist of three main components: a learning session, confined-water dives and open-water dives. The learning session can be completed online or in-person. In this part of the course, you will learn the principles of diving, including how to use dive tables and what risks you incur while underwater. You will have to pass a written exam in order to obtain your certification. The confined-water dives are often held in swimming pools and are when you will learn basic scuba skills, like clearing your mask underwater and how to stay neutrally buoyant. Finally, during your open water dives, you will get to practice your skills — demonstrate that you understand the hand signals and can communicate back, that you know your equipment and that you are comfortable diving (not flailing around) — and revel in the amazing fact that you are breathing underwater.
What is the deal with cave diving?
The chance to navigate narrow tunnels and explore flooded prehistoric passageways draws cave divers from around the world to North Florida. But with so many ways this extreme adventure can go wrong, why do people do it?
Kristi Bernot, manager of Cave Country Dive Shop in High Springs, started cave diving 10 years ago. “I like learning new things,” she said. “I was already wreck diving, and I wanted to try something a little different and challenge myself as a diver.”
Continuing dive education is just one motivation. Some people cave dive for the thrill (which Bernot said she does not agree with), and others for the joy of discovery. “There’s the scientific appeal that you’re getting to see geology and archaeology and all kinds of things that you wouldn’t get to see otherwise,” said Bernot.
Although there have been a number of fatal cave-diving accidents, Bernot said most of the time, they result from a lack of training or failure to follow rules learned in training. She said in Cave Country’s classes, “rules are stressed that are put in place to help mitigate the risks of cave diving. There’s still some risk involved, of course, but following the rules minimizes that risk factor by quite a lot.” With thoughtful planning and careful execution, cave diving, like all time spent underwater, can be extraordinary. “Being able to see something that either very, very few people have ever seen or possibly nobody has ever seen before,” Bernot said, “that’s really rewarding.”
Where should you get started?
If you are planning to get certified locally, consider reaching out to one of the below shops.
- Scuba Monkey Dive Center has an indoor pool for training at the Blue Lagoon Aquatic Center, an active dive club and a great selection of scuba-centric trips to sign up for once your certification is complete.
- Lloyd Bailey’s Scuba and Watersports offers a full range of classes, from open water to full cave diver. Plus, it has a large selection of well-priced, gently used gear.
- Cave Country Dive Shop in High Springs is the go-to place for all your caving needs, whether you are looking for gear or unbeatable advice on any local cave.
Where can you dive?
Whether you have just taken your open water class or you are an experienced cave diver, these local sites offer excitement for all levels of certification.
- Head to Manatee Springs State Park to explore gin-clear waters alongside friendly turtles and longnose gar. If you are lucky, you might spot one of the gentle giants the spring is named for. Plus, the Manatee Cave System is accessible here for certified cave divers. — Chiefland
- A cave diver’s delight, Ginnie Springs boasts more than 30,000 feet of mapped cave passages. The draw for open water divers is the Ballroom, an amphitheater-sized cavern at the spring basin that offers a safe introduction to overhead environments. — High Springs
- Experience the geological wonders of submerged Florida at Blue Grotto Dive Resort. A 100-foot-deep rocky cavern thrills open water divers who want to shimmy through narrow crevasses and get a taste of caving. Cave divers can also drop into a nearly untouched cave on the property. — Williston
- Go with the flow on Rainbow River. In the ultimate beginner drift dive — in which the current pushes you along instead of your fins — you will float around eelgrass beds, small caves and sunken logs that are home to all kinds of creatures. — Dunnellon
- Holding one of the longest mapped underwater cave systems in the U.S., Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park is an obvious choice for cave enthusiasts. But an eerie, swampy site called Orange Grove Sink entices open water divers, too. — Live Oak