Scuba Diving with Islamorada Dive Center

Written by Ryan S.

I have a confession to make. Only now, after facing it head on and finally doing something about it, do I feel comfortable talking about it. It’s with a heavy heart and a dose of shame that I tell you this, but here it is: I never learned how to scuba dive… 

At least, not until a few days ago.

Most normal people probably don’t care. But to leave it at that would imply that I am a normal person, and that there wasn’t a deep nagging void in the back of my brain for the last two decades. I’m not, and there was.  Plus, anyone that knows me well understands my relationship with the water. It’s complicated. I have been trying my damndest to grow gills since I was 3, figuring that prolonged exposure would eventually lead to some sort of rapid evolution. But as I approach 30, I’m still stuck with these pesky lungs. My entire life has revolved around the water. From joining the swim team at 5 and crying my way though practice, to winning individual and team state championships in high school, and even going to college on a swimming scholarship which turned out to be a short term venture. The swimming part, not the college. Some might say I dragged out college a little too long. I lifeguarded for 7 years including a few great years on the beach, and even moved back to my birth state of Florida where the water opportunities abounded. Since arriving here, there have been no disappointments on that front. I even used free diving a few fathoms down every time I was in The Keys as an excuse to delay the inevitable. While incredible in its own right, free diving just isn’t the same.

I’ve always just assumed that with my extensive in the water experience, I would magically become scuba certified. I had a number of excuses for never jumping in with both feet—most notably the cost. It’s a bloody expensive hobby. For good reason though, I suppose, as I wouldn’t want to buy the gear that’s keeping me alive on the bargain rack. Not to mention, scuba tends to bring you to some of the world’s most exotic and beautiful locales, another sticker-shocking quality of diving. None of that matters, however, if you never take the leap. Knowing me all too well, a year ago my wife ever so kindly gave me the gift of a scuba cert in the form of cash earmarked for the occasion. All I had to do was make it happen. As luck would have it, around the same time I met Eric Billips, the owner of the Islamorada Dive Center and all-around nice guy. He invited me down to get certified to which I couldn’t say yes to fast enough, but as that summer ended and another school year started up, things got busy and my plans had to be put on the back burner. Fast forward one year later, with one week left in this summer, I came to the sobering realization that work started back up in a week, we have a baby on the way, I have the time and the money and an open invitation, and I still hadn’t done a damn thing about it. Enough was enough. The universe can only give me so many signs. I called Eric who was incredibly flexible, letting me come down just 2 days later to get it done. Psyched doesn’t begin to describe the emotion. ‘Nearly completed’ suits the situation better.

I decided to make the trip plankton style—just let the proverbial current take me where it will. I made no formal plans for lodging, but did look into a camp site at Long Key State Park. I packed 2 bags, one for a camera and one for some clothes and a towel, a couple of fishing poles (Long Key has a world famous bonefish flat 20 yards off the beach), bought some early morning coffee and beef jerky from 7-11, and set sail at 4:45am across the Everglades and down to Islamorada. Watching the sun rise over the River of Grass is quite an experience, but nothing compared to what I was about to encounter. There was only one slight hitch in the plan—Eric had stopped responded to text messages. A call confirmed that his phone was off (I later found out that his nearly 2 year old son decided to take it swimming the bath tub with him). “No worries, he’ll be at the shop,” I reassured myself as I passed through Key Largo and on to “Purple Island”. I arrived in the shop, scanned around for Eric, but no luck. After a brief moment of panic, one of the wonderful staff members jumped in and assured me I was in the right place by asking my name and letting me know that I was on the list and all set up to go.

From the very start, the Islamorada Dive Center is a place where fantasies materialize. “I wonder if there are any jobs in Islamorada?” “How much does it cost to buy a place around here?” “Do you think my wife would mind if we uprooted our lives back home to follow impish urges?” The staff doesn’t help that either. They are crazy nice—and not the superficial “I hate all tourists even though our economy depends on them” kind of nice, a feeling I am quite familiar with from January through May every year. It’s more of a, “My job is awesome and, sure, you can pretend to be me for a day” kind of nice. My instructor, Sara, was a perfect example of that. My sense is that she’s the kind of person who has already completed everything on her bucket list and chose her favorite to do as a job. Not bad, considering I’d be surprised if she was over 30.

My group included a gentleman named Davesh from New York City who, not unlike me, couldn’t find anyone else to tag along on his personal scuba quest. A dad from Chicago with two young sons, Josh and Mica, joined us as well for the Resort Course. After a morning crash course in gear, safety, and some basic skills, we were on the boat by 1pm heading out to a dive site known as Captain Arnos. I did well to hide my excitement, but in reality I was nearly jumping out of my skin with anticipation of entering my new underwater world for longer than a minute at a time. Although the gills hadn’t yet formed after a long morning in the water, I was well equipped with the next best thing—a BC, regulator, and tank.

As I stood with my fins hanging half off the stern of the boat, regulator in my mouth, hands holding my mask and regulator in place like I was instructed, I suppose most normal people would have some trepidation or at least a healthy nervous flutter of the heart. But that would imply that I was a normal person. With my right foot extended out into a giant stride, there was only a serene calmness. Breaking the surface, tiny bubbles erupted all around me and my ears echoed with muffled splashes from displaced water. My full BC pulled me back to the surface, but the glimpse of the reef below was enough. I was already hooked, and I hadn’t been in the water a full 5 seconds.

To be honest, I had free dived better reefs than the Captain Arnos site, but regardless the first dive experience was way better than I thought it would be. Being somewhat impatient with procedure, I was worried that we’d be huddled around in a tight knit circle for 45 minutes 30 feet down while we each take turns showing off our newly developed scuba skills. All the rest of the divers would be enjoying the reef, catching lobster, wrestling great whites—whatever it is that experienced scuba divers do. However, after 5 minutes worth of proving we could clear our mask, become neutrally buoyant, and use our buddy’s backup regulator, I was pleased to see Sara take off to go explore the reef, motioning for us to follow. After a few minutes, I thought surely that’d we’d reconvene and hit the skill and drill again. But Sara just kept swimming away.

Watching her and the other instructors under water without being able to say a word, I learned more than I had during the comically long eLearning PADI course. The way they used their breathe to make minor adjustments to their buoyancy. How they kept control with their hands crossed tight to their bodies so as not to flail their arms around. Where they looked, how constantly scanned, and the systematic approach to following the reef while keeping their direction relative to the boat. Remembering to regularly check air and depth—the little things you don’t think of your first time down. Sometimes, just paying attention is the best way to learn, and I learned a ton on that first dive.

Eventually we did get back into a spot with a sandy bottom so that we could demonstrate a few more underwater elements. When we finally surfaced, I didn’t have a whole lot to say. I didn’t know what to say. The feeling was easy and familiar, as one might feel after their 1,000th dive. Clearly, I had nowhere near the skill or experience after my first dive, but it certainly felt like I had been there before.

A quick boat ride led us to our second spot which was also relatively shallow, so we didn’t need any real surface interval to stay within the NDL. The second was quite similar to the first, a patch reef in about 30 feet of water. The process was also the same—5 minutes of skills, checking out a half dozen nurse sharks, a few more skills, and that same consuming calmness. I think I’m going to like this scuba thing.

Returning to the docks at IDC, I was already mentally planning my next dive adventure. And I wasn’t even certified yet. Hell, I hadn’t even done all the pool work yet. But that would come tomorrow. I first had to get through the day. And that meant finding a place to sleep.

A small road sign alerted me to the absolute best hotel deal in The Keys: the Key Lantern Inn. Thinking that it would have to be actually built by roaches and subsequently leased out to people to only charge $45 per night Sunday through Thursday, I was pleasantly surprised when the place actually had a touch of charm, not to mention pretty good reviews on a few different travel websites. However, my excitement faded quickly. The small 10 room motel had been booked solid through the weekend. I was going to have to rely on plan B. Long Key State Park. The only catch was that I didn’t bother to bring a tent—not that I would have wanted to set it up for 6 hours of use anyway.

My camp site that night had the best view on the islands: a world famous bonefish flat stretching for miles in every direction. My sleeping arrangements were a little less glamorous. I split time between a picnic table and my car, at least before I would have to close the windows because the mosquitoes were getting in, at which point it became too hot to safely exist.

I was quite happy to see the sun rise for a couple of reasons. It meant my back could start to return to its normal shape after sleeping on a wood table half the night, and that I would get to dive again soon. After stopping at a killer little burrito shop on the way back to Islamorada, I arrived at the dive shop ready to go. Davesh was there and ready, and we managed to get our pool work done that morning in less than 2 hours. After a nice long lunch, we were back on the boat heading to “The Fingers”.

The second two dives were even better than the first two, and I started to see a trend emerge. If the second dive was better than the first, and the third was better than the second, then doesn’t that mean…? Our instructor Sara got called in to captain one of the other boats in IDC’s fleet, so Doug, who reminded me of my best friend’s dad (they are both from Eastern PA, too) stepped in to help out.

Doug wasn’t quite as pretty as Sara, but had all the badassery one could want in a dive instructor. He was patient, encouraging, and tailored the dives to our limits. He saw me using the GoPro to film some divers catching lobster, so he said, “You want lobster? I’ll get you a lobster.” At least I think he said that. We were underwater, I don’t really know. Regardless, after we showed off a few skills, Doug found a massive spiny lobster practically sitting out in the open. It ran for cover, but Doug got there first. He literally wrestled the 4lb lobster out from under a rock with his gloved hands, the bug kicking frantically to escape the whole time. If you’ve never caught lobster before, know this: they are called spiny lobster for a reason, and you’re supposed to use a net and what’s called a tickle stick to draw them into it. I learned many things from Doug, not the least of which is, ‘nets are for wimps’.

Riding back into the dock on the second day I was on cloud nine. I was officially certified and I could literally do this any time I wanted. It wasn’t until I reached into my bag to find my keys that I was brought back to reality. No keys? No keys. I searched high and low, called a locksmith and AAA, all of which proved fruitless.

If you’ve never been stranded in Islamorada before on a full moon, I highly recommend it. Eric, obviously feeling bad for my newbie stupidity, invited me to a Full Moon Party, an experience I won’t soon forget. It was something I thought I’d be more likely to see in Tahiti. If you’ve got to be stranded in The Keys, you might as well be stranded in style.

AAA finally came through by noon the next day, and I began my bittersweet journey home. My secret plan to live under the Channel #5 bridge for the next 6 months and go diving every day didn’t pan out, but I did get to meet some great people down at IDC. I can’t say enough nice things about Eric and the staff down at Islamorada Dive Center, and couldn’t imagine going anywhere else to dive in the keys. My only regret is that I live too far to be there every day. Every weekend, however? That’s a possibility.

Update: 4 days after losing my keys, Eric called to tell me that a diver on his boat reported finding a single Honda key on a silver carabiner 60 ft down at “The Fingers”. Keep it. 


0 #2 Devesh 2014-10-03 21:18
Hey Ryan! great blog! It truly captures our experience at Islamorada. What a great spot to dive. Great pictures too! Do you plan to upload any Gopro videos of these dives? Thanks for the company and i'm glad you found your car keys, albeit 60 feet underwater and four days late...haha! I hope to go for my advanced open water certification in the near future. Keep in touch.
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0 #1 Ken Shore 2014-08-17 11:57
Great and thoroughly enjoyable blog.
Congrats on "getting your gills.
"Nets are for wimps"....I love that!!
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