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  Boat and Diving Styles in SE Florida.

Boat diving, beach diving, drift diving, anchor diving, buoy diving, wreck diving. Each is easy when you know how, but causes apprehension if you're new to it. Even the veteran diver needs an occasional reference on local customs when visiting a new location.

What follows is a short discussion on these topics, with information about how each of these forms of diving is done on the SE Florida coast and the Florida Keys, and the size, schedule, and local styles of the boats I use.

Dive boat Okay signal returned from the dive boat.

The Boats

Commercial dive boats in Florida range from small runabouts carrying 6 or less divers to large converted work boats or catamarans with capacity of 50-60. Those big boats tend to load a mix of divers and snorkelers, or have glass bottom viewing windows. They gravitate toward very shallow reefs so that everyone has something to do. That's good if you have snorkelers in your party, or are a beginning diver looking for easy dives to build your experience base, but not a lot of fun for those past novice. There's no snorkeling at West Palm or Boynton, since the reefs start at 45' depths, but from Ft Lauderdale south into the Keys, check the boat's itinerary in advance if it matters to you.

Two Dives per Trip.

A boat trip is usually two dives. Out to the site, dive for an hour, a surface interval in which time the boat moves to the next site, then do the second dive. Computer profiles are allowed, and nitrox is available, so you can get back into the water when your computer clears you. You'll be back to the dock in 4 hours or less.

On weekends and holidays, the boats run a morning trip, and afternoon trip, and sometimes a night trip. If you make arrangements for a quick lunch, you can get 4 dives a day and still have 2 night dives ahead later that evening. Dive addicts who make weekend runs to Florida frequently take this approach. Most week days, except during the peak summer season, the boats run one trip a day, departing around 10 a.m. Some boats offer a 3 dive trip and lunch combination, filling a niche between the dive until they drop group and the 2 dives a day is enough folks. Walk ups are allowed on all the boats, but during the busy season phone in a reservation or you may not get a seat.

SE Florida Diveboat, the Deeper

A typical boat is shown here, length over 40 feet, capacity about 2 dozen. It'll have bench seats, tank holders with bungee cords, shower, head, and dry storage in the berth forward, and hot/cold showers on the deck. Ice chests with free drinks, camera and mask tanks and sometimes defogger round out the amenities. Since you'll have two tanks for the trip, there will be at least one vacant space between you and the adjacent diver. The boats are fully Coast Guard equipped, and will have oxygen onboard for dive emergencies.

Rig Early and Take Inventory

All the boats say to be there 1/2 hour before departure, but an hour is better. You'll have to drop your gear at the loading zone and find parking, then hike back to the boat. You'll have to pay, sign the waiver, and obtain rental equipment if necessary. As soon as you get permission to board the boat, organize your gear and rig your BC and regulators onto your tank. Inventory the rest of your gear, to prevent an "oops" when out on the ocean, and stow all unneeded gear out of the way. The boats will be a little crowded, and the sooner you get ready to dive, the better. This is a good time to put on the sunscreen and defog the mask. Lastly, bungee your gear firmly in place so it doesn't topple over and break. You'll be given a 10 minute warning before the first dive begins, which is time enough to get into your skin or wetsuit, and put on your entire rig, including fins. At Riviera and Boynton, I've hit the water as soon as 20 minutes away from the dock, while in the Keys it's usually about double that to the reefs 4-5 miles offshore. By rigging things earlier, you'll not have to rush at dive time, and can relax and enjoy the ride.

The Jump

Whether drifting or at anchor, getting off the boat works the same way. Get fully geared up, including fins, and shuffle your way slowly to the stern. Hold whatever is convenient, including people, to keep from falling. If the bench beside you is cleared, just slide down it. Check that there is no one below you in the water, hold mask and regulator in place on your face, and do whatever your preferred entry is. It's no different than entering a swimming pool. If you're doing photography, return to the stern where the camera will be handed down to you.

Drift Diving

Drift diving is the easiest form of boat diving. It eliminates both navigation and the return swim to the boat against a testy current. Someone in the dive group will tow a floating flag or buoy, attached to a line, so that the boat can follow and pick up the divers when the dive ends. Boats operating out of West Palm Beach have a DM in the water, towing the flag and pointing out sights on the reef. Dive teams of 7-9 divers follow the same flag. Boats operating out of Boynton Beach divide the divers into smaller groups, and let a diver from each group carry the flag. The DM remains on the boat to render surface assistance.

Diveboat Diver towing flag on a Boynton site.

Both methods have benefits, so I chose where I dive primarily on what U/W activity I plan, and how much of a group it entails. Other than who carries the flag, the dive is similar at either location.

There are a few things the diver needs to know to do. Everyone in the flag group needs to be ready to jump when the boat is positioned over the site. The crew will make sure of this before the boat setup begins, and they will take whatever time needed for folks to get ready. Fully geared up in the hot sun demands the jump get moving, and your dive buddies will begin to mumble if you're having trouble finding your other glove about then...

The group will jump in and gather on surface. Since the jump usually goes two by two, the first few will be in for a minute or so before the last jumpers clear, get their cameras, signal okay to the boat and flag carrier. Being ready to jump does not imply the need to rush the jump itself. There's no need to fall on a rocking boat or jump in on top of the previous diver. Move cautiously and stay alert.

The flag carrier will signal to descend, and everyone does. The divers should not touch the flag line during descent. It's drifting the same speed you are, so it'll stay close no matter where in the water column you are. Divers need not descend at the same pace. Take the time needed to clear the ears and settle into the dive. Just face toward the line or the flag carrier as you descend. Watch for the bottom, get neutrally buoyant before you smack into it, and enjoy the dive.


After the dive, the flag group does not usually ascend as a unit. Buddy teams can ascend whenever they feel the need, for any number of reasons. They could be low on air, cold, out of film, or just done for the day. Courtesy and safety dictate they signal the flag carrier of their intent, so they are accounted for. Do a slow ascent by following the line upward, and do a 3 minute safety stop at 15 feet. Then go to the surface, where the boat will come over and do the pickup. The boat may be involved with another diver pickup when you surface, so locate them, signal okay when they see you, and get comfortable on the surface.

Diveboat Diver ascending the flag line

Beginners are sometimes instructed to close their fingers in the "OK" sign around the line as they ascend, as shown in this photo. This has several drawbacks, including the tendency to grab the line, causing chaos with the flag puller down below, and the tendency to kick it with their fins, sometimes entangling themselves. Worse, they can entangle the line in their tank valves, causing a real problem with the flag tow person. Nearly all practiced divers stay 10-15 feet away from the line, and face it as they ascend and do their safety stop. It's drifting close to the same rate they are, and is bright yellow, so it's easy to stay in visual contact.

Diver's view of reboarding

Locate the boat and give the okay sign as soon as the captain sees you. Swim slightly away from the flag so the boat won't foul the line, then float in the water until the boat finishes it's pickup maneuver. Swim to the boat and grab the ladder or platform firmly, as it will have a tendency to buck a bit in rough seas. Remove your fins, climb aboard, and the crew will help you to your seat. Save some air for the reboarding exercise, as you need to be able to look down to locate the ladder, and will likely be head underwater when removing your fins.

Several boats in the Riviera Beach area use flat platforms at water level, with no ladder. This is great in rough water, as there's no ladder flying up up and down. Just hold onto the platform until it goes below the water level, then slip up on to it and up you go. The crew will help you to your feet and lead you to your seat.

Never remain in the water directly behind anyone on the ladder or the platform. If they lose their balance, the safest fall for them is back into the water. If you're in the way, it's dangerous for both of you. Even if holding on to the dive platform, stay off to the side.

Anchor Diving

South of the drift diving part of the coast, boats are usually anchored or attached to a mooring buoy at the edge of the reef. Except on wrecks, dives are shallow, around 35 feet. The boat will announce an expected return time, usually more than an hour later. The jump can be more leisurely, as buddy teams are not a part of a bigger flag group. Current will be mild, but present. While the dive can progress in several directions, divers should begin by exploring up current. This will prevent a swim upcurrent to return to the boat at the end of the dive, when fatigue might have set in. Just jump in, descend, and head toward the bow of the boat. The boat will align with the current when moored, so it's bow is pointing up current.

An hour later, you'll need to return to the boat. If you're unsure where the boat is by mid dive, do a slow ascent to the surface and take a visual bearing on it. Give the OK sign to the crew, then descend again. Continue the rest of the dive toward the boat, so you'll be close to it when the dive is over.

Back at the dock

Back at the dock, it's time to unload. The crew will do the lifting of gear from boat to dock, but divers are expected to help with the bucket brigade movement of empty tanks and gear bags to the stern of the boat, and then away from the boat on the dockside. There is limited crew and they have to ready the boat for the next dive trip, only an hour away, so lend a hand. The docks have rinse tanks for cleaning gear, so get to that when the boat is unloaded. Most DM's are paid for by the boat, but as in resturants, tips for good service will be appreciated. Some divers tip $5 per trip, others $5 per dive. Let your opinion of the service be your guide.

Now follow the menu to learn the sites I enjoy, and the boats I dive with.