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Dive Review of Rainbow Reef Dive Center/Hilton Key Largo in
The Continental USA/Florida Keys

Rainbow Reef Dive Center/Hilton Key Largo: "Keys Wreck Trek Continued", Jul, 2015,

by D. Tan, NY, US (Reviewer Reviewer 5 reports). Report 8292.

No photos available at this time

Ratings and Overall Comments 1 (worst) - 5 (best):

Accommodations 4 stars Food 4 stars
Service and Attitude 5 stars Environmental Sensitivity 5 stars
Dive Operation 5 stars Shore Diving N/A
Snorkeling N/A
Value for $$ 5 stars
Beginners 4 stars
Advanced 5 stars
Comments We've dove off of Key Largo for many years doing standard 2-tank charters with Ocean Divers (now owned by Divers Direct). Tired of the cattle boats, we decided to try something different on this trip and booked 3 days of private 2-tank charters for our group of 5 with Rainbow Reef Dive Center over the July 4 weekend. We wanted to do the Eagle wreck down off Lower Matecumbe Key on Day 1 and, a few days before we were due to arrive, after originally promising to take us in the morning, then saying they could only do it in the afternoon and would limit us to 40 min dives due to the length of the trip (apparently they wanted to book a second private charter on this holiday weekend day), RRDC put us in touch with Islamorada Dive Center for that first day (see my separate report: [ link]). We then returned to RRDC for Days 2 and 3 and were overall very pleased with the operation.

We stayed at the Hilton Key Largo (a solid, but often pricey, resort-style hotel, midway between Key Largo and Islamorada diveshops) and the RRDC boat launch was a short 6-min drive up Overseas Highway, in the parking lot of the Courtyard Key Largo under the big DIVE TODAY sign (don't follow Google Maps to the dive shop itself, which is further up the road!)

We arrived at 8:00am, along with every other diver in Florida, so check-in was a bit of a factory, but still well-organized. Squeezing down the narrow dock and passing their 3 jam-packed Newtons (we heard one diver exclaim "You've got us packed in like sardines!"), we were very glad to board our 30-ft Island Hopper, Tropical Explorer, with just our group of 5, Captain Corbin, Mate Kenzie, and Divemaster/Guide Jardin. The boat was fully equipped with life vests, raft, EPIRB, O2, radio, large cooler, a hot-water hose at the stern, and a small 5-gal bucket for cameras, with a second for masks. Other amenities included a sound system, cooler, and various store-bought cookies between dives. The standard charter cost is $595 for up to 10 divers, and we got a discount at $545 for our 2nd day. Nitrox analyzed on the boat at 30-31% and was $20 per pair of tanks (they list $14 per single, $24 per pair on their website, so not sure if we got a discount here, too).

We did two 2-tank charters with an hour surface interval between, and were able to set our own itinerary, aiming to double dip the Spiegel Grove on Day 2 and to do the Bibb and Conch Wall on Day 3. Happily, the weather and seas cooperated perfectly and we were able to dive this exact itinerary. Conditions were beautiful with 2-3 ft seas on Day 2 and 1-2 ft seas on Day 3, little or no current, and average visibility (their site reported a ripping current on the Spiegel just three days after we were there, though).

Unlike most continental U.S. dive shops, RRDC puts a free guide in the water for every dive. Jardin was very experienced and apparently the RRDC expert on the Spiegel Grove, having lived in Key Largo for some 6 years. We asked him primarily to look after my father, who has been diving for >10 years but can still get nervous about his air and is still working on his buoyancy and trim - we had him on 100-cu ft tanks. The rest of us were able to dive in buddy pairs to the limits of our computers and air, with some suggested depth limits on the one "wall" dive we did on Day 3, just so we would have decent bottom time. Also on my wish list was to dive the well deck of the Spiegel Grove, which he wisely held off on until he'd assessed our abilities and comfort inside.

For our first dive on the Spiegel Grove, the ride out was a bit bumpy, and one of the spare tanks that was clipped into the cabin wall at floor level fell over onto my wife's ankle. Fortunately, she was ok, but still has the gash and swelling to prove it. Captain Corbin was very concerned and apologetic and the tanks were all laid down on the deck after that. Arriving on site with two other dive boats moored, we got the #7 mooring ball, near the starboard bow. We descended down the line and were greeted by a dusky shark cruising by in the blue. Reaching the deck at 85 ft, we saw a colorful 2-ft scrawled filefish. We toured around the bow, then headed aft along the port side past the AA guns to the superstructure, where a beefy 2-ft hogfish awaited us in a doorway. We entered the forward hatch and swam aft to the port galley, where the table supports still stand. Despite a large hatch to port with plenty of light, my father got a little disoriented between the tables and debris hanging from the ceiling and had trouble following Jardin over to the starboard galley. Realizing this, Jardin wisely escorted him outside and, after checking his air, took him up the line, signaling for the rest of us to continue our dive. The four of us headed up to the wheelhouse level, monitored by a large barracuda, where we traversed through the compartment with light streaming in through all of the portholes. Afterwards, we headed up the line for our deep stop and safety stop, and enjoyed our surface interval topside.

For our second dive on the Spiegel Grove, my father unfortunately decided to sit out. However, this meant that the rest of us could do some deeper penetrations, including the well deck. We made a free descent to the top of the superstructure, with thousands of tiny silver fish streaming out of one of the starboard hatches. Aft, we posed with the iconic American flag atop the crane operator cab. Dropping down through a cut-out in the deck, we entered the machine room, then moved forward around a partition to a large cut-out in the deck with blue-green water below. Skydiving into the massive well deck, we stayed near the ceiling at 100 ft to keep above our MOD, with the bottom around 130 ft, and a beautiful view aft out into the blue that gave a sense of the scale of the ship. We then swam forward into the darkness until a hatch appeared seemingly out of nowhere on the forward wall. One compartment forward and a shimmy to starboard and we were out forward of the superstructure. With all of us still having plenty of air, we re-entered and did another long penetration thru the corridors, traversing to port, then aft, passing the large, round Top Dog Snoopy logo on the floor. Turning starboard again, we passed an open hatch with a baitball of thousands of tiny fish being snacked on by 4 snappers. Exiting topside, those of us with more conservative computers were several minutes into deco, so we headed up the line to complete our deep, deco, and safety stops. This was really a spectacular experience for us, made possible because Jardin knows the ship so well.

On Day 3, we headed out hoping to get on the USCGC Bibb for the very first time (Ocean Divers and many other shops regularly dive its sister ship the USCGC Duane, because it's upright and a bit shallower). Fortunately, NOAA had just managed to replace one of the mooring balls and a fisherman on the mooring kindly moved off once we put the dive flag up. Heading down the port stern (only) mooring, we'd been warned by another boat that it was full of filament line and fishing hooks, but found none at all. At 50 ft, we were greeted by 5 juvenile scrawled filefish ranging from 3-5 inches, hanging right by the line. Continuing down, the wreck appeared from the blue - my first impression was, "It's so strange to see the Duane on it's side!" We reached the port rail at 90 ft and swam forward along the superstructure at 115 ft, crossing over to the hull and returning aft, above the superstructure and crows nest. No penetration on this one as Jardin said it is too disorienting and my father was happily back with us as well. We spotted some big french and blue angelfish, but not the abundance of grunts and other fish that often inhabit the Duane. Heading up the line, we spotted two southern stingrays in the sand below the hull. At our safety stop, we reunited with the 5 juvenile filefish, now hanging out at 13 ft.

For our second dive, we headed over to Conch Reef, where there is a deep site called Conch Wall, adjacent to the Aquarius underwater laboratory (which is strictly off limits). Along the way, we were met by a large loggerhead turtle, who posed for pictures and surfaced 3 times beside the boat. Run as a drift dive with Kenzie joining us for additional support (although with just a hint of current), our suggested depth limit was 70 ft to give us good bottom time. The sloping wall starts at about 50 ft, where a queen angelfish led me to her friends, several pairs of large french, gray, and blue angelfish all congregating around a small coral head. A 6-ft nurse shark joined us cruising along the top of the wall. Jardin dove with a spear and, having previously gotten our ok topside, took out a lionfish (one of two we saw in our 3 days of diving - the other was on the Bibb). The nurse shark didn't take up his offer, and neither did a mammoth 5-ft green moray eel that we found out swimming. Finally, with all of our bottom times running low or slightly beyond, we continued cruising along at 30-40 ft, with a 5-ft spotted eagle ray swimming laps below us. On the surface, our live pickups were expertly handled by Captain Corbin, aided by the calm seas.

I've been diving off Key Largo on and off for some 10 years now and have enjoyed it for what it was - a convenient location (direct flight from NYC), where we could get one good deep wreck dive followed by a fairly crappy shallow reef dive on every charter (although the schools at Snapper Ledge can be pretty spectacular at times). This trip totally changed my perception of the upper Keys. The two deep reefs we saw off Key Largo and down off Islamorada were really in fine condition, with dense coral and lots of fish of all sizes, rivaling or even surpassing that which we have seen on some Caribbean islands. Going the private charter route was obviously a bit more expensive, but well worth the extra cost in exchange for being able to avoid the crowd, pick our itinerary, and have full hour-long surface intervals. It also gave us the opportunity to dive four sites that we've never been to before, and to explore new parts of the Spiegel Grove. I now see the Keys in a whole new light and am looking forward to returning soon!
Websites Rainbow Reef Dive Center   Hilton Key Largo

Reporter and Travel

Dive Experience 251-500 dives
Where else diving Andros, Bonaire, Curaçao, Grand Cayman, Heron Island, Islamorada, Little Cayman, Roatan, Saba, St. Martin, Turks & Caicos
Closest Airport MIA Getting There 90-min drive from MIA

Dive Conditions

Weather sunny Seas calm
Water Temp 84-90°F / 29-32°C Wetsuit Thickness 0
Water Visibility 50-60 Ft/ 15-18 M

Dive Policy

Dive own profile yes
Enforced diving restrictions Computers & air. Depth limits suggested to extend bottom times.
Liveaboard? no Nitrox Available? yes

What I Saw

Sharks None Mantas None
Dolphins None Whale Sharks None
Turtles 1 or 2 Whales None
Corals 4 stars Tropical Fish 4 stars
Small Critters N/A Large Fish 4 stars
Large Pelagics N/A

Underwater Photography 1 (worst) - 5 (best):

Subject Matter 4 stars Boat Facilities 2 stars
Overall rating for UWP's 3 stars Shore Facilities N/A
UW Photo Comments Just a small 5-gal camera bucket, and limited dry areas, not enough for a serious photographer, but plenty for my GoPro.
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Note: The information here was reported by the author above, but has NOT been reviewed nor edited by Undercurrent prior to posting on our website. Please report any major problems by writing to us and referencing the report number above.

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