I AM AMAZED BY HOW MUCH THE WRECK of the Duane has improved since I last dived it. I had first dived this 105m-long US Coastguard cutter in 1987, soon after it was sunk as an artificial reef, then again in 1990. Both times it was an enjoyable dive, but still a bare ship with grey paint showing.
     Now it is covered in clumps of cup corals with fans hanging from the mast and railings. Huge shoals of grunt swirl tight about the intact superstructure and hundreds of big barracuda hover in formation above the wreck. It used to be good - now the Duane is absolutely magnificent.
     Perhaps the term cutter is misleading. It conveys the image of something the size of an offshore lifeboat. When the Duane was built in 1936 it was as big as a destroyer. During World War Two she served with the US Navy on anti-submarine patrols, convoy escort and even as the flagship of an amphibious assault group. After the war she was transferred back to the Coastguard and was the longest-serving ship in service at the time of her decommissioning in 1985.
     Skipper Tony and dive guide JJ have timed it so that we arrive as other boats are leaving. We descend the bow-line and have the wreck to ourselves. The Duane rests upright in 35m, with the superstructure rising to about 25m and the tip of the mast a little shallower than that.
     Current is governed by the whims of the Gulf Stream, flowing along the Keys from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic. Speed can vary from a whisper to 3 or more knots, always flowing to the north.
     Today it is a comfortable half-knot, easy enough to swim against. From a photographic point of view it lines the barracuda up nicely.
     I pause to admire the shoals of grunts tight in against the superstructure. An open doorway is inviting and I cant resist a quick swim through a few compartments.
     When the Duane and her sister-ship the Bibb were sunk as artificial reefs, the philosophy was to make sure divers couldnt get too far in. Hatches were welded up and grilles welded on where hatches couldnt be closed. In 1990 I can remember being particularly frustrated by this.
     Now I have to be thankful to the crowbar and lumphammer brigade. They were not supposed to do it, but constraints on where a diver can go have been levered aside and the interiors of both wrecks are now fully accessible.
     The minus side is that, with large numbers of divers visiting these wrecks, there will always be some who venture further than either their training or equipment is suited to go. This has led to a fatality on the slightly deeper Bibb, which lies to port in 40m, making it less intuitive to navigate. Some dive operators shy clear of this wreck.
     The philosophy of artificial reefs has now changed. The latest project is the USS Spiegel Grove, a huge landing ship dock that was due to be sunk off Key Largo in May after a number of delays and cost overruns. Rather than closing the interior off, it has been opened up so that when divers venture inside there will always be an easy route out again.
     Last we heard, the Spiegel Grove had sunk prematurely of her own accord while water was being pumped in to ensure that she sank upright. Instead she went belly-up and sank stern first onto sand at 50m, her bow sticking out of the water, and with explosive charges still in place. Sounds exciting!
     By reputation you might expect me to spend the rest of my dive on the Duane inside the wreck, but my eye is caught by a big barracuda hovering in a back eddy above the bridge wing. Back outside, I get his evil toothy grin as close to my lens as he will allow.
     A nice thing about Key Largo is that fish are so used to divers that I can get much closer than in other less-dived destinations. The barracuda is curious. His nose is almost touching my dome port before he gently circles round and takes up station further along the railing. I move on to the next of many barracuda, all nicely posing against interesting pieces of superstructure.

One of the reasons I am diving with Divers City is that it is the only technical dive centre on Key Largo. You dont have to dive technical, but it is nice to be able to make decompression dives when I want to. By the time I am finished on the Duane, I have accumulated a good 20 minutes hang-time.
     On the nearby wreck of the Bibb there are plenty of fish, but not the huge shoals of grunt and barracuda found on the Duane. This is more than made up for by the profusion of delicate sea-fans. Being less dived than the Duane, diver erosion of such marine life is considerably less noticeable.
     Highlights of the dive include the port propeller, sticking up into the current, and the mast stretched across the seabed. A jewfish is supposed to live on the stern of the Bibb, but he was not home when I dived the wreck.
     I do get to meet a pair of enormous jewfish at the Dump, a section of deeper reef a half-mile or so off the popular shallow site of Carysfort Reef. The Dump is not a mainstream site but a rather scrappy reef with habitually poor visibility.
     Any more than a few very quiet divers and the big fish are scared off, making the dive a waste of time. I join Bob Miklia, one of the owners of Divers City, for a quiet dive one afternoon.
     Rather than jump, we slither into the water to make less noise. The reef is below us and Bob points to an outline against the coral. I have to look twice before I can make out the jewfish, partly because of camouflage and visibility, partly because I am simply not looking for something that big.
     We stay quietly above it for a few minutes and let the fish get used to us before I descend and work closer. Its one of those dives on which I wish I had brought my rebreather along. The jewfish stays just too far away for an easy photograph.
     Eventually it retreats into a cave, making grunting noises at me. I get close to the sandy seabed and enter at the opposite side of the cave. Fish this big have been known to attack divers and I have no doubt that if it felt boxed in it would be big enough to do me considerable damage.
     Across the cave, the jewfish is being cleaned by some minute gobies. Perhaps the best indication of scale are the remoras clinging beneath its chin.

Looking round a corner, I spot a pair of sharks resting on the sandy floor. I settle down and let them get used to me before inching closer. The visibility is deteriorating and its hard to discern the kind of shark with which Im rubbing noses.
     Bob mentioned before the dive that bull sharks lived on the reef. This pair are stouter than the artificial perspective of my wide-angle lens suggests, but their faces look more like nurse sharks in my photographs. Others later suggest lemon sharks. What do the shark experts out there think
     The closer shark spooks and swims out. I am creeping towards the second even more slowly when the first swims back in and settles down beside me. It seems that my patience has paid off, and I am now accepted as a co-resident of the cave.
     Trouble is, the visibility is now shot to hell with the shark settling in and my bubbles knocking debris from the roof.
     My mind goes back to the jewfish, and I retreat outside. My previous subject has now been joined by an even larger companion and they circle at a distance, the bigger of the two visibly shuddering along its whole body as it barks warnings at me.
     Ask any of the locals about the best general reef dive and they all say Molasses Reef, a shallow reef marked by a lighthouse towards the south end of the John Pennekamp National Park.
     Fishing within the national park had been restricted for years before, in 1996, the whole of the Keys were brought under a single management plan as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The plan is based on zones, with Pennekamp being one of the Sanctuary Preservation Areas (SPA), best described as no-take, no-touch, no-anchor zones.
     Diving at Molasses, I am struck by the abundance of fish, particularly big species such as Nassau grouper. Am I imagining it, or have fish stocks improved
     For an answer, I visit the marine sanctuary office and read the Sanctuary Monitoring Report for the year 2000, the latest results published. The report is available at www.fknms.nos.noaa.gov under Research and Monitoring.
     At this time, clear trends for all exploited reef fish species have not been demonstrated, says the report. However, some species have shown increased abundance over time due to Ôno-take management. Mean densities for three of four exploited fish species are higher in the SPAs than in fished reference sites. Volunteer monitoring efforts have documented over 240 reef fish species in the Sanctuary, many for the first time.
     What you wont get on the Keys are the dense reefs of living hard coral found at other Caribbean locations. There are living hard corals, but they tend to be smaller outcrops on a fossilised coral base rather than the dominant reef structure.
     One of the culprits is the railroad built to link the Keys at the start of the last century by Standard Oil tycoon Henry M Flagler.
     Coral was mined from the shallow reefs to fill mangroves, build causeways and make cement to build bridges. Once built, the causeways and bridge foundations restricted and permanently changed the pattern of water flow in the Keys.

The railway was responsible for the economic development of the lower keys, but following extensive hurricane damage in 1935 it closed, and the network of bridges was converted to extend the highway along the lower keys.
     North of Molasses Reef is an unbuoyed dive site known simply as Pillar Coral, named after big formations that somehow escaped the attention of Flaglers railroad gangs. Its a startling dive, just a sandy glade in the fossil reef surrounded by a ring of towering pillar-coral formations.
     Its an interesting location for a photographer, and worth a look for other divers, but perhaps as a dregs dive, as it is a small site and Molasses is a better general reef dive.
     Nearby we dive the shallow wreck of the Benwood, a 3931 ton freighter sunk on 6 April 1942. The Benwood was running without lights to avoid U-boats when it collided with the tanker Robert C Tuttle.
     Easily accessible in just 8m of water, the wreck has been salvaged and subsequently used for target practice in the 1950s, before being dynamited as a navigational hazard.
     The lower hull remains little more than flat with the seabed, rising higher at the bow and stern. Large sections of hull and deck lie scattered nearby.
     I potter round, enjoying a pleasant, easy wreck dive. There is more order to the structure of the wreck than my description suggests, with a swim-through amidships providing a home to upside-down fish, and shoals of the usual reef fish hiding in the shade cast by the sides of the wreck.
     More wrecks can be found further north at Elbow Reef. Best known is the City of Washington, originally launched as a steamship with schooner rigging in 1877, subsequently converted to a pure steamship with more powerful engine in 1889 and eventually converted to a coal barge in 1911 before striking Elbow Reef in 1917.
     The main body of the wreck has been reduced even closer to the reef than the Benwood. The lower hull and keel still form a cohesive shape, with scraps of wreckage dispersed widely across the reef.
     Prettiest of Elbow Reefs wrecks is the wooden Civil War Wreck, probably the remains of the Towanda. All that remains is a partial skeleton of the thickest beams linked with heavy copper pins. Its the sort of dive that 50% of divers will love for the masses of marine life and photogenic qualities, while the other 50% will be bored in five minutes because they could swim round it twice in that time.
     I dive the Civil War Wreck late in the afternoon and the lighting is beautiful. I also dive it on dregs of air with the leftover frames on a film. The dregs last plenty long enough at just 6m, but I could happily have used a fresh film.
     An unidentified steel wreck in a similar state of destruction to the City of Washington is usually referred to as Mikes Wreck and is sometimes mistakenly called the Towanda, the most likely candidate for the Civil War Wreck. Mikes Wreck lies across two ridges of coral, with the bow and stern grown into the reef.
     If the charm of the wrecks has worn off, Elbow Reef extends over a considerable area with a good spread of corals, ridges and shallow canyons and all the usual fish life.
     I think that, having dived all the main wrecks and sampled the reef diving, thats it for the Key Largo part of my trip, but a few days later Divers City has a trimix dive planned for the wreck of the Northern Light. I adjust my schedule and enjoy another great dive.

Part of the attraction of Key West is getting there. The drive along the Keys involves miles of bridges with spectacular views. The longest bridge, between Marathon Key and Little Duck Key, is seven miles long. It has featured in numerous movie car chases, with vehicles blowing up and going over the side.
     As I drive across I can see the old bridge that used to carry the railway alongside, with one or two sections missing.
     Key West is the southernmost settlement in the continental USA. A tropical island separated from the mainland until connected by the railway in 1912, Key West has developed an interesting blend of mainstream US and Caribbean attitude to life. Locals, whether native or immigrant, take pride in their tradition of being that bit different.
     It starts with the boat briefing at the Key West Diving Society. In addition to all the usual safety spiel about life-jackets, life-rafts and oxygen, Captain Bill announces: You are about to embark on a vessel which served in the navy of the Conch Republic during the Great War of Secession.
     We declared independence from the United States at 12 noon on 23 April 1982. After five minutes we surrendered to the US Navy, demanding $1 billion in foreign aid and war relief to rebuild our nation.
     I did some research and found a lot of tongue-in-cheek background history on the Conch Republic. Since the war of secession, the republic has been conducting diplomacy with levity, and on the way solving some genuine political problems, attracting widespread publicity, and providing an excuse for a week of independence-day celebrations every April.
     I like its monetary policy: The Conch Republic has no taxes. When we need to raise money we throw a party. If only all government could work that way.
     Captain Bill heads the boat out for a morning of wreck-diving. Neither of the two wrecks easily accessible from Key West is anything special by international standards, but worth a look if you are in the area.
     The 57m-long cable and buoy tender Cayman Salvager was derelict in the harbour. In 1985 the hulk was being towed out to sea to be sunk as a deep artificial reef for fishermen when it broke its tow and sank prematurely to a sandy seabed at 27m.
     The line is tied to the bow of the wreck at 21m. The bow is unusual, fitted with a roller and guide for cable-laying and retrieval. As I dip below it, what at first looks like a dark piece of cloth snagged on the port side reveals itself as an American flag tied in place and billowing in the current. This contrasts with the payphone that someone has placed artistically on the bow deck.
     The wreck is levelled to the main deck, with lots of opportunities to get inside. The first big circular hole provides access to the cable hold. Inside, a doorway leads back to a large cabin with steps returning to the main deck.
     The next set of holes presents a selection of ways into the engine room and around the top of the diesel engines. Here I have to be careful to weave my way between dangling cables that could easily become a source of entanglement.
     Nothing has been cleared for divers and inside is a bit silty, but it isnt that big or difficult a wreck.
     The second wreck is known simply as Joes Tug, after the local dive-boat captain responsible for it. The wreck is less than half the size of the Cayman Salvager, but worth a dive for the story alone.
     No-one knows the original name of the tug. It had also been derelict in the harbour at Key West for years before being cleaned up to become an artificial reef off Miami in 1986.
     The night before it was due to be towed north, Captain Joe and a group of local friends hatched a drunken scheme to hijack the artificial reef; it was Key Wests wreck and they had a better claim to it than Miami.
     In darkness, they towed it out of the harbour and through the reef. They were heading for deeper water when the dilapidated hull made up its own mind where to sink, going down in 22m at the edge of the reef.
     The wreck was shifted and broken by hurricanes in 1998 and 1999. The bow and stern are still intact, with amidships broken down to the keel and the wheelhouse upside-down just off the stern.
     Before the dive Jeff Ware, an English instructor living in Key West, has told me of some basket-stars living curled up near the bow. I spend several minutes looking for them before taking the easy solution and finding Jeff to show me.
     When he points them out they are obvious, balls of tentacles wrapped tight and tucked back in a corner into which I cannot fit my camera.
     In the shade of the wreck, aggregations of blue-striped grunt, porkfish and Spanish grunt hide from the sunlight, predominantly facing forwards into the gentle current, swirling round and jockeying for position as I move in with my camera.
     Having seen the wreck I move out to the nearby reef. I begin by stalking a grouper, then get diverted by a gorgeous queen angelfish munching on a broken barrel sponge. The wreck is still just about in sight at the limit of visibility, but I am now away from the other divers and have the reef and fish to myself.
     General reef dives are much shallower. In fact, the best corals and marine life are in only a few metres of water. Key West is part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, but only some of the reefs are in SPAs.
     My reef diving begins with the descriptively titled Nine-Foot Pole, an area of reef outside the SPA. It used to be marked by a pole of that length until a local fishing boat knocked it off - twice.
     We are outside the SPA because a large group of Navy pilots is hunting with spearguns and lobster snares on board. I have nothing against selective spearfishing for the odd meal, but most of this lot come under the category of idiots with spearguns.
     They have reasonable safety sense, keeping well clear of the other divers, but seem to have little target sense.
     Half their catch is too small and has to be thrown back; not that it will survive, after having been shot through the middle and strung by the gills. The pilots also shoot barracuda, fish not eaten locally because of the risk of poisoning.

Finally, when back on board, some boast of the efforts they have made to retrieve shot fish that have retreated into holes in the reef, causing large amounts of what the military would call collateral damage in the process.
     Similarly more than half the lobsters have to be thrown back as too small, with antennae and claws ripped off in the hunt.
     I begin my dive photographing some general reef scenes, but am diverted to stalking one large grouper. I know I wont get a good picture, but at least while pretending to take photographs I am preventing it from being shot.
     Back on the boat, the crew tries to put some sense into the speargun mob as diplomatically as possible. Aware of my status as a guest, I add that shooting anything that cant be eaten is really not that macho. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that any dive operation could survive if it banned hunting outright. It is too much of a way of life for some Americans.
     Next morning there are no hunters on board - they have booked for the afternoon. We head out to a protected area of reef at the West Sambo cut, where increased currents from the cut in the reef and the protected status have resulted in an enjoyable dive with some good sponges and hard corals and lots of fish.
     Right at the start I find a big stingray almost buried in the sand, then a school of midnight parrotfish that seem to have a vendetta against a small outcrop of reef. There are spiny lobsters under most of the rocks, all with intact antennae.
     Save for a few idiots with spearguns, the diving at Key West is pleasant and enjoyable, but it isnt really a dive destination. Key West is somewhere you go to see and experience Key West, with a bit of diving fitted in on the side.
     The local dive operators realise this and are working on their own artificial reef project. The General Hoyt S Vandenberg is a 13,000 ton ex-USAF radar tracking ship which, among other things, was used to track ICBM tests and space missions.
     There has been some friendly rivalry with Key Largos Spiegel Grove project. Which ship is bigger (Depends how you measure it). Which will be the better dive Which will sink first We know the answer to that one now, but which will sink the way it was intended Key West does have one big advantage: Captain Joe is managing the project!

A French angelfish leads the way inside the Duane
barrel sponge
port propeller of the Bibb wreck
name that shark in the cave at the Dump - nurse, lemon or bull
queen angelfish at the reef by Joes Tug at Key West
Capstan at the bow of the Bibb
corals at French Reef
diver hovers over hull ribs on Mikes Wreck, Key Largo
the seven-mile-long bridge between Marathon and Little Duck Keys, on route from Key Largo to Key West
entering the cable hold of the Cayman Salvager
cable rollers at the bow of the Cayman Salvager in Key West
Barracuda on the Duane
upside-down fish in a swimthrough on the Benwood
valves in the engine-room of the Cayman Salvager


GETTING THERE John Liddiard flew with Virgin Atlantic to Miami, then continued south along the Keys with a rental car from Dollar. Key Largo is an easy 90 minutes from Miami airport and Key West is two hours further on. A car is vital on the Keys and rental rates fairly cheap, but John hit trouble with a rental car donated by the Keys Tourist Council, which was facilitating his trip. The car turned out to have no insurance, and John had to pay $413 for nine days cover on an economy car, even though locals pay about $1000 to cover a larger car for an entire year! Arrange your rental ahead of your trip and dont get caught uninsured.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Both Sipadan-Kapalai Dive Resort and Lankayan Island Dive Resort have full en suite facilities and are run by Pulau Sipadan Resort & Tours, 006089 765200, www.sipadan-resort.com, www.lankayan-island.com. You can book direct or through UK tour operator Pearls of the Ocean, 020 7932 0108.
WHEN TO GO: Diving is all year round, though late August-early November is the hurricane season and can be stormy. Accommodation rates escalate during public holidays such as Thanksgiving and New Year. Also avoid late March when students are on spring break. Water temperature is 23-28°C and is warmest July-September, coldest January-March.
FOR NON-DIVERS:Just about every water sport imaginable is available, with many less strenuous activities also being water-based. National parks provide opportunities to see alligators, key deer and manatees. Just north of the Keys on the mainland is Everglades National Park. Along the Keys and particularly in Key West are many small museums covering the areas nautical history.
COSTS: Flight and one-week car hire with Virgin Holidays starts at £396 per person based on a party of two. When purchased in advance, car insurance and airport surcharge comes to an additional £23 per day for an economy car, 0870 220 2788, www.virginholidays.co.uk
FURTHER INFORMATION: A useful source is Florida Scuba News, a free magazine available in dive shops. You can check it out in advance of your trip by visiting www.scubanews.com

GETTING THERE From Miami follow US1, the South Dixie Highway, across the causeway. Gilberts is the first resort, located to the south of the road just before the drawbridge at Mile Marker 107.9 (measurements are from Key West).
DIVING: Divers City and dive boat Diversity, located at Gilberts Resort and Marina, 001 305 451 4554, www.diverscityusa.com. A two-tank boat dive costs $49.95, with discounts for multi-day packages.
ACCOMMODATION: Booking through Divers City, a twin room at Gilberts is $90 a night, or $80 over a week or more.
GETTING THERE Follow the South Dixie Highway almost as far as it goes. Key West Diving Society is in a building that looks like an old Mexican jail on the south of the highway, just before the last short bridge across to Key West proper at Mile Marker 4.5.
DIVING: Key West Diving Society, 001 305 292 3221, www.keywestdivingsociety.com. A two-tank boat dive costs $61, with discounts for multi-day packages. Small groups can arrange private dive charters through Key West Scuba, 001 305 292 1442, www.keywestscuba.com.
ACCOMMODATION: Booked through the Key West Diving Society, a twin room at the Fairfield Inn ranges from $69-109 per night, depending on season. Without such a deal you could pay 50% more here than elsewhere on the Keys.