Divernet

The 747 touches down at Orlando and five exhausted divers stagger off the plane. It is 6pm local time. By the time we have picked up our rental car and found our hotel we are wiped out.
Even so, one advantage of travelling west is that we are all up bright and early next morning. Normally I like to organise diving in advance, but this trip finds us unprepared. No problem - the Yellow Pages on the bedside table has pages of diving ads. Two phone calls later and boat spaces are booked for that afternoon from West Palm Beach, three hours drive south.
OK, I had previously worked in Florida for a few months and had some local knowledge, but booking diving there is easy. Most people think of the state as being all about Disney World and the Keys. But its east coast is teeming with wrecks.
In addition to some great wartime wrecks and other losses at sea, a blossoming artificial reef programme ensures that more wrecks are sunk every year.
We are the only divers on the boat, so the skipper gives us a free choice of sites. Not wanting to push my luck, I ask whether he would advise diving the Mizpah, an old Greek luxury liner, or the Owens, a medium-sized freighter, both in about 25m.
You Brit divers are used to decompression arent you Do both wrecks and deco a bit on the second dive, he says. Not the answer I had expected in the USA, but one enthusiastically accepted by the group.

RIDERS ON THE STORM
Diver The Gulf Stream is running north at about 2 knots. With good visibility we drop up-current and drift on to the bows of the Mizpah. There are fish everywhere - mixed shoals of snappers, fusiliers and grunts flowing in and out of the wreck. As I enter the wheelhouse an enormous barracuda grins at me. Hes not moving aside for any upstart diver, so I retrace my route.
Two hours later it is time for the Owens. The afternoon thunderstorm has arrived, generated by strong onshore breezes at the end of a day of harsh tropical sunshine. A violent display of lightning strikes the tops of tower blocks along the beach. The local rock station is playing the Doors Riders on the Storm. The best place to be is under water.
The Owens is part of a close group of wrecks. Again dropping up-current and drifting, the first wreck is a large barge covered in fish and encrusting corals and sponges. We quickly cover its length and move on to the freighter. From the port bow we can just see one of Palm Beachs most unusual wrecks, a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow donated to the artificial reef programme by one of the many millionaires who like to do their bit for the community.
That sets the scene for the rest of the trip, nothing arranged more than a day or two in advance, travelling up and down the coast to dive a mixture of wrecks, reefs, ledges and caves, and fitting in trips to tourist attractions. Spoilt for choice!
With so many dives to choose from it is impossible to list them all, so here are a few to whet the appetite: a few miles north of West Palm Beach, from Stuart or Fort Pierce, the Rankin and Muliphen are both 140m marine amphibious assault vessels. The Rankin is upright in 40m of water reaching to less than 20m from the surface. The Muliphen lies on one side in 55m and is a much more serious dive. Below the warm current of the Gulf Stream I actually wore a wetsuit for this one.
Further inshore lies the Halsey, a 200m tanker sunk by U-boat torpedoes in 1942. The wreck is well broken up, but in just 20m it makes a good second dive after one of the deeper wrecks.

ROLLS AND TOILET BOWLS
If deeper wrecks are what you want, the 97m freighter Hydro Atlantic is a site not to be missed. Advertised as one of the 10 best dives in the USA, it rests in 52m of water, a couple of miles out of Boca Raton. The Hydro Atlantic was no artificial shipwreck - it was being towed to Texas for salvage when it foundered in a storm.
Moving south to Fort Lauderdale, a classic site is the Tennaco Towers, an oil platform that was sunk in three sections. And one of the oldest artificial reefs is the Deep Freeze, a 65m refrigerated freighter sunk in 35m of water off Miami. With more than 20 years of marine growth, it offers some of the best marine life in the area. Another interesting site off Miami consists of a string of five tugboats and barges lying in 25m.
There are also some more unusual artificial reefs. Apart from the Roller you can find Vietnam War-surplus tanks and a Boeing 727. Perhaps the strangest is the Toilet Bowl Reef, a large pile of porcelain bathroom fittings!
The eastern seabed is mostly gently sloping sand but there are ledges at 10, 20 and 30m left by sunken coastlines. Youll find hard corals and sponges and all the usual Caribbean reef fish. If youre lucky an eagle ray might cruise past, or you could find a turtle snoozing beneath an overhang.

CHRIST OF THE DEEP
For real coral reefs you must travel to the Florida Keys, a string of islands stretching more than 100 miles south-west from the tip of the state and linked by bridges and causeways. Driving from Miami through to Key West takes three or four hours.
The coral is not of the same density as at major Caribbean destinations but there are extensive reefs with lots of colourful fish in clear, warm water. Perhaps a bit twee, but worth a look is the Christ of the Deep, located in a valley of coral in Pennekamp National Park off Key Largo. A duplicate of a statue in the Mediterranean off Genoa, it was donated by Egidi Cressi of Cressi-Sub in 1961.
From the south end of Key Largo or Islamorada youll find a pair of 105m Coastguard cutters. The Duane is upright in 35m, stands well clear of the bottom and is regularly visited by dive boats. You need to ask around a bit to find a boat visiting the deeper Bib, lying on its side in 40m.
Inshore, Molasses Reef has some of the best corals on the upper Keys and makes a relaxing second dive, while a little further south the Eagle was a burned-out freighter that was sunk as an artificial reef. I have not dived it recently and heard it was badly broken by Hurricane Andrew.
As with the other Keys, Key West has some reasonable coral reefs to dive, but it is also the departure point for trimix dives to the Wilkes Barre, a 10,000-ton cruiser sunk in 75m.


FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Flights to Miami or Orlando from most UK airports. Fly-drive packages usually provide the best deal.
DIVING DETAILS: The best guidebook is Diving Guide to Underwater Florida by Ned DeLoach, New World Publications. Lonely Planets Pisces Guides now cover Florida. Also check Florida Scuba News, or on the web at www.scubanews.com
ACCOMMODATION: Buy vouchers in advance for a major chain such as Days Inns or Quality Inns. Unused vouchers can be refunded.
Language: English.
MONEY: US$. Credit cards are used for everything.
FOR NON-DIVERS: Florida is the vacation capital of the USA, with countless amusement parks, water parks, organised adventures, golf courses and shopping malls.
HAZARDS: Local traffic laws are conservative and rigidly enforced. The bottomless cup of breakfast coffee.
BEST TIME TO GO: Diving is all year round on the Keys. Hurricane season is September and October. Stormy weather and lack of divers might limit east coast diving in winter. Accommodation can be expensive during public holidays and late March, when students arrive on spring break.
WATER TEMPERATURE: 23C to 28C. Warmest July-September, coldest January-March.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: Everyone from beginners to trimix deep-wreck divers and cave-divers.
cost: Fly-drives from£250 to£500 depending on time of year and when you book. Accommodation is charged by the room - haggle to get a good room with two double beds for $50 to $100. Diving from $40 to $60 for a two-dive boat trip including tanks and weights, with discounts for multiple days.
PROS: Lots of wrecks, lots of fish and some OK coral. Mainland USA infrastructure and more than enough diversions for non-divers.
CONS: Some dive operations go so over-the-top that good service becomes an overbearing, patronising attitude to all divers. If you have this problem, just take your business to the outfit next door!