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 7 miles long. It has featured in numerous movie car chases with cars blowing up and going over the side. As I drive across I can see the old bridge that used to carry the railway alongside, one or two sections missing.
Key West is the southernmost settlement in the continental United States. 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, have pride in a tradition of being just that little 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 Conch 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. One of my favourites is the 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 both are worth a look if you are in the area.
The 57 metre 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 27 metres.
The line is tied to the bow of the wreck at 21 metres. An unusual bow as it is 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.
The second wreck is known simply as "Joe's tug", after the local dive boat captain responsible for it. The wreck is less than half the size of the Cayman Salvager, but I think it is worth a dive just for the story.
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.
On 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 West's 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 22 metres at the edge of the reef. The wreck has since been shifted and broken by hurricanes in 1998 and 1999.
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 right in the shallows 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 Sanctuary Preservation Areas.
My reef diving begins with the descriptively titled "9-foot pole", an area of reef outside the SPA. It used to be marked by a 9-foot pole, until a local fishing boat knocked it off. Twice.
We are outside the SPA because there are a large group of Navy pilots hunting with spear guns and lobster snares on board. I don't have anything against spear fishing when done conscientiously, selectively shooting a meal or two.
A couple of the spear fishers certainly fit this role, but the vast majority of them could best be described as "idiots with spear guns". Half their catch was too small and had to be thrown back, not that it would survive having been shot through the middle and strung by the gills. Then they shot barracuda, fish not eaten locally because of the risk of poisoning. And finally when back on board some boasted of the efforts they had made to retrieve shot fish that had 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 had to be thrown back as too small, with antennae and claws ripped off in the hunt.
I begin my dive taking some general reef scenes, but am diverted to stalking one large grouper. I know I won't get a good picture of it, but at lest 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 spear gun mob as diplomatically as possible. Aware of my status as a guest I add my thoughts in a similar way, that shooting anything they couldn't eat was not really that macho.
Nevertheless, facing reality, it is unlikely that any dive operation on Key West could survive if they banned hunting completely. It is just too much of a way of life for some Americans. As I said, I am prepared to live and let live, as long as it isn't carried to excess.
Next morning there are no hunters on board. They have booked for the afternoon, so we head out to a protected area of reef. 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, and they all have intact antennae.
Save for a few idiots with spear guns, the diving at Key West was pleasant and enjoyable, but it isn't 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 Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg is a 13,000 ton ex US air force radar tracking ship which, amongst other things, was used to track ICBM tests and space missions.