Family Friendly Florida
A destination that has warm water, great viz and can offer a diving experience to everybody from a hardcore tekkie to a complete non-diver?
Ylva Kvist and Rosie Holcroft set out to find if Fort Lauderdale, Florida can live up to it's 'family friendly' tag.
"You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time" - so the saying goes. Anyone planning a holiday that involves families and diving will be familiar with the problem. After a few days in Fort Lauderdale, I was starting to believe that the problem has finally been cracked.
Enlightenment on the Sea Emperor
I was finning through the wreck of the upturned barge Sea Emperor at 20 metres, admiring the way that the light streamed in through the many openings into the wreck and playing hide and seek with the Goliath Groupers. The water was warm, the viz was great and the depth was friendly enough to give plenty of exploration time. I couldn't imagine anybody not enjoying this dive - it's a fantastic playground for fish and divers alike with the opportunity to penetrate the wreck extensively and safely.
Maybe some technical divers would find this wreck too shallow - but then there are large wrecks such as the Lowrance in 66m, with the same amazing viz, to keep them occupied. There's even a couple of large freighters at 88m for depth freaks.
Maybe some less experienced divers would prefer to stay out of a wreck - but there is a fantastic range of shallow, shore-based diving on 69 miles of natural reef to keep them happy.
Even complete non-divers can share the experience from glass bottomed-boats at a shallow (5-10m) site like The Nursery, where the resident, docile nurse sharks, groupers and schools of brightly coloured fish interact with divers. What better way to get your non-diving partner hooked on the underwater world?
I looked over at Rosie who was lining up her camera for a shot. Clearly underwater photographers are in heaven here, with ideal conditions and photogenic sites packed with fish.
As we swam out of the wreck, I felt a nudge at my elbow and turned around to see a stingray muscling inbetween us, determined to make its presence felt.
The ray was definitely in a playful mood and I settled on the sand to let the creature approach and explore. How could anybody fail to be delighted at the friendliness of the sealife here? It is the kind of encounter that children dream about and most adults regard as highly improbable.
We climbed back onto South Florida Diving's spacious catamaran and were helped out of our kit by the very obliging boat crew. You certainly can't fault the customer service, and I noticed that we were checked back in as having returned from the dive - so good attention to safety as well.
Recounting my adventures with the stingray, I found out that the dive site next to the Sea Emperor is called the Aqua Zoo. It's 15-20m and is packed with a number of large rays, joined by eels, groupers and nurse sharks, all of which are well used to divers. Regular fish feeding has created a swirling frenzy of exceptionally affectionate fish, and my ray had probably wandered off-site.
I was already looking forward to a dive on the picturequely-name 'Ancient Mariner' - a former Coastguard vessel which had been used as a floating restaurant. It all came to a sticky end when the boat was condemned for use as an artificial reef after causing the largest outbreak of food poisoning in the history of Ft. Lauderdale! Yummy. And who said that artificial reefs have no character!
The diving is organised into two half days, 8am to lunchtime and 2pm onwards, and you get two dives per trip, leaving you plenty of free time to spend with a non-diving family.
If you live in hope that your partner or kids will get into diving, South Florida Diving have a great secret weapon to encourage budding divers to take to the water.
The perfect scuba introduction
The Dive Today programme allows people to experience the excitement of scuba diving without being certified.
The participants get to experience a shallow dive using the new Mini Breather - a lightweight, compact unit, resembling a backpack. Everything you need is self-contained inside the backpack, making it very user-friendly.
An introduction to the Mini-B and basic diving safety points are covered on the way out to the dive site. Once on site the instructor teaches a few quick skills, followed by an underwater tour in the local marine environment.
The focus is on simplifying the kit and the learning process, letting people enjoy the experience. It seems to be proving a great way to engage children and young people. If you have kids who might be interested in learning to dive, it is the perfect introduction - safe, friendly and uncomplicated.
So that's the kids sorted! But what about those family members who adamantly don't want to dive?
Aligators, swamps and shopping
Aside from the glorious beaches, glass-bottom boats and sailing opportunities, non-divers have a host of attractions to keep them happily occupied.
Swampy Everglades is a popular attraction; 750,000 acres of unspoilt swamp with alligators, snakes, birds, and - at the right time of year - manatees!
Take a fun, high speed airboat ride on the "River of Grass", a gently flowing river where you feel close to the water, wildlife and grasses.
Or just take advantage of the mega shopping opportunities: the world's largest discount mall is at nearby Sawgrass Mills. There are stacks of famous shopping streets at Las Olas Boulevard and The Galleria area, just off the beach is full of classy designer shops and cafés.
So, stacks for every type of diver, great activities for the kids, plenty for non-divers... I think Florida's got it covered!
Fort Lauderdale facts|
Fort Lauderdale is known as the 'Venice of the Atlantic' with Atlantic beaches and the Intercoastal Waterways providing 300 miles of canals within the county.
- 69 miles of natural reef, mostly diveable by shore.
- A water taxi ride by night - stunning! See www.watertaxi.com
- The Oceanfest - a diving and watersports show held in May www.oceanfest.com
- Your sunblock - the climate is tropical and there are 23 miles of beaches on offer
- The International Swimming Hall of Fame - Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller) trained here
- Nesting sea turtles - turtles lay eggs in the sand from May to August; stay at Ireland's Inn Beach Resort and you can watch them from the hotel without causing disturbance
- The diving!
- 81 artificial reefs (wrecks!) in depths from 10m - 75m, with many in the
20-30m range. Wrecks include a DC-4 airplane and a 130m-long freighter at a depth of 60m
- A good chance of seeing sharks - especially the resident nurse sharks at the Nursery
- The viz is usually a good 25 metres+
- Winter water temperatures don't fall below 20 degrees C, and climb to 30 degrees in the summer.
Useful tourist information is available from www.sunny.org - The Great Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, including 'The Wrecks and Reefs of Great Fort Lauderdale': a free interactive scuba CD Rom.