It’s a beautiful spring day on the ocean.
I do “giant stride” off the back of the dive boat into the water, reach up to the dive master who hands me my camera, turn and slowly descend down the water.
I am feeling mellow and a song composed in 1934 by George Gershwin for the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess plays in my mind. Some of you may recall Janis Joplin’s more raw and intense version.
“Summertime and the livin' is easy; fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high. Oh, your daddy's rich and your mamma's good lookin'. So hush little baby; don’t you cry.”
Well, in the Upper Keys, we don’t have cotton, but today the waves are low, the water is clear, there are a lot of fish swimming around, and for many of us the livin’ certainly is easy.
Scuba divers and snorkelers who visit the Upper Keys soon learn about iconic locations like French Reef Molasses Reef, Christ of the Deep, Conch Reef, Davis Reef, Crocker Reef and other popular dive spots.
More experienced divers often include dives on famous purposely sunk ships like the USS Spiegel Grove and the USCGC Duane during their dive vacations.
Those of us who live here have our favorites.
I asked one of the boat captains at Conch Republic Divers, “What is your favorite dive spot?”
He answered, “Hens & Chickens when the visibility is good.” Considering that the boat captain is also a dive instructor with thousands of dives, I consider this a pretty good endorsement.
Hens & Chickens is one of the more unique reefs in the Keys. Its location draws fish associated with the ocean and the bay side of the Keys.
Several dive operators schedule trips to Hens & Chickens, a small group of patch reef, which from above looks like a hen surrounded by her chicks.
Located about 2 ½ miles southeast of Plantation Key, this easily accessible dive site is identified by a 35-foot high light tower, flashing red #40. The GPS coordinates are 24'55.900N and 080'32.900W, and there are mooring balls installed.
Because of its near-shore location, Hens & Chickens reef is sheltered from heavy seas; but, during winter months there may be reduced water clarity.
With an average depth of 15 feet, a maximum depth of 22 feet and some spots rising to 5 feet from the surface, Hens & Chickens is perfect for newer divers or families who want to take the kids out for a day of snorkeling. It is and ideal spot to introduce children to marine life.
As I near the bottom of the shallow reef, I feel like I am visiting a large public well-stocked and maintained salt water aquarium.
The I first thing I see is the abundance of healthy coral -- Christmas tree, brain, star, gorgonian and staghorn -- with some coral heads rising 15 feet from the bottom. There are a maze of cracks, crevasses and corridors to explore.
Next, I notice an abundance of sponges, plumes, candelabra soft coral and colorful sea fans that are slowly swaying back and forth with the slight currents. Watching this undulating forest of purple is alone worth the dive.
I hover over a sandy spot and watch the show begin. There is a large undulating ball of small fish that are on the lunch menu for grouper, tarpon, snook and numerous other predators.
What a great photo opportunity. I spend several minutes taking photos.
I fin away from the lunch show and see jack, sergeant majors, barracuda, several types of parrot fish and black spiny sea urchin.
A large nurse shark swims by me while trying to avoid a group of new divers flapping along on the other side of the patch reef.
Then I spot the divers, a dive instructor leading his “flock of chicks” around the patch reef -- another photo op.
Emerging from two large coral heads I come upon surgeon fish, blue tang, angelfish and the ubiquitous grunt. I even see a good-sized lobster poking out of a small crevasse.
On the other side of the reef, a southern sting ray, trying to get some rest, lies partially covered by sand.
Off in the hazy distance is a special treat, a group spotted eagle rays.
There is even an old wreck on the north side of the dive site, the Brick Barge, a small iron ship that was torpedoed during World War II and now lies in 20 to 28 feet of water.
Hens & Chickens reef in situated in one of 18 Sanctuary Preservation Areas (SPA) within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Each SPA is a highly regulated area, identified by large yellow buoys, created to protect and sustain marine inhabitants.
Spearfish, lobstering, shell collecting, tropical fish collecting, anchoring on living or dead coral and anchoring when a mooring buoy is available are not permitted in SPA areas.
For a complete list of regulations for SPA’s see http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/zones/spas/welcome.html.
Jointly managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the State of Florida, the marine sanctuary protects 2,900 square nautical miles of ocean that encompasses the world’s third largest barrier reef, which just happens to run along the Florida Keys.
The second largest is the Belize Barrier Reef, and the largest is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. (See: http://www.divetime.com/articles/Scuba_Diving_Trivia/The_Worlds_3_Largest_Reefs_185.html)
For more on Hens and Chickens reef see: http://www.n-the-florida-keys.com/Hen-and-Chickens-Reef.html
Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 28 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier three years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers.