With its turquoise waters and undersea reefs, shipwrecks, and manmade installations, South Florida isn’t just a diving paradise for those trying the sport for the first time. Home to some of the best dive sites in the world, the region has long been a premier destination for divers of every skill level.
“I feel at home in the ocean,” says Dara Creutz, a Master Scuba Diver Trainer at Miami’s Squalo Divers. “It’s very addictive, scuba diving. Just the feeling of being underwater when it’s completely quiet and you can only hear your breath. I can’t really imagine my life without it.”
Dara has been diving since age 15 when she first obtained her PADI Open Water certification in Maui. After taking a Dive Master course in Koh Tao, Thailand, seven years ago – where she met her now-husband in her dive instructor – Dara taught diving in Hawaii, Mexico, and the Virgin Islands before settling in the Miami area.
Now at Squalo Divers, a renowned agency for PADI courses and dive trips in South Florida, Dara makes it easy for new divers to explore the waters around Miami and obtain a dive certification during a stay at Acqualina Resort & Spa.
Part of the appeal of diving in the area is its diversity. From reefs in Miami to wrecks in Fort Lauderdale and Pompano, every day is different for Dara, who leads pool sessions, shore dives, and boat dives everywhere from Tigertail Lake to Key Largo.
“It’s nice being able to go out from multiple locations using different dive operators and different boats,” she says, “because it gives us a lot of flexibility with what we can do and what we can offer for people.”
For first-time divers, the most popular option for exploring South Florida’s underwater world is a PADI Open Water course, which includes three days of practicing skills in a pool and diving in the open ocean. (PADI stands for Professional Association of Diving Instructors.) Participants need to be physically fit to dive – although, as Dara says, “not marathon runners” – with the requirements being that you must be able to float or tread water for 10 minutes and be able to swim 200 meters.
Children as young as eight can sign up for a pool session to begin learning the necessary skills for diving, while those ages 10 and up can take the PADI course. (On the opposite end of the spectrum, Dara has taught divers as old as 87.)
The performance-based PADI course provides new divers with the knowledge and training to safely dive in locations around the world and includes a self-study session, pool training, and open water training – consisting of four guided dives over two days. And when guests of Acqualina sign up for the course through the resort’s Acqua Experiences, they can even complete some of it in the resort pool.
There are also courses for first-time divers that require less commitment, like Discover Scuba Diving, a one-day course that includes a pool session and, if you’re interested, an afternoon of boat diving with an instructor. (“It’s not a certification course,” says Dara, “but it’s a really great way to see if you enjoy breathing underwater without buying the gear and making the commitment.”)
The places you dive will depend on the conditions of the day, but you can almost always expect to see an abundance of marine life. Some of the most common sightings include green moray eels, southern stingrays, spotted rays, various shellfish, flamingo tongue snails, Caribbean reef sharks, all manner of sea turtles, and an array of fish from trumpetfish to angelfish. Sometimes Dara will spot the occasional eagle ray or camouflaged scorpionfish, and there are usually lionfish – an incredibly beautiful but non-native species hunted because of the destruction it poses to the reef.
“We see marine life all up and down the coast here,” says Dara, who points out different species to divers during each trip.
Among her favorite dive sites in South Florida is Neptune Memorial Reef, which is actually an underwater cemetery. Those who choose to be “buried” there have their ashes mixed with cement and formed into a feature of the reef, like coral or a sea star, accompanied by a plaque.
“It’s like your memorial,” says Dara. “And because it’s an artificial reef, the fish and the coral come and grow all over it. The whole premise is creating life after life. There’s nothing really like that anywhere in the world.”
Those who complete the PADI Open Water course can enjoy diving throughout the region, as well as in sought-after spots around the world. With a certification, you can sign up for a dive trip with Squalo Divers to visit one of more than 50 different dive sites in South Florida, and you can also excel in advanced courses and hobbies like underwater photography. (According to Dara, most students come back for more.)
As for Dara, there is still much more to explore underwater.
“I fell in love with cavern diving in Tulum,” she says, “and Florida has some of the best cave diving in the world, so I can’t wait to do my full cave course.”
Learn more about Scuba Diving with Dara and other Acqua Experiences. Alternatively, you may have Master Scuba Diver Trainer Alejandro Otero as a dive instructor. Alejandro has been diving for more than 20 years.