Florida

PLAYING BRIDGE

1. In the wheel-house of a Florida shipwreck. 2. Manatees are the state's most beloved marine mammal. 3. A Sani-bel Island beach. 4. Diving the enormous Ballroom at Ginnie Springs.

Florida is the state where you begin your breakfast with fresh-squeezed orange juice and finish dinner with a slice of key lime pie. That's not a state law. But it should be.

Florida is also the state where resident divers view anyone living north of them with a sort of benign pity. The Sunshine State is, after all, surrounded on three sides — east, west and underground — with water. There's just never any reason to let your gear dry here.

Begin off Pensacola, where the world's largest artificial-reef ship, the 888-foot aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, was placed on a 212-foot bottom just last year, forming what has already been dubbed the "Great Carrier Reef." With her flight deck at 130 feet and her superstructure rising to within 70 feet of the surface, the "Mighty O" is within the range of PADI deep divers. The

DESTINATION PRIMER

AVERAGE WATER TEMP: 56-87°F, depending on season and location. WHAT TO WEAR: Dive skin or shorty in Atlantic in summer; 7 mm fullsuit in Gulf in winter. AVERAGE VIZ: 30-100 feet (200+ in some springs). WHEN TO GO: Year-round. WHAT TO EXPECT: A place that is its own world of diving, from the mystical environments of freshwater-spring caverns to the magic of snorkeling with manatees and world-class shipwrecks on both coasts. LANGUAGE: English; Spanish widely spoken in cities. TAXES: Sales tax varies by county. ELECTRICITY: 110 V, 60 cycle. TIME ZONE: Eastern Time, Daylight Savings Time observed.

hangar deck, at 150 feet, is a straightforward technical dive.

On the other side of the state, off Fort Lauderdale, a number of natural wrecks (such as the 198-foot Mercedes) and artificial reefs keep spearfishers and wreck divers happy. Lauderdale is quickly joining West Palm as the "it" area for Atlantic diving.

In between, the joys of Florida diving range from manatee encounters in the Crystal River to stellar spring and cave diving in the areas around Ocala, High Springs, and the panhandle region; more cave divers get certified in the gin-clear Florida springs than in any other place on earth.

And for those with non-diving companions, the joys of Florida include Orlando theme parks, Miami culture, NASCAR, Bike Week, world-class golf and tennis and more. It just might be the perfect vacation destination.

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