Protected Molasses Reef Great for Diving and Snorkeling

Molasses Reef
Molasses Reef

The captain gives the OK and the Finstermeister family from Iowa piles on the dive boat.  “I can’t find my dive mask,” complains Freddie Finstermeister, 16. “Tell him to stop messing with my stuff,” whines his younger sister Flo Finstermeister, 14.  “Now children, no squabbling,” intones mother Finstermeister, Fiona, 40. Father Finstermeister, Fern, 41, taps the dive master on the arm and says: “My regulator seems to be leaking and I just had it tuned at Big Bob’s Dive Center in Waterloo.”  The dive master quickly remedies the problem with a new “O” ring for the scuba tank. Freddie finds his dive mask under his seat. The Finstermeisters are ready for action.

Dive boat Captain Adrian appears on the stern of the boat. “Good morning, I am your bus driver for today’s adventure. Do we have any preferences for our first dive site?” Fern Finstermeister, who stayed up late reading a stack of tourist brochures he picked up at a local burger joint shouts out, “let’s go to Molasses Reef.” Seems Fern knows a thing or two about diving in the Upper Keys. Molasses Reef, located in a Sanctuary Preservation Area in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, is the most heavily visited reef in the Upper Keys.

The Molasses SPA is an area of approximately 0.3 square nautical miles or about 90 hectares (~222 acres) located off Key Largo to the east of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Approximate coordinates are 25°00?50?N 80°22?15?W. As we pull up to the site, we see an unmanned reef light and 33 mooring buoys, mostly occupied with dive, snorkel and even glass bottoms boats. There are actually 35 mooring buoys at Molasses, 33 are in the SPA (no fishing, collecting, etc.) and two are outside of the SPA (can be fished from). Why are all these boats here? Visibility is usually excellent at Molasses Reef because of the cleansing effect caused by the currents of the nearby Gulfstream. The clear water makes the reef a great place to dive and see the wonders that lie in the water of the “Diving Capital of the World.” The clear water in the shallow areas is filled with elkhorn and brain corals, sea fans and numerous tropical fish, making Molasses a great snorkeling spot as well.

Molasses Reef

The most frequented dive depths on Molasses range from about 10 feet to over 70 feet, with spur and groove formations found from 10 to 40 feet. At 40 feet to 60 feet, divers can see a variety of sponges and sand chutes on gently sloping hard flat bottoms covered with a variety of hard and soft corals. A drop-off begins at approximately 60 feet and extends to about 100 feet of depth.In shallower depths, the numerous small caverns and ledges provide divers with great opportunities to get close to filefish, lobsters, crabs, moray eels, parrot fish, angelfish, grunt, snapper and all manner of tiny marine life. A bit off the shallow ledges, divers often see turtles, rays nurse sharks goliath groupers, barracuda and larger pelagic (open water) fish. Molasses Reef has several dive locations  with names  including “Spanish Anchor,” “Winch Hole,” “Fire Coral Caves,” “Hole in the Wall” and many more.

Legend has it that Molasses is named for a barge that grounded carrying a cargo of molasses barrels. Others believe that much of the strewn wreckage is from a wooden hulled, 170-foot  Austrian schooner named Slobodna, which ran aground in 1887 after only three years of service. One interesting site, near buoy #7, is the location of a large mechanical winch and various mechanical artifacts from the Slobadana. On Aug. 4, 1984, the Wellwood, a 122-meter freighter carrying pelletized chicken feed, ran aground on Molasses Reef. The destruction included 5,805 square meters of living coral and injury to 75,000 square meters of reef habitat. The area was rejuvenated with reef strata for new coral colonization, transplants from Pickles Reef and preparation for coral larva. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration settled a claim in 1986 of $6.275 million with the Wellwood Shipping Company and the Hanseatic Shipping Company to cover the cost of restoring the reef. Visitors to Molasses Reef may see marine officers patrolling the area to make sure boaters and divers understand and adhere to regulations needed to keep Molasses the world class dive site, with the living coral and abundant sea life, which it is today.

OK, back to the Finstermeister family. They all do a giant stride into the water at the “Hole in the Wall” site. Back on the boat after a 50-minute dive, Fern says, “Wow, that swim through was really cool.”  “OMG, did you see that humongous Goliath grouper? I could almost touch it,” Flo blurts out.  “Oh yeah, I saw a really, really big nurse shark,” Freddie contemptuously utters. “What a pleasant dive, well worth the trip,” says mother Finstermeyer settling down on the bench of the dive boat while chewing on carrot sticks.Now it’s off to the next site, French Reef. Fern, after chomping down on several handfuls of trail mix, a Krispy Kreme donut and a diet soda, consults his tourist brochures to prepare for the dive.

Freddie checks the boat’s cooler and yells, “Who stole my Red Bull?”

“Here it is, under the ice,” comforts mother Finstermeister, Fiona.

For current weather and diving conditions at or near Molasses reef see:  or

Editor’s note: The Finstermeyers are a composite of the many families dive instructors like Don Rhodes meet out on the water.

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.

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