Few places on earth bridge the gap between water and land as breathtakingly as the Florida Keys. Like giant stepping stones scattered across a turquoise sea, the Keys offer easy access to earth’s last frontier, unlocking the door to adventure in the sea. More than 200 Keys make up continental America’s only tropical-island chain, trailing 100 miles from the southern tip of Florida, southwest along the Continental Shelf.
Here, five fathoms beneath the surface of Largo Lagoon, guests vacation: living, eating, sleeping and dreaming at the Jules’ Undersea Lodge the world’s first inner space inn. After almost three decades of pioneering aquanaut missions, the way has been cleared for the average person to live, in comfort, in the sea.
The staging point for this “futuristic” reality is a modest lagoon set amid the palm trees and mangroves of Key Largo, gateway to the keys and the largest island in the chain. It’s a convenient and enjoyable one-hour drive south of Miami along U.S. Highway #1.
That first moment when water embraces you is an eerie, almost magical experience. Like passing through the looking glass into a strange new world. Sounds crackle and creak. Goose-pimples spring up and gravity fades, as one is consumed by the gentle, uplifting force of buoyancy. Nowhere else on earth can one escape gravity’s grip to float free.
At 12 feet the top of the habitat appears. Pushing away from the side of the steel structure, you float down to the seafloor, at 30 feet. Finally, the submerged inn is seen from a normal perspective, but that doesn’t mean it looks normal. With an up-slanted bow and broad rectangular base resting on four large, hydraulic legs, the 20-by-50-foot vessel resembles an alien spacecraft rather than an underwater inn.
Your guide, a sort of diving bellhop, approaches the center of the habitat and ducks under its base. You follow expectantly, mesmerized by the splay of tiny bubbles clinging to the underside of the lodge; exhaust from the regulators. Then, almost instantly a large rectangle of light flutters into view overhead the open doorway to Jules’ Undersea Lodge.
It is amazing to burst up through fluid into an air-filled chamber. The “lobby” is officially called the “wet room.” All the diving gear is stored in this 20-by-10- foot space with a bathroom and shower located opposite the car-sized entry/exit pool. You peel off your wetsuit, step into a soothingly hot shower and slip into a fluffy J.U.L.’s bathrobe, ready for a guided tour of the H2Otel.
On each side of the wet room are two large living areas. One is divided into two bedrooms, each with double bunks, a mini-fridge, stereo/TV/VCR and a porthole. The other is a common area which features a full kitchen, dining area (which can double as a bed) and a stereo/TV/VCR combo. The facilities are luxurious, if not surprisingly spacious.
After the guide leaves and you are alone under the sea, it is unbelievably peaceful – isolated – truly away from it all Gazing out the porthole as fish float past, it’s easy to fall into the deepest of day- dreams and to forget that life above ever existed.
You settle in, admiring your ultra-private enclave and begin picking away at the bowl of fruit and nuts. Attention shifts to the many cupboards in the common room where you discover a collection of audio tapes including: Also Sprach Zara-thustra, The Blue Danube and a Bach organ Toccata (Captain Nemo’s favorite). Deciding on Handel’s Water Music you are amazed at the depth of sound under-water. Every sense is heightened in this unique living environment.
Before long, you and your partner are contemplating a stroll around the lagoon so after unpacking you suit up and step out. It’s about as effortless a dive as you can imagine. No surf to trudge through, no rocking boat to contend with, just a quick slip into the sea. You don’t even have to worry about adjusting to the pressure since you live in it now.
Fin-flicking under and away from the habitat, you swim into green-tinged sunrays and swaying plant life. You confront a gang of curious hogfish. The biggest one is about two feet long, but, magnified by your mask, it seems more like three feet. He comes right up to your face, nudges your mask and darts off. You look behind to see the rest of the gang hovering over your head, seemingly amused by it all.
A few leisurely kicks lifts you effortlessly to the top of the lodge. It’s much brighter on top, and you notice two elegant angelfish meandering over an encrusted hatch. On the far side of the lodge you see a 20-foot sign proclaiming Jules’ Undersea Lodge, a great photo opportunity. Back near the entrance, you dip under once again and then up into the wet room – safe and saturated.
Another hot shower and you dress for dinner. Your pre-ordered meal is sitting in the refrigerator, waiting to be microwaved to life. While it’s cooking, you and your dinner mate fork through crispy hearts-of-palm salad and sip soft drinks. Alcohol is taboo underwater. The reaction to it is too unpredictable. The oven beeps and you feast on fresh fish while your buddy savors filet mignon. For dessert – Key Lime Pie and coffee.
After dinner you peruse the selection of video tapes: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Splash, The Deep, Alien. You settle for a sea-themed James Bond flick, and spy out the window to compare the movie with reality. It’s amazing to watch the underwater scenes, UNDER-WATER!
Pausing the movie, you microwave some popcorn and dim the lights for the movie’s frantic conclusion. The action has you eager to dive again and even though it’s almost midnight, you advise Mission Control of your plans. You dress in the shower, filling your suit with hot water to ease the water’s chill. By the entry pool, you and your buddy check each other’s gear and wave goodbye to the video camera monitoring you Dive lights in hand, you slide into the pool and swim out into the black abyss.
Night diving requires a great deal of control, especially over one’s imagination. It’s easy to conjure up images of killer sharks, moray eels and sea monsters when you’re sur-rounded by cold darkness and eerie sounds. A flashlight is no match for the dark depths but you swim on, bolstered by pulsing adrenaline.
Clambering along the side of the facility lends a sense of security, until you reach the end. Your buddy motions you on with an encouraging wave of his light (nice guy), so you take a lurch of faith into open water and your breathing deepens. It’s frightening and exhilarating all at the same time, like a walk in outer space.
Your breathing eventually normalizes and you begin to swim more confidently. The light catches a few drowsy fish which sparkle like sequined mobiles hanging in a dark room. There’s a faint glow to the lagoon, a strange, almost hypnotic phosphorescence, unlike anything on earth. Your sense of amazement has conquered apprehension so you go on exploring, wide-eyed and goose pimpled. Eventually, the chill convinces you to call it a night, so you and your diving companion scoot back to the warmth of the lodge – dazzled and drained.
In bed now, staring out the window past your feet, angelfish traipse past, illuminated by the habitat’s outdoor light. It’s the last thing you see on your first day undersea.
Even before your wake-up call rings through, your eyes pop open with anticipation for the day’s coming adventures. The angelfish is still at the window, only now there’s a dark greenish hue surrounding it. Dawn is on its way. Minute by minute the water gets brighter. Uniformly, the green glow grows and you notice the stirrings of life outside.
A quick call up to Mission Control and it’s off to the wet room to prepare for another short dive before check-out time. The pool is bright green now and the groupers are still hanging around. You plunk in, scaring them off, but other more curious fish tag along as you circumnavigate the Lodge. The water seems a great deal warmer than it was the night before and the sea is vibrant with morning activity.
Back inside the Lodge once more, you hungrily prepare breakfast of smoked Canadian ham and crispy Belgian waffles topped with strawberries and whipped cream. And all too soon the time has come to pack up for the return to land.
Your guide beckons from the entry pool, so you bring your plastic-wrapped belongings to be stuffed into the pelican cases.
You suit up and with one last look you say a silent goodbye and slip into the exit pool. You break through into fresh air and blinding sunlight. Again, your senses are heightened, this time to the familiar sights of trees, birds and clouds.
Back at the small office where you checked in the day before, you are congratulated and presented with an “Aquanaut Certificate”, officially sealing the experience one that is sure to rest deep in your soul.
To ease the transition from living in the sea and land-lubbing it, visitors can immerse themselves in the unique “by-the-sea” lifestyle of the Florida Keys. Everything is connected to the sea: attractions, accommodation, restaurants and especially recreation.
Fun in the water takes many forms in the Keys: parasailing over the sea, winding a canoe through channel-crossed islands or slicing through aquamarine swells on jet or water skis. The waters surrounding the Florida Keys sport many exotic and challenging game fish or for a friendlier approach to sea life, why not try swimming with dolphins. This unique interactive experience is offered at Dolphins Plus in Key Largo and Theater of the Sea at Islamorada.
The main attraction of the Keys is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park — the world’s first undersea park. The park consists of 2,300 acres of lush parkland and a 21 by three mile stretch of precious ocean. It was dedicated in 1960 to protect the rare and fragile coral reef environment off the shores of Key Largo. The park is by far the most popular diving destination in the U.S.A.
Perhaps nowhere else in the world is the balance between water and land so evenly struck. Every step taken offers a new treasure chest of sights and sounds, merging tropical climate and an easy-going island lifestyle with exciting activities and aquatic adventures — even living in the sea.