Almost Not Diving the Florida Keys for My Birthday

Plans don't always work out—and sometimes that's okay! When the alternative is possibly getting electrocuted underwater, almost any alternative seems preferable.

When your plan goes awry, I find it's best to try to enjoy the moment for what it is because, sometimes, the unexpected can occur. You end up having an amazing time!

This is what happened on my 29th birthday this year. I traveled to the Florida Keys with Jono specifically to go diving. We were all set on the boat for our first dive when a massive storm hit. Instead of getting upset, I sat back, took in the excitement of the storm, and spotted the next best thing in the distance: A pod of dolphins heading straight for us!

My Commitment to Annual Diving

Ever since I was fitted for braces, I wanted to be a SCUBA diver. But I never planned for SCUBA diving to be in my life so consistently the way it seems to be now. Getting my SCUBA license, in the first place, happened almost accidentally. All the right circumstances came together while traveling Thailand in 2014 and I found myself in a "if not now, never!" mindset.

I am so glad I went for it and got open water certified.

My orthodontists used to show me photos from their trips SCUBA diving together. They would close the office for a few weeks each year and they would travel to an exotic location to dive deep below one of the seven oceans' surfaces. Their photos always captivated me.

Reflecting back, I know I used to think my orthodontists were so glamorous and adventurous. I figured I'd probably never have the chance to learn, much less the time to SCUBA dive like they did so regularly.

As it turns out, I've spent my last two birthdays SCUBA diving around the globe. Last year, I spent my birthday diving the Great Barrier Reef. This year, I turned 29 while diving in the Florida Keys. And I dove Niue and Bali in between.

Even with a new job on my plate, and a new life I'm adjusting to, diving is definitely my go-to activity to "get away" and relax. That's why I've committed myself to the activity at least once a year. Nearly everywhere I travel in the future, I want it to be a place where I can dive.

My birthday is the perfect excuse to stay committed to that plan on a yearly basis.

When Thunderstorms Threaten

But plans don't always go accordingly. There are so many unpredictable variables that can mess up our travel plans. Like the weather.

Jono and I woke early to check in at 8am for our morning dive with Rainbow Reef on Key Largo. The air was thick with humidity and the sky was overcast as we drove from our Airbnb in Florida City 30 minutes to the Keys. On the drive down, cumulonimbus clouds were building and lightning struck in the distance to the West.

"It's fiiiine. Florida always has thunderstorms. They'll pass," I said to Jono with confidence.

Part of the way out to the reef, the captain stopped the boat sooner than expected. By now, rain had started hammering down from a charcoal sky above.

We had made it as far as Molasses Reef and hooked up to a mooring just as lightning descended on us from all sides. Waves swayed the boat around and everyone held on under the upper deck to keep out of the rain. The thunder cracked so loud and intensely, it felt like someone was literally pounding a drum from inside my chest.

"Doesn't look good, Jim!" the other boats with Rainbow Reef radioed to our captain. They were wary, as we were, because diving in a lightning storm is no joke. You can get hit under water by the bolts which streak down through the surface all the way to the ocean floor. Seeing lightning under water would probably look very cool, but not feel very cool.

We waited, half expecting the boat or coastal marine station nearby to get struck by lightning. But they didn't.

The captain kept saying, "10 more minutes and then maybe we'll get in." I was hopeful that we would. Either way, I was actually enjoying the incredible show around us while we waited.

If I'm being honest, I was a little nervous about going on my first dive since my last dive in off Nusa Lembongan was nearly fatal. Besides, I love thunderstorms and this one was exciting!

A Gift of Dolphins

I stared in awe at our ocean surroundings: the dimpling effect of raindrops on the waves, the jagged streaks of light shooting through grey mist, the low, wind-swept clouds moving overhead. I was taking it all in when I suddenly noticed some irregular movement on the surface in the distance.

It took half a second for me to recognize the irregularity. After spotting the same from dive boats in Indonesia and Niue, I have become quite good at identifying dolphins, apparently even in a thunderstorm!

"Dolphins!" I shouted and pointed off the starboard side. Thirty divers looked in the direction of my finger and everyone gasped in amazement. A huge pod of bottlenose dolphins were gunning directly for our boat.

If you know me or you've been reading this blog closely, you'll know that I am a very enthusiastic dolphin fanatic. The first wild-dolphin encounter I had was in Niue when spinner dolphins swam along the side of our zodiac. But I've never seen bottlenose dolphins—my favorite!—in the wild before. And I certainly never encountered them while sitting in the middle of a thunderstorm.

Their presence was such a wonderful gift on my birthday. Thanks, Mother Nature!

30-Minutes In Heaven

After the dolphins came right up to our boat and passed on by, the rain stopped and the thunder and lightning got farther and farther apart. Eventually, the captain said it was safe to get in the water.

The boat became a flurry of activity as everyone suited up and jumped one-by-one into the sea. Now for the real test. It had been 8 months since I last dove and I was nervous about facing current again.

While I was certainly on the cautious side during my dive, I easily found peace in my surroundings. There was no current at all and nothing calms me more than the heavenly beauty of this undersea paradise.

Here are some of my best shots from my Molasses Reef birthday dive:

Unfortunately, the dive was cut short, as the captain called everybody in sooner than expected. Local thunderstorms were still threatening from all angles and one in particular was getting a bit too close for comfort.

So, after 30 minutes under the surface, we all hopped back on board and turned the boat toward land.

I would be back to Molasses Reef later. But, for now, Jono and I would be spending the rest of my birthday on land (by the water, of course).

The Remainder

Jono and I made the best of the weather for the rest of the day. We went to Robbie's, a really cool marina where we fed some massive, savage fish! I will share that story (and how I totally chickened out) in the coming weeks.

After that, Jono treated me to a really lovely dinner at Marker 88. This restaurant came highly recommended and I second that recommendation. Despite the steep prices, the service was excellent and the food was awesome. I especially enjoyed the slice of real key lime pie I got at the end! Yum!


If you're curious, I did a post recently all about the food in Southern Florida.

While I didn't get to have the epic day-long SCUBA adventure that I imagined for my birthday, the day turned into its own epic series of adventures! Between the exciting thunderstorm, the visit from a pod of dolphins, and the wonderful afternoon with my partner, I could not have been a happier 29 year old.