Where we’re at: I’m recapping my summer of 2018, which included this trip to Florida in July. In other news: we’ve added new Wander Women Retreats — don’t miss them!
Do you love the sea so much you’ve even dreamed of sleeping underwater?
Longtime Wanderland readers know, I’m all about anything quirky when it comes to diving. Submerging in the Dead Sea in Israel? Feeling the fault line on a high altitude volcano dive in Guatemala? Dry suit diving between tectonic plates in Iceland? Sign me up!
So when I heard about America’s only underwater hotel in Key Largo, Florida, where I could spend an entire night below the surface? It shot straight to the top of my bucket list (but at a safe ascent rate, and not before an appropriate safety stop — diver humor, am I right?)
Today, Jules’ Undersea Lodge sits at about twenty feet below the surface of the tropical mangrove Emerald Lagoon, enjoying, as so many do, a Florida retirement, of sorts. It began its life as the La Chalupa Research Laboratory off the coast of Puerto Rico in the early 1970’s, the largest and most technologically advanced underwater habitat of its time.
While divers are able to book the Lodge for lunch, I knew that nothing would sate me but a full night snoozing under the surface — and, of course, the iconic underwater pizza delivery for dinner.
My forever dive buddy Heather and I were giddy as we pulled up to The Key Largo Undersea Park. We were quickly whisked into a “mission briefing” room where we got the rundown on what was about to go down — literally. Due to pressure changes, we couldn’t bring any of our toiletries into the lodge (cue me panicking about a night without my face moisturizer) or open our underwater camera housings (arrive with batteries fully charged!)
Then came the fun part — ordering our pizza! We marveled that we each were offered our own small pizza with two toppings of our choosing, and could have swapped to subs (no thanks!) or upgraded to a fancy lobster dinner for $80 (no thanks again — pizza has our hearts for life.)
Our Mission Director, who would monitor our stay from the land-based “Command Center” that we toured, introduced himself simply as Wolf Man. This is Florida, I reasoned with myself, and chose to smile and ask no further questions. The control center is connected to Jules’ Undersea Lodge by a cable which delivers fresh air, water, power, and communication — underwater, we simply had to pick up an old fashioned land line to be connected straight to Wolf Man’s ear.
We geared up and prepared to be whisked by Wolf Man through the lagoon and into the lodge. While underwater hotels are often touted in travel industry top ten lists, Jules’ remain’s the world’s only dive-in, completely submerged underwater hotel. After a murky swim the edge of the lagoon, we arrived at our accommodation for the evening.
Entering through a wet room known as the Moon Pool, we felt like we’d arrived a secret clubhouse underwater. We had surfaced through an entrance in the floor, much like one would surface through a small plunge pool.
We stripped off our gear and watched the fish who popped by to see what we were up to. This room, we’d learn, was named so by researchers in Puerto Rico who looked down and saw the full moon reflecting in the white sand beneath the habitat.
The Jules’ Undersea Lodge sits on legs just five feet off the bottom of the protected lagoon. Compressed air filled the Lodge, preventing the water that surrounded us from rising and flooding the rooms.
The Moon Pool is the middle of three compartments that make up Jules’ Lodge, and includes a toilet and hot shower with provided soap, shampoo and conditioner. Through one porthole were two side-by-side bedrooms; through the other, a common room with a galley, dining area, and entertainment zone decorated in dazzling kitsch. We were amazed that Jules’ Lodge provides not just a stack of DVD’s, which we expected, but WiFi and an Amazon Fire Stick, too! Yet needless to say, the big ‘ol 42″ windows captured most of our attention.
As usual, Heather and I had been panicking over the amount and variety of snacks to pack on our adventure. However, we shouldn’t have fretted — the kitchen, complete with a refrigerator and a microwave, was stocked with all kinds of fun treats and drinks. That said, we were pretty thrilled with our one packed snack, the never-more-appropriate Goldfish crackers.
After our child-like exploration of every corner of Jules’ Lodge, we decided to take a better look at our underwater surroundings. Gearing back up, we made a dive plan based on the briefing we’d received, and a map of the lagoon, and set off.
We kept our eyes peeled for sea horses, snapper, sergeant majors, blue tangs, and most alluringly, the manatees who occasionally meander into the lagoon. We weren’t lucky enough to meet any this time, but we did come across colorful parrotfish, some cute baby barracuda — the mangrove is a natural nursery for young reef fish — and some alien-like crabs. Not to mention the anemones, sponges, and feather duster worms that were everywhere we looked.
With a depth of 25 feet and a calm mangrove environment unaffected by tides and currents, Emerald Lagoon is a popular location for training dives. “Jules’ Undersea Lodge serves as an artificial reef, providing shelter and substrate for marine animals. And the flow of air to the lodge constantly adds oxygen to the entire surrounding body of water, creating a symbiotic relationship between the technology of man and the beauty of nature,” boasted our briefing.
Not to mention, the lodge provides something spectacular for divers to marvel at underwater. While divers are asked to give lodge guests their privacy while occupied, when it’s empty, divers can peek into the windows and start mentally planning their future overnight stay.
We made our way back to Jules’ Lodge to shower and get cozy just in time for dinner — our pre-ordered pizzas, delivered by Wolf Man via the Moon Pool, and announced via his signature howl. Heather and I have been travel buddies for a long time and shared many a pizza date in many an exotic, surreally beautiful location — but we both agreed, it would be hard to top this. (Perhaps pizza in space? I’m not not into it.)
So, aside from scuba diving and eating pizza, how does one pass eighteen hours underwater? We fired up Netflix and watched marine-conservation documentaries Chasing Coral and Mission Blue, played Oceanopoly, FaceTiming with family and friends above sea level just to bask in the novelty of it all, doing face masks, and flipping through Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the famous tribute to the human quest for exploration and adventure by Jules Verne, for whom Jules Lodge is named.
My favorite underwater activity, however, was reading through the beautiful messages from more than thirty years of guests to Jules’ Lodge — their sketches, quotes, and memories left me beaming with smiles.
We really only had one major complaint about our time in the lodge — and it was a bit of a doozy. The AC was down in the bedroom cabins, and we quickly realized there was absolutely no way we were going to be able to sleep in them without it. So we pulled all the blankets and pillows into the living compartment and made up makeshift beds on the benches, there.
It certainly wasn’t the most comfortable night of my life, but we did drift off to sleep watching for fish outside a porthole, so things have definitely been worse.
In the morning, we resumed our favorite activity: eating in front of the porthole and babbling about what an incredible experience the whole thing was. We went for one more dive to capture a bit more underwater footage, and then, sadly, it was time to pack up and leave Jules’ Lodge!
As our dives from the lodge could not be calculated on standard dive tables, we needed to follow official procedures closely. All dives within 24 hours of entering the habitat had to be recorded closely, and from the time we left the surface, everything we did — sleeping, exploring the lagoon, etc — was one continuous dive! Hence, we couldn’t dive or fly for twenty four hours after leaving the lodge. Luckily there’s plenty else to do in the area while you off-gas.
We were already kind of dreaming about our next trip, and luckily there was something we already had to come back for: one of the four PADI distinctive specialities that are available nowhere else on earth. Continuing education addicted divers can sign up for the Underwater Maintenance Distinctive Specialty, designed for the recreational diver to participate in underwater clean-up, The Aquanaut Speciality Program, which requires a full twenty four hour stay in the lodge, the Jules’ Habitat Innerspace Diver Speciality, which introduces some of the training astronauts experience in an underwater environment, and The Habitat Speciality Program, which is the one that I’m itching to return for. This academic course covers the history of marine habitats and their many uses for marine exploration — and it’s a mere $95!
Speaking of costs, while it’s only $35 to dive the Emerald Lagoon, I’m not sure I’d recommend it without some time in Jules’ Lodge, which is the real stand out here. The most budget friendly option is the three hour Mini Adventure for $150 per person, with a two person minimum, which includes a pizza lunch in the lodge.
Our two person overnight package started at $800, but there is a chance that you could be sharing the space with other divers in the second bedroom. I don’t know how often this actually happens but considering how tight the quarters are, I think it would be pretty awkward. So personally I would not book without paying the $175 upgrade for exclusivity. Keep in mind that there are discounts for dive professionals and military members, and it’s cheaper in numbers — for groups of 5-6 it’s $300 per person, so grab your best dive buddies and make a date! See a full list of prices here — all excursions include tons of food and unlimited dives in the lagoon.
To make the most of your time, get there promptly for the 2pm check in. Check out is technically 8:30am, but they may give you some extra time if there’s no check in the next day, like they did for us. It sounds expensive and it is. But keep in mind, not only is this an insanely unique experience, they really take good care of you, and there will be someone there on the surface for the entire duration of your stay on the surface. Don’t forget to tip well, too — we left $80 total for both of us.
Reading through the heart-felt guestbook was proof that this is the stay of a lifetime for many. By its 30th anniversary in 2016, Jules’ Undersea Lodge had hosted more than 10,000 overnight visitors. How amazing is that.
Yet one of the things that surprised me most about the Lodge is that I hadn’t heard more about it. The diving world is actually a fairly small one, and I marveled that I didn’t know a single other dive enthusiast, writer, or instructor who had stayed here. Though apparently, it’s not a complete hidden gem — Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, actor Tim Allen, John Fishman of Phish (tee hee) and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (Justin, wanna join the ranks?) have all stopped by.
While we’d worried we might feel a tad claustrophobic or even bored, we clearly were crazy. We both agreed that when our time was up, we weren’t ready to return to sea level!
Since returning to the surface, I’ve been thrilled to share this experience far and wide. I’d landed an assignment creating a video for PADI in cooperation with Florida Keys Tourism (if you haven’t seen it, please don’t miss my personal favorite section — the ending bloopers, ha!), and later writing a What It’s Like assignment for Scuba Diving Magazine.
I still look back at this as one of the coolest dive experiences I’ve ever had. It was the perfect bond of the creativity and curiosity of man and the wonder of the natural world. And you know what that means? The top slot on my underwater bucket list just opened up.
Many thanks to PADI and to The Florida Keys for their hospitality. Read more about the top scuba sites in the Florida Keys, and dive and travel tips for the Florida Keys on their sites and follow their social media accounts for daily doses of scuba and sunshine. Want to book a dive trip to Florida? Check PADI Travel for more information!