The “Submarine Pits” on Boca Chica Key

Aug 1, 2015 13 comments

Boca Chica Key is an island in the lower Florida Keys approximately 4.8 km east of the island of Key West, which itself is about 244 km south-west of Miami. The island is mainly composed of salt marshes and is the home to the largest Naval Air Station in south Florida.

The U.S. Navy's presence in Key West dates back to 1823 when a Naval Base was established to stop piracy in this area. The lower Keys were home to many wealthy shipping merchants whose fleets operated from these waters. This drew the interest of notorious pirates such as Blackbeard and Captain William Kidd, who used the Florida Keys as a base from which to prey on shipping lanes.

During World War I the base was expanded, and again during World War II at the end of which the Key West became home to submarines, destroyers and aircraft. After the war, the Naval Air Station on Key West was retained as a training facility and proved vital during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The Navy still maintains presence on Key West and on Boca Chica, but large sections of the island are today lying vacant.


Two years ago, a collection of seven submarine pits, covering 122 acres, were put up on sale at a price of $21 million. According to real estate website, the pits were used by Navy Air Station to house its submarine war ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis and has a “very colorful and distinct history”. The property includes seven finger cut coral canals that are 90 feet wide and over 25 feet deep, which are connected by a deep water entry channel that provides passage to Boca Chica Channel (Oceanside) and Key West Harbor (Bayside).

But are those really “submarine pens”? A Florida based blogger, Conchscooter, who explored the area in 2008 writes:

The thing about the "submarine pens" is that there are no structures alongside them, there are no docks, no cement no signs of any of the shoreside support systems that ships need when they come into port. So the conclusion one draws is that someone somewhere decided to hew out of the living rock a proposal to dock submarines 8 miles east of Key West Harbor across waters too thin to float a sub and instead of completing the channel first, they decided to carve out the pens? If true these things are the most expensive toilet seats the Navy ever sat on. But they do make a pleasant recreational area for Keys civilians, I must say.

Conchscooter poked around the internet but couldn’t find any mention of a submarine based at Boca Chica. The only submarine bases on Key West are the official docks at Truman Annex, where the Navy was based for a long time.


According to another source, the "pens" are actually canals carved out for waterfront property on a proposed Naval housing project that never happened.

Prior to October 1962, the Navy in Key West had planned to build dependent housing North of the Naval Air Station. The area would be a combination of housing on ordinary lots as well as houses which would be waterfront property for those who could afford to own a boat,.....or not.

The large basin and canals were dredged out and the dredged material used to build a large breakwater on the West side of the basin. All the additional dredged material was spread out between the Southernmost canal and the Boca Chica viaduct connecting the Naval Air Station to Stock Island.

This area was marked off with lines which would later be streets on each side of which housing would be built. The Cuban Missile Crisis effectively killed the housing project.

The D Battery personnel lived in tent huts in this area for the next two years while awaiting the completion of their permanent site as well as the 727 Army barracks building at the Naval Air Station. There was even a mess hall built in the temporary area.

The dredged area would later be used for fishing, diving, dumping of cars and other items which were no longer wanted. Over the years, people forgot about the intended use of the area and began speculating about the "real" use of the area.

As with most stories, they are embellished every time they are told. The boat canals soon became WW2 submarine pens.








Sources: Wikipedia / Naval Technology. All images courtesy of


  1. More waste and destruction of the wild areas.

    1. There always has to be one...

    2. I know, right? However... "Doesn't matter what they are, they provide a wonderful protected area for a myriad of sealife.!"

      From a local who lives in Key Wes & researched the local library wrote: "The so-called submarine pits are in fact "borrow pits." Borrow pits are where limestone or rock is pulled for highways. You see them throughout Florida, particularly near highways and overpasses. Mostly they are rectangular.
      In the case of the Boca Chica "sub pits," the highway that is there now is a result of the "canals" (NOT sub pits), which were developed with the idea of building homes against.
      OTOH hand..

  2. To anyone who has ever lived in or visited a canal neighborhood, which are quite common along the Gulf Coast and the Intercoastal Waterway, the nature of the "pens" is instantly apparent. Many years ago, I dated a girl whose parents owned a very nice weekend cabin and boathouse in Bayou Vista, near Galveston. The layout seen here is nearly identical to Bayou Vista and any number of other such developments. Besides, the canals are far too long and too distant from the ocean to be practical submarine pens. They also lack the revetments typically seen in such bases for protection of the submarines during maintenance and re-supply.

  3. In pit 5 there is a VW Bug, with a huge grouper. Sub Pits is a amusing story, but it is an old Topinno pit and ankle deep water to the nearest deep water channel some 4 miles away. During spring tides the surrounding area are dry. Can’t swim in them, the sea urchin are two feet deep, they breed and can’t get out.

  4. The "submarine pens" got it's name because it was where the kids went parking to watch the submarine race. The area was dredged out for fill for the air base.

    The water around the "submarine pens" are shallow and could never support anything larger than an outboard.

  5. I have to agree with Capt. Jim. I wish my folks were still alive since they were based there from 46-49.

  6. I was stationed there in '74-'76, with the U.S. Army, 1st Battalion(Hawk), 65th Air Defense Artillery. I was assigned to D Battery, located starting at the end of the smallest pit. I know the waters well around that area as I did a lot of fishing and boating. There is and never was any access for submarines to get into that location. Furthermore, you could never maneuver a sub to make a steep turn into most of the pits unless the sub was made of rubber and could bend to slide into one of the pits. Subs would have been docked at the main naval station, Truman Annex, just like they did for the naval ships that came into port. The only ships that were there during my 2 1/2 year tour of duty, were U.S. Coast Guard vessels, including the CG Cutter Diligence, and their smaller patrol vessels.

  7. If these are dredged to 25 feet deep, thinking there may be some interesting marine life taking refuge in here.... besides the floor being covered with upside-down jellies.

    1. Hahahaha! I camped there for a couple of months off and on in early spring of 1977. You could go through a guard gate and wave at the Navy guy, and as long as you kept a low profile you could stay indefinitely. There was a French Canadian girl there in a VW bus, with s Great Dane - a guy from Minnesota in a Dodge Charger (I think it was) hooked up with her and they were still there when I left. I parked my truck on that narrow spit, along the bigger pond that accessed the "pits" - nice and breezy out there, the mosquitoes did not bother us there.
      It was (and no doubt still is) illegal to sleep in your car/camper anywhere in Dade County without paying in a "campground" but since this was Navy property, the Sheriff never went there :)

      Fond memories... glad there were no !#%$#&$#$ jet skis in those days!

    2. Regarding " glad there were no !#%$#&$#$ jet skis in those days!"
      Jet Skis ARE the mosquito's there today!
      I sailed to Key West every year for 6 years back in the late 1990's. I took one of those Jet Ski tours (against my wishes) & the guide brought us there & told us "This is where they used to hide subs during the Cuban Missile Crisis."
      After much research, IMO, they are either "borrow pits" for the highway, airport, etc, in conjunction with usefor Navy housing a long time ago.

  8. I was stationed at Boca Chica in 1971. I used to go swim and fish in those pits. They are borrow pits where limestone was mined. I don't know when though. I suspect it was used in fertilizer or cement. Many colorful fish could be seen in those pits, especially parrot fish. The water was crystal clear and the pits are very deep. I'd say 15 to 20 feet at least. The fish would seldom bite except for the barracuda. They were fun to catch and release. The largest barracuda I have ever seen was in the first pit. It was at least six feet long. I never swam in there again after seeing that.

  9. I grew up in Key Haven just across the bay from the "pits". If you look at Key Heaven from the air it looks very much like the pits. Neighborhood streets with houses on both sides and a canal in between each street. They dredged ouot the canals and used the rock to build up the land.
    I used to drive my Zodiac raft with it's little 9 1/2 horse motor over to the pits when I was kid.


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