Finding the Best Snorkeling Spots in the Florida Keys
The ocean is vibrant and full of life, which is interesting to observe, capture and document. Whether you are a marine biologist doing it for science or you are just about capturing beauty and wildlife, the reason we go on safari, you will need access underwater for a frontline seat.
Snorkeling enables you to witness these amazing underwater sights up close without going through the rigors of becoming a certified scuba diver.
There has never been greater urgency to make time and create opportunities to capture these beautiful scenes. With the adverse climate changes worsened by human excesses, there is a looming threat of extinction of corals and various marine species or enhanced restrictions that will prevent you from accessing them.
We shall give a few tips on how you can contribute to preventing this sad outcome towards the end of this article.
Consider this your travel guide as you start planning for that snorkeling trip of a lifetime. We kept in mind that not everyone will instantly have the resources to snorkel at The Great Barrier Reef in Australia, which happens to be one of the seven wonders of the natural world.
Therefore, we kept it simple and local, focusing on the 110-mile long mash-up of island and sea from Key Largo to Key West, broadly referred to as The Florida Keys. This was inspired by the amazing marine life and landscape found here, with its collection of coral, fish, and mollusk that are certain to give you some of the best snorkeling experiences.
Best Snorkeling in the Keys
Due to the Florida Keys’ vastness, we shall cluster them in 3 according to their location in the Keys for ease of identification: Upper Keys, Middle Keys, and Lower Keys.
Upper Keys Spots
Located in Key Largo, this was the United States’ first undersea park. It is spread over 70 nautical square miles filled with coral reefs and robust marine life that together provide a great environment for snorkeling. The park provides personal and group guided snorkeling tours and snorkeling gear rentals. All tours have wheelchair-accessible vessels for inclusivity.
This one is located east of the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, about 6 miles from Key Largo. The waterbed has artifacts from various sunk vessels like the Slobadana, various vibrant fish species not limited to trumpet fish, blue Chromis, bar jacks, yellowtail snappers, midnight parrotfish, and different types of corals. It is billed as the most visited coral reef in the world.
You can get on a tour from the John Pennekamp Park or Key Largo to access Molasses Reef. The other common activity is scuba diving because of the abundance of underwater attractions.
Middle Keys Spots
It is named after the USS Alligator, which was sunk next to the shallow reef and whose remains still lie 200 feet from the Alligator Reef lighthouse. The 136-foot tall lighthouse functions quite adequately as a beacon to the Alligator Reef.
Twin piles of ballast stones are what remain of the USS Alligator wreck. This, combined with the lighthouse and the vibrant coral reef full of sea life, are the main attractions. Parrotfish, barracuda, angelfish, and nurse sharks are common sightings.
It is just a boat ride away from Islamorada, an icon for sport divers and sport fishing. The area has a constant flow of clear water, which provides excellent visibility.
Located in the Sombrero Key Sanctuary Preservation Area (SPA), it is a spur-and-groove reef formation with Elkhorn coral stands. It is ideal for snorkeling because its depth ranges from 2 to 30 feet only.
The entire 30 acres is filled with neon-colored tropical fish. The coral is a parrotfish delicacy and a trumpet fish hideout, so you will expect to see an impressive number of them. The reef, being a protected area, also has its fair share of snappers and grunts.
Lower Keys Spots
Located in Big Pine, Florida, it has some impressive reefs full of breathtaking aquatic life. The big reefs act as a barrier, breaking up the waves and making the snorkeling trip easier for rookie swimmers. This is especially helpful because they are deeper snorkeling spots than the ones we have discussed.
Another aspect that may be intimidating is that fish species found here are larger fish like rays, tarpon, sharks, giant parrotfish, and colossal groupers (this can also be the thrill).
You can get there as part of the Looe Key snorkeling tours by Bahia Honda State Park, located only eight nautical miles away.
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
Florida’s southernmost state park is close to Key West’s southern tip, which is also referred to simply as Fort Zach or Fort Taylor (for clarification purposes). It is an American National Historic Landmark since 1973 because of the important role it played during the Spanish-American War and the Civil War. This should provide a nice bonus destination for your snorkeling excursion.
It has a beautiful underwater habitat with tropical marine species like parrotfish, lobster, yellowtail snappers, and an assortment of corals. You don’t require a boat to snorkel from Fort Taylor Park, as the snorkeling spots are right on the beach. You can even rent snorkeling gear by contacting the park directly to get the rates.
This remote group of islands is accessible via boat or seaplane only. The park has a designated ferry for tourists called The Yankee Freedom III. They are located in the Gulf of Mexico, 70 miles west of Key West. Together with their surrounding water, they form the Dry Tortugas National Park.
The shallow waters (from 5 to 15 feet) make them universally ideal for snorkeling. There is an abundance of living coral sheltering an array of vibrant tropical fish, starfish, and queen conchs. The many snorkeling areas are conveniently just a walk away from the boat piers.
Once you settle on a snorkeling spot, you need to assemble your snorkeling gear or determine whether they are offered for hire on-site if you don’t intend to purchase a set. Some of the items you should have in your snorkeling set include:
- A decent snorkel mask that allows you a clear and obstructed view under the water.
- Fins to enable you to swim efficiently with less effort.
- A fitting snorkel that allows you to inhale and exhale easily while in the water.
- A waterproof camera to capture the scenery for posterity.
- Protection from sunburn. Carry rash vests or skin suits or use a reef-friendly sun cream (made with ingredients that do not poison the environment because they always wash off in the water).
- You will also require directions to the different spots mentioned here, an itinerary with expert recommendations on hotels, boat services, and general information. These have all been comprehensively compiled in Fodor’s in Focus Florida Keys Travel Guide, currently available on Amazon
Pro Tip: Swim within your limits and if you are not very confident, have a guide take you through the expedition and watch out for tides and currents.
Benefits of Snorkeling
Besides the satisfaction of exploring the underwater ecosystem up close for leisure, entertainment, or out of curiosity, snorkeling has other far-reaching benefits to the body:
- It improves your breathing; the controlled breathing using the mouth through the snorkel is similar to yoga and meditation techniques, which lead to better lung capacity and more even breathing.
- It is a great cardiovascular exercise option as it increases your heart rate while burning calories, reducing cholesterol, and regulating blood pressure.
Preservation of Marine Life While Snorkeling
It is very important to have responsible fun while in the water so that future generations can enjoy snorkeling as much as we did.
There are laws, regulations, and restrictions that have been set to enforce this, which will be readily provided, but it also requires common sense and basic knowledge of how our actions affect marine life. Below are examples of some of these basic actions:
- Keep a reasonable distance from the marine life at all times so they can maintain their normal routine.
- Avoid touching the coral or sea creatures with your hands or feet or removing them from their habitat. This spooks them and disrupts their natural processes. It is prohibited by law.
- Minimize crowding; you don’t want to be the cause of claustrophobia in sea creatures. It is actually a bonus for the snorkeler who swims away from the crowd; they will see unique things that have retreated from the crowd.
- Choose ethical and responsible boat or kayak operators if you are not paddling yourself to the snorkeling spots. If you are taking yourself, be responsible by observing restrictions and adhering to the above guidelines.
- Minimize the use of plastic on your expedition and observe proper disposal in case you can’t avoid them. They are the biggest source of marine pollution.
- Volunteer for beach cleaning as often as possible to help in keeping the reefs healthy.