For the best Florida Keys snorkeling, you’ll need to hop on a boat and head offshore to the Florida Reef Tract. But if you’re not into boats, or your search for Kokomo has left you too exhausted for an offshore excursion, there’s still plenty of good snorkeling to be had from several of the beaches in the Keys.
The waters surrounding the Keys are crystal clear, and it’s the only place in the continental US where you can go snorkeling on a coral reef by simply walking into the water from the beach. Yes, you can easily wade into the warm blue waves and live out your Ariel fantasy by swimming with crabs, tropical fish and mermaids.
Wait… mermaids? Well, the old school sailor’s version of mermaids. Which would be manatees. Hey, they’re way cooler than those sirens that used to lure sailors to their death.
With water temperatures ranging from the 70s in cooler months to the 80s in warmer months, you probably won’t need a wet suit for snorkeling in the Florida Keys.
If the weather is calm, the water will be flat and easy to float on. But if there’s a storm, there will be waves and the underwater view won’t be as nice. Storms tend to churn up the ocean floor, making things a bit murky.
Florida Keys Snorkeling Basics
Snorkeling is pretty easy to get the hang of. Float horizontally on your belly and keep your fins/flippers up so you don’t stir up the ocean floor and cloud your view. Be sure to keep hands and fins off coral reefs, as they can be irreparably damaged with the slightest touch.
Most of the boat charters in the area will provide snorkeling gear and instructions on how to use it. And there are plenty of rental shops near the beaches with snorkeling gear available.
Pro tip: If you get water in your mask, instead of pulling the mask off to drain it, try holding the top of the mask while blowing through your nose. This is how scuba divers clear water out while under water.
Another tip: Use long, flowing kicks from your hip so that you don’t wear yourself out with tiny, inefficient kicks.
Getting Your Bearings in the Florida Keys
The Florida Keys are divided into the Upper, Middle and Lower Keys. You can find great snorkeling from all three areas, but the absolute best is found in the Middle Keys.
The Upper Keys start just south of Miami and wind southwest in a gentle curve down to Long Key. Most people set out from Key Largo or Islamorada for snorkeling from the Upper Keys.
The Middle Keys start just after Long Key Bridge and extend through the Marathon area to the Seven Mile Bridge. Yes, it’s really seven miles. This is where you’ll find the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys. Many people stay in other parts of the Keys and travel here on day trips to snorkel and experience the wildlife.
The rest of the Keys, including Key West and Dry Tortugas National Park are considered the Lower Keys.
Best Snorkeling from Key Largo
The most popular place to go snorkeling in Key Largo is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first undersea park in the US.
If you want to snorkel from the shore, there’s a tropical lagoon where you can check out the seagrass ecosystem and all the associated marine life. There’s also a replica Spanish shipwreck about 100 feet offshore at Cannon Beach. Ariel would have been right at home here.
Both of those areas are cool, but if you want to see the real beauty and sealife of a coral reef, you’ll need to head offshore. You can take a boat straight from the park to the living reef just a few miles out. Boat crews will show you the ropes and have snorkeling gear available for you to use.
Once at the reef, you can expect to see butterfly fish, angelfish, parrot fish and blue-striped grunts. You’ll also find multiple coral types such as sea fans, brain coral and star coral. You may even be lucky enough to spot sea turtles zooming around in the clear blue waters.
Many tour operators will also take you to the Christ of the Abyss statue, the most famous snorkeling site in the Florida Keys. The 8.5 foot, 4,000 pound statue depicts Christ with his arms outstretched, surrounded by beautiful coral formations. You’ll often find stingrays swimming about the statue.
If you want to avoid the crowds, Molasses Reef is another great snorkeling location off Key Largo with incredibly clear water and near infinite visibility due to the currents from the nearby gulfstream. Expect to see lots of tropical fish and an abundance of coral.
Best Snorkeling from Islamorada
The town of Islamorada is located on Upper Matecumbe Key, but everyone just calls the whole area Islamorada. Probably because it sounds cool. ♪ ♫ Islamoradaaa, so empanadaaa ♫ ♪
One of the best Islamorada snorkeling locations is Davis Reef. It’s easily accessible from Key Largo, but it’s actually closer to Islamorada. The reef lies along a shallow ledge with all manner of tropical fish, including Bermuda grunts, tang fish, parrot fish and playful box fish.
If you head to the south part of the ledge, you’ll find a statue of Buddha surrounded by fire coral and damsel fish. I guess those Parrot Heads have a thing for putting statues of religious leaders underwater.
The nearby Hen and Chickens Reef literally looks like a hen surrounded by her chicks from above. The site has an incredible diversity of sea life, including purple sea fans, sponges and numerous fish from both the ocean side and bay side of the Keys.
Just off the coast of Islamorada, you’ll find Cheeca Rocks. For being such a small reef, it has an insane number of fish. You can literally swim through schools of colorful fish while checking out the massive brain coral and gorgonian coral.
But the hands down, absolute best place to go snorkeling off Islamorada is the Alligator Reef Lighthouse. Thousands of fish congregate in the shadow of the 136-foot tall lighthouse in the sea, and numerous hard and soft corals spatter the horseshoe shaped gully that rings the area. Lots of big creatures lurk in the gully, and over 500 species of fish have been recorded at the reef.
If you want to mix kayaking with your snorkeling for a full on water-based adventure, you can paddle from the north end of Lower Matecumbe Key to Indian Key in about 30 minutes. People often see dolphins, manatees, sharks, starfish and crabs in the area. You can also explore the overgrown ruins of what was once a bustling town on the island. Be sure to bring water and snacks. Uninhabited towns that are only accessible by boat don’t typically offer full-service shops and restaurants.
Best Snorkeling from Marathon
Located on Vaca Key, Marathon is the place to stay if your goal is to experience the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys.
Coffins Patch was named for the wrecked remains of a ship carrying – what else – coffins. Although the coffins are long gone, you can still see parts of the ship, including the crow’s nest.
The patch is made up of six different reefs, each with its own variety of coral and sea life. “The Stake” is one of these reefs, which is easily identifiable by the large metal pole jutting out of the water. At the west end of The Stake, you’ll find some incredible towering pillar coral. The whole area is filled with lobsters, sea turtles, moray eel, yellowtail, angelfish, barracuda – basically a complete salt water aquarium.
For the most photogenic reef in the Florida Keys, head to Sombrero Reef, just offshore from Marathon. It’s one of the most colorful underwater areas in the Keys, with an impressive variety of corals, sponges and fish. Characterized by large fingers of coral and incredible topography, this area is like a neon-colored paradise.
It even has caverns and and a natural limestone arch, the perfect spot to take those vacation photos designed to make all your Facebook friends jealous. (Yes, you will need a waterproof phone case).
Best Snorkeling from Bahia Honda Key
Bahia Honda Key (pronounced Bah-EE-ah OWN-dah) is a tropical state park that was named for the “deep bay” it sits on. (Who knew Honda means deep?) If you stay near the shore, the depths won’t exceed six feet, and you’re likely to spot stone crabs, spiny lobster, soft corals, sponges and a variety of tropical fish. The park also offers boat tours to the nearby reef, where you’ll find purple sea fans, horse and queen conch. You might also spot a few rare flamingo tongue snails living the dream in the crystal clear waters.
Best Snorkeling from Big Pine Key
Just off Big Pine Key, you’ll find Looe Key and its incredible finger reef seascape. The area is famous for the annual Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival. Yes, an underwater music festival for the fishes. It was actually designed to promote the preservation of the Florida Keys reefs.
Snorkeling Looe Key is not for the faint of heart, as it sits on the edge of the barrier reef and the adjacent deep ocean waters. What does that mean? Lots of giant marine life including sharks and giant grouper.
Best Snorkeling from Key West
Key West is the most popular destination in the Florida Keys and one of the few areas where you don’t need to get on a boat for some really good snorkeling. Visibility is not quite as good in Key West as it is further up the Keys, but to the average Joe, the water looks clear as glass.
On the southernmost tip of Key West, you’ll find Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and its beautiful beach. Simply walk right into the water and you’ll find live coral and beautiful tropical fish. Get your Ariel on while you swim with rays, eels and other colorful creatures.
On the south side of Key West, you’ll find Higgs Beach and the Key West Marine Park. The remains of an old sunken pier have been taken over by the sea and turned into an artificial reef filled with a broad spectrum of marine life including star fish, sea urchins, hogfish and more.
Best Snorkeling from Dry Tortugas
You’ll definitely need a boat to go snorkeling in Dry Tortugas National Park since it’s 70 miles off the shore of Key West. Actually, you could live like the rich and famous and charter a seaplane to take you. Or live like the locals and take the ferry. No matter how you get there, the warm, shallow waters make the entire area ideal for snorkeling, with tons of coral and vibrant sea life.
A few spots stand out. The moat wall is a great place to potentially spot squid, octopi, dolphins and sharks. The historic pier pilings provide shelter for large marine life like grouper, tarpon, barracuda and sharks. The Windjammer is an old shipwreck that attracts everything from tiny tropical fish to 200-pound jewfish.
The Florida Keys are filled with great snorkeling spots, making it difficult to pick the best. No matter what part of the Keys you’re in, whether you’re on a boat or wading the shallow waters off the coast, you’ll definitely find a stunning variety of tropical fish and beautiful corals.