By Terry Gibson
Clear water and amazingly vibrant shallow reefs rank among the top reasons for the best snorkeling in Florida.
These reefs are diverse and easily accessed via boat, or even from shore. Such is the case of nearshore hardbottom reefs located from Key Biscayne north to Cocoa Beach. Summer days bring calm winds and clear conditions, which locals and visitors alike take advantage of for stunning wildlife encounters.
Matter of fact, on a recent calm sunny Saturday, my wife, Teresa, and I looked for something easy and fun to do outdoors near where we live in Jensen Beach.
“You’ve never taken me snorkeling on Bathtub Reef,” she reminded me.
I checked the tide and wind. With clear, blue incoming water all afternoon and light winds, conditions couldn’t have been much more favorable to explore that beloved beach/reef ecosystem in Stuart.
Our friend, Ben, called about the same time, and the three of us met at the beach. Typically, we enjoy the freedom that diving and snorkeling by boat allows you. But my boat was out on a fishing charter and this particular reef is easily accessed by water or land.
We snorkeled south for over a mile, sharing the reef with a couple of snorkeling families that had anchored their boats just east of the reef out in the sand where anchors belong. Teresa and Ben were busy snapping away photos of anything of interest, while I toted the dive flag and applied some reef assessment training that nearshore reef experts have taught me over the years.
Reefs such as Bathtub Reef are not “coral reefs,” such as the stunning patch reefs and spur-and-grove reefs in the Florida Keys. Rather, reefs such as Bathtub are classified as “nearshore hardbottom,” a really understated way to describe habitats so important that they’re federally designated as Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPC).
They are home to more than 520 invertebrate species, 250 fish species, and more than 300 types of beneficial algae. Meanwhile, sea turtles, seabirds and wading birds also depend on this type of habitat.
You will see some corals on them, mostly on the reefs from Palm Beach southward. Yet corals aren’t the only interesting reef-building animals on these south and central Florida reefs.
Though they’re sometime mistaken as corals by novices, one of the most interesting reef features include the honeycomb-like mounds built by the Annelid worm, Phragmatopoma lapidosa. These organisms occur from Key Biscayne to Satellite Beach.
Some of the most spectacular colonies are found from Singer Island north to Cocoa Beach. The best reefs for snorkeling in Florida include Ocean Reef Park on Singer Island, Blowing Rocks Preserve on Jupiter Island, and the aforementioned Bathtub Reef on South Hutchinson Island in Stuart. The folks at the Jupiter Dive Center will outfit you and point you in the right direction.
Along the Space Coast, check out the reefs off Satellite Beach.
In fact, southeast and east-central Florida are two of the very few regions in the world where you can see (and photograph) these invertebrate architectural geniuses in action. Check out why scientists call these reefs, “cities in the surf.” The tiny organisms capture suspended grains of sand and excrete mucus as a type of “cement” as they build their large fortresses one grain at a time.
During that recent expedition, I kept a mental checklist of the species we saw:
Sharks: nurse shark and lemon shark.
Turtles: two green sea turtles.
Jacks: blue runner and lookdown
Grunts: tomtates, sailor’s choice, smallmouth, porkfish, black margate, white margate, and French grunts
Damselfishes: butterflyfish, Beau Gregory, bi-color damsel, sergeant major.
Snappers: Gray and schoolmaster.
Parrotfish: Stoplight parrotfish and green parrotfish.
Blennies: Hairy blenny and Molly Miller blenny.
Croakers: Atlantic croaker and a cousin that is limited in range basically to the Treasure Coast.
Angelfishes: Queen angle and French angelfish.
Tangs: Blue Tang, ocean surgeonfish and doctor fish.
Come explore these beautiful, fascinating ecosystems by boat or land. Underwater photographers take note: Here you'll find a number of species, including the reef-building worms, that don’t occur very many other places if at all.