By Kevin Mims
It’s an image commonly associated with the Florida Keys: clear, blue water, schools of brightly colored tropical fish, hard and soft corals, sea turtles, stingrays.
There’s a good reason for that: In the waters off the Florida Keys sits the Florida Reef, the third-largest coral barrier reef in the world.
Countless world-class snorkeling spots can be found along this reef, the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States, and throughout the Florida Keys, from Key Largo to Key West to remote islands far removed from the mainland.
Here are seven of the best places for snorkeling in the Florida Keys.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Easily one of the most recognizable diving and snorkeling spots in the Florida Keys, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo covers 70 nautical square miles and was the first underwater park in the United States. Guided snorkeling trips take visitors miles offshore by boat, usually to protected, shallow reef locations that range from five to fifteen feet deep. Snorkeling tours from Pennekamp can also bring swimmers face-to-face with the famed Christ of the Abyss statue, an 8.5-foot-tall replica of the bronze cast of Jesus Christ in the Mediterranean sea, submerged in about 25 feet of water.
Tropical fish, elkhorn and brain coral, and goliath grouper are some of the species snorkelers see while exploring the waters of Molasses Reef, about six miles from Key Largo. The reef’s abundance of marine life and relative ease of access make it one of the most popular dive and snorkel locations in the Keys. Sea Dwellers is one of several dive shops that bring snorkelers and scuba divers to Molasses Reef from Key Largo.
Approaching by boat, it’s easy to spot Alligator Reef by the 136-foot-tall lighthouse that juts from the water just north of it. Common sightings here, a little less than five miles east of Indian Key, include amberjack, parrotfish, angelfish, barracuda, and nurse sharks. Lucky observers sometimes find sea turtles and spotted eagle rays, and dolphins can often be seen from tour boats that frequent the reef. Book with a tour operator such as KeyZ Charters in Islamorada to get there.
Sombrero Reef, located in the Sombrero Key Sanctuary Preservation Area, can be found south of Pigeon Key in depths between six and 25 feet. Coral formations rise up to ten feet off from the ocean floor in this 30-acre reef, which can be accessed by boat with Starfish Marathon Snorkeling Tours and Captain Pip’s Marina and Hideaway in Marathon.
Located eight nautical miles southwest of Bahia Honda State Park, Looe Key is home to protected coral reef and a host of marine animals. In addition to coral, such as star and elkhorn, snorkelers can spot everything from angelfish to grunts to sea turtles. Snorkel tours leave directly from Bahia Honda State Park, a must-see location in itself.
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
Rich in history, Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park in Key West is the site of a pre-Civil War fort and contains the nation’s largest cache of Civil War weapons. Unlike most great snorkeling locations in the Keys, no boat trip is needed to enjoy the typically warm, clear water and see lobsters, yellow snapper, parrotfish, and a variety of coral. Snorkelers can head right off the beach and into the underwater habitats the Keys are famous for. Bring your own snorkel gear or rent some directly from the park.
Nearly 70 miles west of Key West lies the remote group of islands that make up Dry Tortugas National Park, which is only accessible by boat or seaplane and a top bucket list item for many Florida travelers. Garden Key is the second-largest island in the Tortugas and home to historic Fort Jefferson. The 14-acre island is an excellent starting point for snorkeling the bright, crystal-clear waters full of coral and tropical fish that surround these islands, but there are many places to explore underwater here. Visitors have the option of staying for the day or camping overnight on Garden Key, and ferry rides and equipment rentals can be arranged through the Dry Tortugas National Park ferry. Seaplane arrangements can be made through Key West Seaplane Charters.
Check out other great spots to snorkel in Florida.