Key West has Duval St and that cool island vibe, but there’s so much to see under the sea. We’re sharing the best places to go snorkeling, what to expect at each site, and how to enjoy it responsibly. If you crave adventure and discovery, you’ll love snorkeling in Key West.
Snorkeling on Coral Reefs
The Florida Reef (aka The Great Florida Reef) is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States and the third largest coral barrier reef system in the world. Unless you’re going to Belize or Australia soon, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Actually, check it out anyway because it’s just that cool.
Being the southernmost point in the United States, it has the warmest waters and most colorful tropical fish. Nealy 1,400 species of marine plants and animals call this reef home. It’s warm enough for tropical corals and boasts biodiversity comparable to any Caribbean reef. What makes this ecosystem so diverse is that there isn’t just one type of reef down here, there are three: Hardbottom, Patch, and Barrier. Each one presents a new and exciting underwater world for you to explore.
Snorkeling Hardbottom Reefs (aka Sponge Gardens)
Hardbottom reefs sit closest to shore with large seagrass beds growing around patches of algae, sea fans (gorgonians), and some stony corals. This area doesn’t have the structure one might typically associate with coral reefs, but it is full of life and diversity.
On any given day you might find sea cucumbers, anemones, mollusks, spiny lobsters, crabs, sea stars, and fish like tangs or barracuda, perhaps even a sponge or two. We saw plenty of lobsters and crabs, barracuda, and even a friendly dolphin who swam by to say hi!
The abundance of sea life and proximity to shore makes these sponge gardens a perfect place to visit from a short boat ride. Many of Key West snorkel trips include sponge garden visits as part of a multisport package eco-tour combined with kayaking mangroves or other Key West watersports.
Snorkeling Patch Reefs
Patch reefs start on the hard bottom but grow up and out over time as the corals grow on the previous structure. Sea urchins keep the sand around the patch reef clean while stunning fish like sergeant majors, angelfish, wrasse, snapper, and parrotfish live on the reef. Moray eels and spiny lobster hide out in the nooks and crannies. Cottrell Key is one of the most visited patch reefs in Key West.
Patch reefs make an excellent trip for the fleet of high-speed boat trips available out of Key West. They can cruise to one or two different reefs on a three-hour tour and still make it back for sunset. We planned on a combination sunset/snorkel trip to have the best of both worlds. Nothing caps off a fantastic coral reef snorkel like a bubbly glass of champagne and colorful sunset.
Snorkeling Bank Reefs
Bank reefs form the outer edge of the barrier reef, separating the Florida Current and deep water from the relatively calm and tranquil Straights of Florida. Western Sambo and Eastern Dry Rocks make for fantastic snorkel destinations along the barrier reef.
Spurs and grooves form the back side of these reefs as low coral shelves (spurs) get separated by sandy flats (grooves). The fore reef slopes down into the deep waters of the Caribbean. Along these reefs live triggerfish, goatfish, and rock beauties. This region is also the home to staghorn and elkhorn corals that have been walloped by a series of bleaching events and coral diseases. So far, the devastating white band disease hasn’t traveled south to Key West. Scientists are working hard to halt its spread and limit the impact, but they need your help conserving Florida’s coral reefs.
Looking to book a Key West snorkeling trip? Check out these great options:
- Sebago’s Bugeye Backcountry Adventure Eco Tour– A 6 hr trip including:
- Guided Snorkeling of Sponge Garden and a Mangrove Island Kayak Tour with Equipment and Professional Instruction
- Continental Breakfast, Full Buffet Lunch and Afternoon Snack
- Soft Drinks and Filtered Water Throughout Tour
- Homemade Sangria, Premium Beer and Boutique Wine After Snorkeling
- Fury’s Rum and Reggae Sunset Snorkel Combo– A 3 hr trip including:
- Professional instruction and snorkel gear provided
- Rum punch, beer, wine, and champagne after snorkeling
- Watch the sunset from the spacious decks of the catamaran
- Jam to reggae beats
Shore Diving on Key West
You don’t need a boat to experience snorkeling on Key West. The beaches and jetties near the Southernmost Point offer excellent opportunities to explore. The rock jetties along Edward Knight Pier house colorful fish in shallow, usually tranquil water.
The real jewel of snorkeling from shore is Fort Zachary Taylor. Just off the beach in front of the Cayo Hueso Cafe sits a small bay with two little rock islands. This natural shelter attracts all flavors of fish. You do need a dive flag while snorkeling per Florida snorkeling laws. We saw the sheriff warn snorkelers to either display a flag or remove their snorkel at the Edward Knight Pier. Flags are not required if the area is used exclusively for swimming so this rule may not apply to the cove at Fort Zachary Taylor.
Preserving Coral Reefs While Snorkeling Key West
Coral reefs support nearly 25% of all ocean life, so they are essential for a healthy ocean. In recent years, they have suffered from climate change, disease, and stress from human visitation. While we can’t change the weather, we can change our behavior on the reefs. Here are some quick tips for being an eco-conscious snorkeler:
- Never touch or stand on coral reefs
- Never take coral, shells, or marine life from prohibited regions
- Do not harass or chase wildlife
- Look for, book with, and Support Blue Star Operators
- Avoid chemicals and lotions when entering the water
- Use reef safe sunscreen – Key West recently banned non-reef safe sunscreen.
- Choose reusable beach bags, straws, and water bottles
- Don’t ever put trash into the water
An average year in the Keys sees over 10 million person-days of reef-related activities split between fishing, boating, snorkeling, and diving. Everybody needs to do their part to minimize their impact and protect this precious resource for generations to come.
Final Thoughts on Snorkeling Key West
Some people go to Key West for romance, other to seek out water sports, or even riding bikes on Key West. For us, our romantic weekends combine a little of all of these, which is what we found so beautiful about snorkeling on Key West. Every trip was snorkeling plus. We took a sunset cruise and went snorkeling one day, and the next took a bugeye schooner for a kayak and snorkel adventure. There are so many choices, options, trips, and combinations. You could try something new every day of your vacation and still not run out of tours!
Even if your idea of paradise is a stiff mojito, conch fritter, and slice of key lime pie, you really should try snorkeling in Key West if you’re the least bit curious. Of course, you should snorkel before the mojito, but you just might find a glass of champagne in your hand on the way back to shore.
Key West is home to America’s only living coral reef, but it’s dying day by day. The reef is under stress from climate change and coral bleaching. It’s also under siege from cruise ships and throngs of tourists, but it’s not to late. Even little steps can sway the tide.
Like so many changes, they start with you and your choices. However, people still need to go and see the beauty of the reef. For once they see this, they’ll realize that there’s so much more work to be done. They can rally against cruise ships dumping their bilge on the way out of port and work on reducing their carbon footprint. It’s the beauty and love of the natural world that will inspire us to all do better.
Disclosure: A big thank you to The Florida Keys and Key West for hosting us and setting up a fantastic itinerary! For more travel inspiration check out their Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts.
As always, the views and opinions expressed are entirely our own, and we only recommend brands and destinations that we 100% stand behind.
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