Key West snorkeling is popular and can be fun if you know where to go. Mostly it is accessed by boat tours that take you away from the island itself. Though there is the Key West Marine Park, that has two beaches worth checking out. They are attempting to create a safe swimming area along with improving water quality along some of the south shore of the island.
Because of the popularity and sheer traffic at the reefs around Key West, they are not as healthy as those up in the Middle Keys or Key Largo. Also, because these reefs are at the southern tip of the chain, the waters of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico collide and mix causing a unique marine environment that does not support as much healthy corals and other sea life. Nonetheless, if Key West is your only destination, this page will help you make the best of your Key West snorkeling adventure.
There are a number of reefs that the boat tours visit around Key West. Unfortunately as with many snorkeling destinations that require a boat tour, you often will not know ahead of time which reef you will be visiting. The companies keep that information to themselves so that they can go where the conditions are best on the day of the tour. The common Key West snorkeling destinations of this type of tour are: Sand Key Lighthouse, Eastern Dry Rocks, Western Dry Rocks, and Cottrell Key. The first three locations are near each other out on the edge of the barrier reef about 8 miles southwest of Key West. Cottrell Key is about the same distance away, but northwest in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge.
None of the reefs around Key West are known for great visibility. But, if you can get your tour to Sand Key Lighthouse, that is the preferred reef to the others in terms of health. Here are some underwater pictures of Sand Key.
Or better yet, get on a boat tour to the Dry Tortugas National Park. Read more about this recommended option below.
For help in choosing a boat company to go snorkeling with, this TripAdvisor Traveler Article about Key West snorkeling tours is a good resource. If you see a mention of Sunny Days doing a trip to Looe Key from Key West, they no longer do that trip.
If you are only going to be in Key West and not venturing farther up the keys, our most recommended snorkeling boat tour is to the Dry Tortugas National Park, which is 70 miles west of Key West. Unlike the other boat tour options, you sign up specifically to go to Dry Tortugas.
It is a full day trip and there is some decent snorkeling at this unique location. The boat ride out is long, but the park itself is very interesting and the snorkeling is usually in good visibility with some fun sea life to see.
Read our Dry Tortugas page for pictures, details and maps of the snorkeling there.
If you are looking for free snorkeling from beaches in Key West, there are a couple of options. Underwater just offshore along the south side of the island is primarily sea grass beds, and normally not very interesting snorkeling. So, look for other "structures" that will provide a habitat for the creatures you want to see, like the remains of the dock at Higgs Beach and the breakwater at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park Beach.
Neither of them are smooth sandy beaches, but mixed rubble and sand, so water shoes are necessary. These beaches have intermittent issues with seaweed, smelly water, and you may notice signs about the health department testing the water for safety. Ask around before you head out about what the current conditions are.
For a fee you can access this beach on the southwest tip of the island. There is a man-made breakwater divided into numerous parts in front of this beach that can be a good place to spot some fish and other sea life. Being right on the tip of the island, currents are likely, so if you choose to go outside the breakwater be mindful. TripAdvisor has some reviews of the snorkeling here.
This is a free access public beach and is inside the Key West Marine Park. There are the remains of an old dock off the beach and this is where you will see the most life. So, be sure to make the swim out there. There are some reviews of the snorkeling at Higgs Beach on TripAdvisor.
Key West is a fun and beautiful destination. It has something for everyone. You can experience the Victorian style homes in Old Town on a walking or bicycle tour.
And if you like a party scene, you have to do the "Duvall Crawl". The further down Duvall Street you walk toward the cruise ship docks, the more touristy the shops get and the more bars start to appear. We prefer the other end of Duvall for it's art studios.
For more travel and activity information, check out TripAdvisor's Visiting Key West.