Snorkeling Florida Keys – Get to the Best Reefs by Boat
We have really enjoyed our snorkeling Florida Keys experiences, and have snorkeled all over, including Key Largo, Key West, and all the Keys between that we call the Middle Keys. The Keys have the third longest barrier reef in the world, and the only tropical coral reefs in the contiguous United States.
Explore this page to learn everything you need to know to find the best spots and have a great time.
We were pleasantly surprised by how good the snorkeling is in the Keys. The reefs in some areas are healthy and packed with life. Another surprise was that the best Florida Keys snorkeling spots are not where we expected them to be.
It is worth noting that nearly all the snorkeling in the Keys is by boat. There is virtually no beach or shore access snorkeling, with a few exceptions in both Pennekamp and Bahia Honda parks, both poor shore snorkeling spots. That is because the healthy reefs with lots of fish are located 1-8 miles offshore. That means that there is not really any free snorkeling in the Florida Keys.
Where Are the Best Spots for Snorkeling Florida Keys?
We break down snorkeling Florida Keys into three main areas:
- The bottom of the Keys, specifically Key West.
- The top of the Keys, namely Key Largo.
- All of the areas between, Islamorada, Marathon, and the Big Pine area, which all together we call the Middle Keys.
And here was the big surprise for us snorkeling Florida Keys. While we thought that the best snorkeling would be both in the Key Largo and Key West areas, mostly because there are the most advertising boat companies in those areas, in fact the best snorkeling is by far and away accessed from the Keys between those two.
We go into each area in detail below.
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Snorkeling Florida Keys – Key West
First let’s talk about Key West. This is the most popular destination in the Keys, and probably where most people attempt to snorkel from. Despite its popularity, the snorkeling in Key West simply does not compare to what you find farther up the Keys. The reefs are not as healthy and the visibility is not as good. But, if you are going, there are a few decent options.
You can book snorkel boat trips in Key West. They will take you out to a few reefs and Keys that are about eight miles offshore. And there are a few beaches you can snorkel.
But the only snorkeling that is accessed from Key West (but is nowhere near it) that we recommend is snorkeling Dry Tortugas National Park (Fort Jefferson).
Snorkeling Florida Keys – Key Largo
Now let’s jump up north to Key Largo. The snorkeling in Key Largo is a mixed bag. While not as good as in the Middle Keys areas, there are lots of boat companies and snorkel spots available from Key Largo.
Most of the snorkeling is focused on the areas close to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Very popular trips leave from within the state park, and many other trips head to the same waters from outside the park. Destinations include the Christ of the Abyss Statue, Dry Rocks, White Banks, Sea Gardens, and Molasses Reef to name a few.
Snorkeling Florida Keys – Middle Keys – Islamorada, Marathon, and Big Pine
And now, the best for last. By far and away the Middle Keys offer the best snorkeling grounds. From Islamorada you will want to check out Hen and Chickens and Cheeca Rocks patch reefs. Another spot not to miss is Alligator Reef. Then from Marathon the wonderful Coffins Patch reefs are well worth snorkeling, and don’t miss the amazing Sombrero Reef.
Farther south, the beautiful Bahia Honda State Park is a must see, not so much for its snorkeling, but for the beautiful beaches.
And just south of Big Pine Key you will kick yourself if you don’t take a tour out to Looe Key Reef.
Have You Seen These Guided Snorkel Travel Adventures?
When to Travel to the Keys for Snorkeling?
The thing about the Florida Keys is that it is far enough north that the waters get chilly in the winter, so do air temperatures relatively. For us 80°F water is comfortable without a wetsuit or wetsuit top, and the water temperatures in the Florida Keys are in the 80’s from May through October. See this webpage for the average water temperatures in all months of the year. That website also has air temperature highs and lows.
Rainfall is another snorkeling Florida Keys factor to consider. The webpage above also has some rain statistics. We try to choose months with the lowest rain chances, because cloudy, rainy days are no fun on vacation and because rain can lower visibility in the water while snorkeling. Rainfall amounts are lowest December through April.
You can look on websites like Windfinder.com for wind statistics to see which months tend to have the lowest winds. Here is a link to the Sombrero Key Windfinder statistics. Low winds are always best for snorkeling. Generally June through September have lower winds in the Keys.
One more thing, there is a jellyfish bloom in the late summer that makes snorkeling Florida Keys no fun, primarily in August and September. We have a visitor page with information about what months folks are finding them.
Also, if you choose to travel in the winter months, make sure that the boat tour companies that can take you out to the reefs are not closed.
The last thing to consider is hurricane season which runs from June through November. We try to avoid these months ourselves for risk of trip cancellation and getting caught in a storm, but lots of folks travel then. If you do, strongly consider buying trip insurance.
All that said, we visited in May and had quite a few very windy and rainy days. The weather is becoming less predictable everywhere.
More Snorkeling Florida Keys Info
Besides all the information at the links above about each location, many of our community have asked questions and shared stories. Learn more about those below.
Still looking for more info? The two links below may come in handy:
Note: Our suggestions are based on knowledge of the area. We hope you find them helpful. You can help us if you use the link(s) below. We may make a small commission, at no extra cost to you.
When you are ready to make your travel plans, check out TripAdvisor’s Visiting the Florida Keys page.
Other Keys Sights
Really the Keys are stunning in many ways. Beautiful views, gorgeous waters, and interesting Victorian architecture in Key West.
The area also has its own unique “keasy” style. Most of the Keys outside of Key West are very relaxed, and laid back. So don’t expect snappy service, and super clean and neat businesses.
Maybe the most fascinating thing of note about the Keys is how they are all connected with one long road, with miles and miles of bridges connecting these little flat pieces of land. The history of the building of these bridges is pretty interesting, and you can see in many places the old original bridges right next to the modern new ones.