Snorkeling in the Florida Keys | The Ultimate Guide

The best snorkeling in the Florida Keys is in fact some of the finest snorkeling available in the entire US, let alone the state of Florida. If you’re thinking of booking Florida Keys snorkeling tours – or are even planning a full-on Miami to Key West snorkeling tour, then this guide is for you. 

Covered are the top Florida Keys snorkeling from shore locations as well as the best places to snorkel in Florida when you want to take a boat trip out to the reef. This article will help you decide what to look for when booking your trip, from Islamorada or Key West snorkeling tours to Marathon or Key Largo snorkeling tours. 

Whether you want to see the Christ statue near Key Largo when snorkeling or wonder if a Bahia Honda snorkel trip is worthwhile, this guide will point you in the right direction. All the best snorkeling in Key West Florida is detailed here, as are the top options in the Marathon, Islamorada and Key Largo areas.

From catamaran snorkeling in Key West to a snorkel at a Key Largo national marine sanctuary

and the best beaches in the Florida Keys for snorkeling from the shore, this is the complete lowdown on Key West, Islamorada, Marathon and Key Largo snorkeling. It also includes suitable sites for both beginners and experienced underwater explorers. 

In this post:


SNORKELING IN KEY WEST

The best snorkeling in Key West, Florida is some of the finest to be found in the whole region. If you’re thinking about snorkeling Key West from the shore, then the good news is that the beaches here offer some of the best snorkeling in Florida without a boat. These make ideal places to snorkel in Key West for beginners. 

There are also great Key West reef snorkeling spots that you can access via boat, and there are plenty of organized snorkeling trips in Key West to pick from. If you want to do some self guided snorkeling in Key West it’s also easy to charter a boat privately. 

Seeing these Key West snorkeling spots is a must for many people staying in Key West, and it’s possible to see large and colorful underwater life up close. For both adults and kids, taking one of the best Key West snorkeling tours or doing some shore snorkeling can be a vacation highlight.  The Florida Barrier Reef is the third largest on the planet.

Some of the top Key West coral reef snorkeling spots are only accessible by boat, but even for those who don’t take snorkel tours in Key West there are some good shore snorkeling spots to discover. These may also whet your appetite for booking onto Key West snorkeling charters that will take you further out. 

The best place to snorkel in Key West for you will depend on what you want to see and do, your budget and how much time you have. This guide will help you decide which of the shore snorkeling spots to visit or what group and private snorkeling Key West tours might suit you best. 

The options include Higgs or Fort Zachary beaches and Dry Tortugas or Looe Key, plus other locations like Sand and Rock Keys or Eastern Dry Rocks.


Key West Shore Snorkeling

Higgs Beach snorkeling

Higgs Beach Key West from pier
Photo credit: bennymarty, Getty Images

Higgs Beach is one of the best places to go snorkeling in Florida, and a major bonus is how easy it is to get to. This place is perfect for beginners, or as an alternative when reef tours are called off due to wilder weather conditions. 

The beach also has lots of amenities to keep visitors of all ages busy all day long. There’s a wooden pier, tennis and volleyball courts, kids’ play parks, picnic tables, barbecues, showers and restrooms. Higgs Beach also has tiki huts, bandstands, wooden parasols and a dog park.   

The best place to snorkel at Higgs Beach is around what remains of the original pier. These jut out beyond the end of the new pier, and colorful corals have grown underwater here over time. You can expect to see some species of fish as well as the corals – perhaps even a nurse shark as well as the likes of tarpon or lionfish. 

Fort Zachary Beach snorkeling

Aerial Fort Zachary Beach Key West
Photo credit: virsuzigils, Getty Images

Good snorkeling in Florida from the shore can also be found at Fort Zachary beach, and there are also lots of other activities available. You may wish to tour historic Fort Zachary, go fishing, cycle by the shore or follow the nature trails to discover local flora and fauna. 

The 54 acre site is home to the Cayo Hueso Café, plus there are ample grills and picnic tables. Fort Zachary beach is also a top spot for watching the sunset. This beach is very accessible, and the fact that you can snorkel from the shore makes life much simpler for families.

Visibility was great when we snorkeled around the rock jetties here ourselves. You may see soft and hard corals, parrot fish, yellowtail snapper or lobster.


Key West Reef Snorkeling

There are plenty of private and group tours available from Key West for those who want to see some of the best coral reefs in Florida. The locations for group tours are often weather dependent and are thus decided on the day. If you charter a boat you have more control over where to go, though of course conditions will still play a major part. 

Dry Tortugas

26 Fun Things to do in Key West Florida

Dry Tortugas is a National Park comprising seven small islands off the coast close to Key West. It’s one of the best places to snorkel in the Florida Keys. Historic Fort Jefferson can also be found here.

Visitors can choose between three main ways to get to Dry Tortugas National Park. The short seaplane trip is incredibly popular, and normally booked up for months in advance. Other options include the National Park’s own Yankee Freedom ferry or chartering a private boat. Whichever you opt for, do make a booking as soon as you can. 

Key West seaplane charters operate the seaplane trips from Key West to Dry Tortugas. This journey takes just 40 minutes, and en route there are superb views over the Keys to enjoy. As  passenger numbers are strictly limited, these seaplane trips book up very fast. The trips offer snorkeling near Key West for half or a full day. 

Sea Plane at Dry Tortugas
Yankee Freedom Ferry at Dry Tortugas dock

The trip by high speed catamaran takes about two-and-a-quarter hours, and the Yankee Freedom has an air-conditioned cabin and an outdoor sundeck. Meals are supplied, and other amenities on board include bathrooms with freshwater showers.

Private boat charters tend to be the most expensive option, but chartering a boat gives you much more control over where to go and what to see. You’ll need to take this option to visit 

any of the other Dry Tortugas islands, as the seaplane and ferry only go to Fort Jefferson. 

Dry Tortugas Coral and Fish
Dry Tortugas South Pilings

Dry Tortugas National Park comprises seven islands, and is well known for its sea and bird life and snorkeling scene. It’s possible to kayak or paddle board from Fort Jefferson to the other islands. Wild camping is also very popular here, even though conditions are basic and campers must bring everything they need, including drinking water.

Our favorite Garden Key snorkeling spots, in order of preference, are South Dock Pilings, North Dock Pilings, Coral Heads and Moat Wall. At South Pilings we were lucky enough to see tarpon feeding on a massive school of small tropical fish very clearly indeed.

Located three miles from Fort Jefferson, Loggerhead Key is accessible to permit holders only and open to just 24 people a day. You can only access it by boat or kayak, and here the currents can be a challenge. The rewards at sites like Windjammer Wreck and Little Africa Reef may include tropical fish such as game fish or spiny lobster, plus a range of colorful corals.  

Looe Key

Snorkeling Key West

To us Looe Key is one of the best snorkeling spots in Florida, and really stands out among Key West snorkeling areas. Due to various depths, it’s great for anyone other than absolute beginners, as there can be large swells. The eastern side is the most shallow spot. 

Looe Key is known for bigger aquatic creature sightings, and you might even spy reef or nurse sharks as well as the likes of barracuda, grouper, spotted eagle rays or tarpon. 

Smaller species often present include snapper, angelfish, butterflyfish, surgeonfish, damselfish, parrotfish and more. You may also see unusual coral formations like green finger sponge, fire coral or brain coral. 


Key West Boat Trips

Snorkel Boat in Key West

Where you’ll visit on a boat trip can be very much down to weather, visibility and mooring ball availability. Places to go snorkeling in Florida from Key West might include Sand Key, Rock Key and Eastern Dry Rocks.

The Sand Key lighthouse reef is well preserved as it is a protected area, though it’s best to stay away from the eroding lighthouse itself. Snorkelers who head here may see all kinds of tropical fish, plus larger creatures like bull or nurse sharks and hawksbill or loggerhead turtles. 

Rock Key and Eastern Dry Rocks Reefs are about a mile east of Sand Key. There are deep crevices here providing a habitat for sea turtles, conch, moray eels, octopus, hammerhead sharks, grouper and finger-like corals.

Many shipwrecks have also occurred at Eastern Dry Rocks and Rock Key, and coral has blossomed on these. Some intriguing shipwreck relics remain, but you need to be careful about what you touch.  


Snorkeling in Key West summary

As regular visitors to the Keys, we reckon Looe Key offers the best snorkeling in the Key West area, with Dry Tortugas coming a close second. Higgs and Fort Zachary also offer decent shore snorkeling for those having a beach day or visiting the historic site. 

Check out our Full Guide to Snorkeling in Key West HERE.


KEY LARGO SNORKELING

As a hugely popular vacation destination, many visitors come seeking the best snorkeling in Key Largo, Florida. Favorite places visited on snorkel trips from Key Largo include the famous Christ of the Abyss Key Largo snorkeling spot, Dry Rocks, the John Pennekamp State Park, Molasses Reef and Grecian Rocks. 

While there is limited Key Largo snorkeling from shore, you can access some from the beaches of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Otherwise you’ll need to take one of the many Key Largo private snorkeling tours, or join a group trip to access the reefs. 

Though given distinct names, each reef really forms part of a larger whole reef system. Key Largo reef snorkeling thus takes place at a range of patch reefs. Key Largo John Pennekamp snorkeling is a familiar name to many, and bigger group trips depart from the park. 


Key Largo Shore Snorkeling

Cannon Beach Key Largo

There are a couple of beaches at John Pennekamp State Park for shore snorkeling. These are good for beginners or people who want to do a bit of snorkeling during a beach day. At this state park you can also hire a kayak or boat or take to the walking trails.  

The beaches are located on protected Largo Sound, which has seagrass beds and shallow water. Some small corals and fish may be seen, and otherwise it’s an ideal spot for testing your snorkeling equipment or skills.

Cannon Beach is named after a shipwreck that took place there and is top among Key Largo snorkeling spots from shore. You might also want to explore the nearby mangroves by kayak.


Key Largo Reef Snorkeling

Christ of the Abyss & Key Largo Dry Rocks

Christ of the Abyss
Photo credit: Vito Palmisano, Getty Images

If you want to see the Key Largo Christ of the Abyss while snorkeling, you need to head to the Dry Rocks part of the reef, which is part of the Key Largo Existing Management area east of Key Largo.

This Key Largo snorkeling Jesus statue is made from bronze and stands in a sand channel at around nine feet high, mounted on concrete. There is a spur and groove patch reef around this well-known Key largo snorkeling statue too. Species seen here include sea whips, rods and brain coral.

Molasses Reef

Turtle at Molasses Reef
Photo credit: Joe Quinn, Shutterstock

Molasses Reef is seen as one of the best snorkeling spots in the Florida Keys, though tours from John Pennekamp don’t tend to go there. It is a relatively undisturbed spur and groove reef,  sometimes referred to as Molasses Deep North and South.

If the weather is kind, you can expect to see lots of colorful coral formations and some sea sponges as well as hundreds of species of sea life. Molasses Deep North is home to larger creatures like eagle rays, reef sharks and sea turtles. As Molasses Deep North continues it becomes Molasses Deep South, and big species like tarpon, Goliath grouper and loggerhead turtles may be seen in this part. 

Private Florida snorkeling tours are recommended for those who want to go to Molasses Reef during calm weather. As there can be strong currents and very deep water, it’s a location best suited to more experienced snorkelers, however.

Grecian Rocks

Coral and Fish at Grecian Rocks

Grecian Rocks is just south of the Key Largo Dry Rocks snorkeling patch. It consists of a well protected, shallow reef system, and is thus one of the top spots for snorkeling near Key Largo during wilder weather. 

Both Key Largo state park snorkeling trips and charters for private snorkeling in Key Largo will go to Grecian Rocks. Even during windy weather you might spot the likes of purple fans, fire corals, sea sponges, conch shells, hogfish, parrotfish, blue tang, barracuda and grunts. 


John Pennekamp State Park Tours

Snorkel Boat at Pennekamp State Park

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is about 70 square nautical miles in size and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As well as being home to shore birds, mangroves and tropical hammocks, it’s one of the best places to snorkel in Key Largo. 

The Key Largo snorkeling charters operated by John Pennekamp State Park tend to cater for a large number of people. Typically these trips will take visitors to snorkel the Christ statue near Key Largo at Dry Rocks, White Banks, Horseshoe Reef, Cannon Patch, Garret’s Reef, Grecian Rocks and Banana Reef.

Again, destinations vary according to the weather, mooring ball availability and water clarity: our recent trip went to Grecian Rocks. Though Key Largo snorkeling at the Christ statue is what many imagine, there is no guarantee of going there. To get to a specific Key Largo snorkeling park it’s therefore best to take a private charter. 


Key Largo Snorkel Tours

If you want to snorkel at the Jesus statue in Key Largo or visit any other specific location, it’s best to book a private Key Largo snorkeling charter. You have more chances of going where you want to, and though they cost more you won’t have to pay park entry fees. 

There are lots of local operators to pick from. The snorkeling sites of Key Largo are pretty close together. It’s worth trusting in your captain, who will want you to get the best from your visit and should take you to the top spot available on the day. 


Snorkeling in Key Largo summary

While Key Largo isn’t the best area for beach snorkeling in the Florida Keys, there are plenty of snorkel tours from both the state park and other locations. Molasses Reef Key Largo has an incredible range of marine life, while for many Key Largo Jesus snorkeling is seen as an essential part of their trip. 


SNORKELING IN MARATHON FL

If you’d like to explore underwater life during your vacation, the good news is that there are plenty of Marathon snorkeling spots to pick from. There are also lots of snorkeling trips in Marathon, FL to choose between. 

This guide to the best snorkeling in Marathon, FL will point you in the right direction, based on our own experiences of Marathon snorkel trips. The options accessible by boat include Looe Key and Sombrero Reefs, plus Coffins Patch. For shore snorkeling, there’s also Horseshoe and Sombrero Beaches and Bahia Honda State Park.

If you are choosing between Marathon Key snorkeling tours, we recommend opting for a specific Marathon snorkeling tour rather than one that also caters for divers. This is to make sure you don’t visit locations with water too deep for good snorkeling.   


Marathon Shore Snorkeling

Bahia Honda State Park

Bahia Honda State Park Beach

For snorkeling near Marathon, FL, Bahia Honda State Park snorkeling is very popular indeed. Visibility can be great, you can snorkel from the shore, and boat trips to Looe Key also depart from Bahia Honda. 

The park has a gift store and snack bar, and you can also hire kayaks. There is lots to do here too, such as fishing, cycling, walking or enjoying the beaches, and you can also see the historic bridge. 

By the rock jetty, small species of fish may be seen at Bahia Honda, though you cannot really  see corals when snorkeling from the shore. Once you’re around 30 meters out you’ll also find seagrass meadows. The top spots for a Bahia Honda snorkeling tour include Caloosa Beach on the Gulf side and Sand Spur Beach on the Atlantic coast.  

Sombrero Beach

Marathon FL Beaches
Photo Credit: John Gallant, Shutterstock

Sombrero Beach also has Marathon snorkeling from the shore. The fact that it’s a glorious white sandy beach makes it one of our favorites. When it’s clear you can expect good views of small coral formations as well as some colorful tropical fish. You may also spy sea urchins, especially near the rock shelf.

Horseshoe Beach

While it’s not one of the top spots for snorkeling at Marathon Key in Florida, Horseshoe Beach is a good place to enter the ocean from. This rocky, slightly muddy little place is named after the horseshoe-shaped rock jetty protecting the lagoon. 

Species seen at Horseshoe Beach include manatees in addition to jellyfish, snapper, barracuda, rays, parrotfish and other tropical fish. The sheltered bay makes a decent spot for beginners or when poor weather causes snorkeling tours in Marathon FL to be called off. 


Marathon Reef Snorkeling

Looe Key Reef

Looe Key Reef Shark

Some of the best snorkeling in Florida is to be had at Looe Key. In fact one local company calls it the top place to snorkel in North America. This Florida reef snorkeling site can be accessed via boat from Bahia Honda. 

Larger sea creatures that may be seen at Looe Key include eagle rays, tarpon, giant parrotfish, hammerhead sharks, rays, reef sharks, barracuda and colossal grouper, which are most often spied in deeper waters. 

The Shark Alley area at Looe Key is where to go when you want to see bigger creatures. You may also see bigger coral formations. When we took a Looe Key snorkeling trip we were delighted to see a few reef sharks and some Goliath grouper.  

Sombrero Reef

Sombrero Reef

There is also a popular spot for snorkeling in Marathon FL at Sombrero Reef, which is named for the Sombrero Key Lighthouse. There are plenty of healthy corals at this reef, so expect to see the likes of pillar, lobed star, boulder, blade, fire, branching and elkhorn corals and some  

colorful fans.

You may also see various species of tropical fish, and one of our group spotted a nurse shark. This spur and groove reef often offers excellent levels of visibility. Other sea life seen at Sombrero Reef may include sponges, plus fish species like blue tang, barracuda, parrotfish, angelfish, grouper, snapper, scorpionfish, damselfish, grunts, sergeant majors and butterflyfish. You may also spot sea turtles.  

Coffins Patch

The Coffins Patch Sanctuary Preservation Area offers a range of shallow patch reefs, with lots of corals and fish to be seen. On the western side in particular, pillar coral formations are present, plus boulder corals up to three feet high.

Nurse sharks, stingrays, jacks, moray, butterflyfish, grouper, lobster and tangs might also be swimming around. Each of the patch reefs is a little different, and they exist at various depths. 

The Stake is one of the main areas visited, and is named for a metal post jutting out from the water.

Coffins Patch is often accessed via the island of Key Vaca, and is named after the cargo of a shipwreck at the site. In addition to the species listed above, you could see large spotted moray eels, lobster, puddingwife parrotfish, bicolor damselfish, spotfin or foureye butterflyfish, tiger grouper, porkfish and yellowhead wrasse at Coffins Patch. 


Marathon Snorkeling Tours

Sombrero Reef Lighthouse

Of all the snorkeling tours in this area, we have taken a Bahia Honda trip to Looe Key. Other well known local operators include the likes of Starfish Snorkeling, who took us to Sombrero Reef. 

Although exactly where you go will depend on mooring ball availability and the weather, it’s still a good idea to research where each trip will normally go so you can pick accordingly.

Bahia Honda Snorkel Tours

We took a trip from Bahia Honda to Looe Key, and this is one of the tours headed to a particular place. This means you may know exactly where you’ll go in advance, though this is of course weather dependent. You can book via the concession at Bahia Honda State Park, and tours depart during the morning or afternoon.

Starfish Snorkeling

Our Marathon snorkeling Sombrero Reef trip took place on a Starfish Snorkeling catamaran, and it was a trip designed for snorkelers rather than divers. Turtles and dolphins may be seen en route, and there are lots of colorful corals and schools of tropical fish to see at Sombrero Reef. We had a great time and highly recommend this tour.  


Snorkeling in Marathon summary

Some of the finest coral reef snorkeling in Florida can be found around the Marathon area. An abundance of shore snorkeling areas makes it the perfect place for beginners, while more challenging reefs will also please more experienced snorkelers. Sombrero and Looe Key Reefs in particular are highly recommended.

Check out our Full Guide to Snorkeling in Marathon HERE.


ISLAMORADA SNORKELING

Key Largo and Key West snorkel tours might be better known, but in fact some of the best  e best snorkeling in the Keys are to be found at the coral reefs located near Islamorada’s six islands.

Cheeca Rocks, Hens and Chickens, Donut Hole and Alligator Reef can only be accessed by boat, but plenty of trips are available. You can take a group snorkeling tour, or you can charter a private boat.

Despite damage caused by Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease and Hurricane Irma, there is lots to see underwater when you snorkel near Islamorada FL. 


Islamorada Reef snorkeling

Alligator Reef

Islamorada Snorkeling

To experience Islamorada snorkeling at Alligator Reef is to visit one of the best snorkeling spots in Florida – not least because you’ll have the chance to see the lighthouse as well as underwater. No alligators live in this area, despite the name, which is actually derived from the USS Alligator shipwreck of 1822.

Sadly Alligator Reef has been damaged, but it’s still a site worth visiting. This is due to both 

Hurricane Irma and the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease that has struck the Keys. In 2016, a great white shark was actually seen at Alligator Reef, but this was a very rare, one-off event.  

Alligator Reef must be accessed by boat, and tends to offer both snorkelers and scuba divers great visibility. You could see species such as sea turtles, spiny lobsters or nurse sharks as well as fish like barracuda, sting rays, gray snapper and parrotfish. Dolphin pods are often spied as you head out to sea, and there are also colorful corals at the reef.

Hens and Chickens

The Hens and Chickens Sanctuary Preservation Area comprises a shallow patch reef at the center of Hawk Channel. Its name comes from the fact that the coral reef resembles a group of chicks clustered around their mother. It is also referred to as ‘Hens and Chicks’.

Colorful coral formations are present at Hens and Chickens, including Christmas tree, star and brain corals and purple sea fans. Some are up to 15 feet high. Colorful tropical fish like blue tang and angelfish are also seen, often as schools. You may also spot reef crabs or white sponges.

This is one of those good places to snorkel in Florida for beginners. The water is fairly shallow , while the underwater life is very attractive. The Hens and Chickens site is also relatively close to shore. A typical day trip may take in other local sites like Davis Reef, Rocky Top, Alligator Reef and Morada.

The Hen and Chickens Shoal Light marks the site. Sadly the Hens and Chickens area has also been affected by Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, but efforts are underway to limit both the spread and the effects of this condition. 

Cheeca Rocks

Unlike at Hens and Chickens and Alligator Reef, the coral at Cheeca Rocks here has somehow withstood the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease outbreaks that have occurred here. For this reason, samples are also being taken from here to transfer to other sites and encourage new coral growth.

Visitors to Cheeca Rocks can therefore see a relatively undamaged coral reef. This shallow reef is one of the smallest Sanctuary Preservation Areas, and star, fire and brain corals are present in the area, as are sea plume, rods and fans and Branching Vase Sponges.

More green algae at Cheeca Rocks provides food for native fauna like blue tang, Queen conch, green eels, sea turtles, parrotfish, West Indian Sea Egg urchins and angelfish. In fact this reef is  sometimes known as Cheeca Gardens, due to its colorful nature. 

Donut Hole

This ring-shaped reef is part of French Reef, and there are rocky ledges and underwater caves to discover at the site. Those who snorkel here may see colorful fish and sea turtles, and there are some stunning corals here too, reaching up to 15 feet in height. Lots of sponges can also be seen at the Donut Hole. 

Donut Hole and other parts of French Reef are about 25 to 30 feet deep and other natural  attractions of this underwater area include large caverns and Christmas Tree Worms. French Reef is triangular in shape and as well as the donut hole there are plenty of arches, ledges and caves to see.


Snorkeling in Islamorada summary

Snorkeling in Florida in the Islamorada area offers a range of reefs that are accessed by boat from the islands. Although some have suffered damage due to Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, efforts are underway to rectify this and Cheeca Rocks has escaped relatively unscathed. 

Check out our Full Guide to Snorkeling in Islamorada HERE.


WHERE WILL YOU GO SNORKELING IN THE FLORIDA KEYS?

From Key West private snorkeling charters to take you wherever you like (weather permitting) to a group Bahia Honda state park snorkeling tour or snorkeling from the beach, there are various options available in the Key West, Key Largo, Marathon and Islamorada areas. 

Whether you want snorkeling in Key West for beginners or are a very experienced snorkeler looking for a new challenge, the options range from Key Largo coral reef snorkeling to shore snorkeling in Marathon – and more.

We love Florida Keys coral reef snorkeling, and really hope you have as much fun as we do during our trips!

Looking for more Florida Keys information to plan your trip? Check out all of our Florida Keys Guides HERE.

About the author
Kristin Young