Snorkeling Key West| Shore Snorkeling and Day Trips
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by Kristin Young | Updated On: January 24, 2022 | Florida Keys
Snorkeling in Key West is an absolute must for many visitors to the island. Although some spots take a little more effort to reach, you will be rewarded by seeing some wonderful and very colourful marine life at close quarters. There’s a whole other world out there living underwater, and snorkeling is the easiest way for kids and adults to see some of this.
The Florida Keys are the location of the world’s third largest barrier reef – the Florida Barrier Reef, and some of the best snorkeling can be found in the Key West Florida area. If you go to the right places and get lucky, you can see the coral formations and the colourful shoals of tropical fish these waters are teeming with – and you may also see some larger sea life too.
So where’s the best place to snorkel in Key West? Much snorkeling in Key West, Florida is accessible by boat, like the Dry Tortugas and Looe Key, although there are a couple of decent shore snorkeling spots like Fort Zachary Beach and Higgs Beach to explore too. All of these can provide the ideal introduction to snorkeling, perhaps helping beginners to decide whether or not they want to book one of the many Key West snorkeling tours available.
Note: Shore snorkeling in the Keys isn’t the best. If you are a newbie just looking to see some fish, or someone short on time, then the shore spots will do the trick. But, for more experienced snorkelers, you will need to get out on a boat.
This guide covers both of those shore snorkeling spots – Fort Zachary and Higgs beaches – as well as those reached by taking a boat trip out to the reef. The best snorkeling spots are thus covered by a range of Key West snorkeling charters that will take you to Looe Key or Dry Tortugas, and there’s lots more about both of those options in this article. Plus other locations you may visit as part of a Key West snorkeling boat trip, such as the Sand Key lighthouse reef and shipwreck sites.
Whether you want to add sampling shore snorkeling to your Key West things to do list or are heading south especially so you can visit Dry Tortugas or Looe Key, this guide will take you through all the top options for snorkeling trips in the Key West area. Even if it’s just a quick snorkel close to the shore, make sure you don’t miss out on what’s happening below the surface during your stay in Key West.
Entry: Rocky Beach(you’ll probably want water shoes)
Access: Park Entry Fee <$5 per person(price depends on walking or driving and number of people in vehicle), large parking lot along beach
Facilities:Beach Cafe, Lounge Chair and Umbrella Rentals, Snorkel Gear Rentals
Fort Zachary beach is one of the most accessible spots and it offers some of the best snorkeling in Key West. You can check out a live beach cam here! Fort Zachary is ideal for beginners who want to dip their toe into the water – or enjoy exploring the underwater world while they’re at the beach anyway, as much of the best shore snorkeling in Key West is to be found right here.
There is also lots to do in this area. You can also take a tour of historic Fort Zachary while you’re here. Other activities available at Fort Zachary beach include fishing off the western rock jetty, biking along the series of shady paths by the shore and discovering local plant, animal and bird life along the nature trails.
The site is spread over 54 acres, and has plenty of picnic tables and grills so you can whip up a feast if you want to. Alternatively, you can buy meals, drinks and snacks at the Cayo Hueso Café. Don’t forget to stay and watch the sunset if you can.
Snorkel along the rock jetties here and you can expect to see some small, colourful fish. When we visited, water clarity was really good and there were several kinds of fish swimming around close to the rocks. You can expect to spot the likes of hard and soft coral, yellowtail snapper, parrot fish and even lobster.
For beginners, spending some time in the water here might well whet your appetite for further snorkel adventures in Key West, and the fact that you can snorkel off the beach makes life really simple, especially for families traveling with kids.
Higgs Beach offers some of the best snorkeling in Key West from the shore. If you don’t want to commit the time or money to a Key West reef snorkeling trip, Higgs Beach is a great alternative. It’s also ideal for those who want to try out wearing a mask and fins for the first time – or if inclement weather means your boat trip is called off.
Another advantage of Higgs Beach is how easy it is to get to. Positioned at the end of Reynolds Street, this broad sandy beach has a wooden pier that juts out over the water as well as lots of family friendly amenities like kids play parks, barbecues, picnic tables, restrooms, showers, volleyball and tennis courts and even a dog park. There are also bandstands, tiki huts, wooden parasols and a grandstand, so it’s easy to spend all day here.
The secret to snorkeling at Higgs Beach is knowing that the ruins of the original pier here extend beyond where the new pier ends – if you like, take a look at a map and this is visible via the satellite view. This underwater part of the old pier has, over time, developed into something of a coral reef, and you can see various fish species swimming around.
During our visit, visibility wasn’t as good as at Fort Zachary, but other snorkelers have reported experiencing much better conditions. There was some beach restoration work taking place while we were there, so this disturbance may have muddied the waters, having a negative impact on clarity.
Even so, we managed to spot some attractive coral formations and a few fish species including lion fish and tarpon. Keep an eye on the sandy spot that lies between the original pier and the shore, too, as rays are sometimes seen in this part. Occasionally nurse sharks are also spied close to the old pier, so you might just get lucky during your visit.
KEY WEST SNORKEL TOURS AND BOAT TRIPS
If you want to venture beyond the shore, the best Key West snorkeling tours are those that take you further out. There are two main ways to do this. You can charter a boat for a private snorkeling Key West experience, or book one of the group snorkel tours on Key West.
When taking a group snorkel tour, you usually don’t know where you’re headed before the day itself, as the captain will make this decision based on the wind and weather conditions at the time. When chartering a private boat, you have much more control over the locations you visit – but weather conditions are clearly still a factor to bear in mind.
The exception to this general rule exists when the destination for your trip is the Dry Tortugas. You can also book trips out to Looe Key, and this location offers the finest snorkeling available from Key West.
Facilities: None. Restrooms, Snack Bar, and Fresh Water Showers available on Yankee Freedom Ferry when docked
The Dry Tortugas National Park comprises seven small islands, located 70 miles off the coast near Key West. Not only does the park offer some of the best snorkeling in the Key West area, it is also home to historic Fort Jefferson.
There are ONLY three ways to get to the unspoiled Dry Tortugas National Park, so you can witness fascinating marine life as well as US history. These are the Yankee Freedom, which is the official ferry owned and operated by the National Park. You can also take a shorter seaplane trip, but this often books up months in advance. The only other option is to charter a boat privately. This is more expensive, but you will have control over whether you see some of the other islands during your trip.
Whichever you choose, book as early as you can. The seaplane is normally most in demand, followed closely by the ferry.
This is an affordable and efficient way to reach Dry Tortugas, though it involves a longer journey time of around 2 hours and 15 minutes. The trip takes place on a world-class, high speed catamaran with a large outdoor sundeck and an air-conditioned cabin inside.
Breakfast and lunch are provided for passengers, and there is also a snack and cocktail bar. Three bathrooms and freshwater showers are also available. Paddleboards and kayaks can also be transported on the vessel, but this must be booked in advance and limited space is available.
Key West seaplane charters is the only company operating seaplane trips between Key West and Dry Tortugas. This is one of the top ways to enjoy Key West coral reef snorkeling – as well as the other attractions of the National Park.
By seaplane, the trip to Dry Tortugas takes only 40 minutes. The company offers Key West snorkeling excursions on a half or full day basis, and these provide 2.5 or 6.5 hours at Fort Jefferson respectively.
As passenger numbers are subject to strict National Park controls, booking well in advance is essential. Though prices are relatively high, the trips book up very fast and demand always outstrips supply. As well as a shorter journey time, traveling to Dry Tortugas by seaplane means experiencing unparalleled views over the Keys, ocean, and National Park.
Private boat charters
This is normally the priciest option, but booking a charter boat to take you to some of the best snorkeling in the Key West area also means you have the final say over where to go and what to do while you’re out.
If you want to see any of the other six Dry Tortugas islands, you will need to fork out for this option, as the ferry and seaplane only go to Fort Jefferson/Garden Key. Booking Key West private snorkeling charters means you can stop at several other islands if you want to, thus making your own self guided snorkeling in the Key West region.
What to do at Dry Tortugas
Famous for sea and bird life and its snorkeling scene, the Dry Tortugas National Park is made up of seven islands with white sands and warm tropical waters. During your visit, you may be able to paddle board or kayak from Fort Jefferson to the other six islands – if you are able and have enough time to do so. (This is really only for people with strong skills and plenty of time, like those camping).
Wild camping is also popular at Dry Tortugas, although conditions are very basic. Everything – including drinking water – must be brought with you if you want to stay overnight.
Garden Key snorkeling
Based our recent visit, we ranked four snorkel spots at Fort Jefferson in order of preference, as follows:
South Dock Pilings
North Dock Pilings
Of course as is the case anywhere in the world, snorkeling near Key West can be very much a matter of timing. The first spot we snorkeled after arriving was the South Pilings and it was absolutely phenomenal.
We saw a huge school of small tropical fish, as well as several large tarpon that were feeding on them. After trying out the other three areas, we returned to the South Dock. While it is still our favorite spot, it wasn’t anywhere near as exciting the second time as it had been earlier that day. We must have just gotten lucky.
Loggerhead Key snorkeling
Loggerhead Key is one of the best places to snorkel in the Keys, but accessibility is extremely limited as only 24 persons per day will be granted a permit. The largest island in Dry Tortugas, it can only be accessed via kayak or private charter boat.
As it’s three miles from Fort Jefferson, Loggerhead Key is not easy to get to and the ocean currents can be strong. For those who do make the trip and secure their permit in advance, it is well worth the effort. Highlights include the Little Africa reef and Windjammer Wreck. Colorful corals and tropical fish can be seen at both sites, including species such as spiny lobster and game fish.
Access: Boat Tour or Charter from Key West, Big Pine Key, or Bahia Honda
For us, Looe Key is the best of the Key West snorkeling sites hands down. Looe Key can be reached via a range of Big Pine Key, Bahia Honda and Key West snorkeling trips. After trying out all of the Key West, Florida snorkeling spots during our recent visit, we can safely say that Looe Key was by far the best.
To confirm our selection, we also asked the boat captains on all the trips we took to name the best place for snorkeling in Key West. Strangely enough they would usually answer by giving the name of where we were headed that day, but when pushed to pick another spot, they always went for Looe Key as the best spot in the entire Florida Keys.
In fact one of the local Key West snorkeling tour operators claims that Looe Key is the top snorkelling spot in the entire US, and though of course they are biased it is hard to argue with that. With varying depths, it’s ideal for coral reef snorkeling, although in some places it may be deeper than complete novices will be comfortable with.
It’s not only the depth of the water that can make Looe Key a little daunting for some. This Key is known for being where larger aquatic species are often spotted like grouper, spotted eagle rays, barracuda, tarpon, and even nurse or reef sharks. We saw a giant grouper, three reef sharks, and a nurse shark. Our boat captain said that sometimes you can spot hammerheads “snacking” on eagle rays as well.
The currents also cause swells to develop out on this Key West coral reef, so even in calm conditions you may experience swells, but snorkel tours will not go out if swells are much over two feet. The eastern side is shallower than the middle and western sections.
For those who do visit, Looe Key has lots to offer. Species often seen in the area include various kinds of angelfish, damselfish, surgeonfish, parrotfish, butterflyfish, snapper and many more. If you don’t get lucky the first time around, you can easily try another part, thanks to the fact that it’s a large and varied reef.
There are lots of different corals to see at Looe Key too, including fascinating species such as fire coral, green finger sponge, and brain coral. Seeing some of the huge fish swimming among the unusual corals is quite something, even for seasoned snorkelers.
Boat Trips from Key West
There are many trips to the coral reef from Key West, and these can be ideal if you’re not fixed on the idea of going to a particular place. In advance of the trip you are unlikely to know where you’ll be going, as the captain will usually pick based on conditions such as the weather and visibility.
Sometimes mooring ball availability will also come into the equation, and sometimes even the captain doesn’t know for sure where they’ll end up until they actually arrive at the reef and see how conditions are.
Spots the popular snorkeling tour services of Key West head to include Sand and Rock Keys or Eastern Dry Rocks.
Sand Key is home to the Sand Key lighthouse reef, one of Florida’s best preserved reef formations. Circling the lighthouse, this reef is protected by the fact that non one is permitted to take anything from the area – not even via fishing or lobster catching. Nor can any vessels drop anchor on the reef itself.
As well as snorkeling, Sand Key is popular with swimmers, divers, paddle boarders and kayakers. The lighthouse itself, however, should be left alone – it poses potential danger due to the presence of a crumbling staircase, corroded beams and even exposed wiring.
Sand Key is about seven miles from Key West – or six nautical miles. As such it’s easy to get to by boat. While exploring, visitors may encounter all sorts of colourful tropical fish as well as loggerhead or hawksbill turtles and harmless nurse or bull sharks.
Rock Key and Eastern Dry Rocks
Around a mile east of Sand Key are Rock Key and the Eastern Dry Rocks reefs. They consist of a group of reefs with deep crevices that provide the perfect home for sea life such as long, finger-like coral formations, moray eels, octopus, hammerhead sharks, grouper, conch, sea turtles and more.
Eastern Dry Rocks and Rock Key have also seen many shipwrecks over the centuries. Rusted and decaying remnants from these vessels are still scattered across the seabed, so it’s wise to be cautious about what you touch. In the 19th century alone there were at least four ships wrecked in this area.
Coral has now grown over much of the shipwreck remains. Although nature has taken over, it’s still possible to see items like spikes made from brass, cannon balls and heaps of stone.
Between Rock Key and Eastern Dry Rocks you can see some interesting shipwreck relics, as well as the abundant marine life that has taken over the site and the coral formations that have bloomed around the old lighthouse.
Paired with Sand Key, these areas located close to one another are one of the best places to kayak and snorkel near Key West, and many snorkeling tours in Key West will take you out to this area located just seven miles from land.
WHERE WILL YOU GO SNORKELING IN KEY WEST?
We love to snorkel when visiting the Florida Keys, and hope you have found this guide helpful in deciding where to explore underwater life during your vacation.
For us, the best snorkeling near Key West is to be found at Looe Key, but we’ve also had some very memorable experiences at Dry Tortugas – particularly at South Dock Pilings. If you’re having a beach day, why not head to Higgs so you can fit in some shore snorkeling, or you could opt for Fort Zachary if interested in military history.
Don’t forget to book in advance for the most popular trips, especially if you’re headed to Dry Tortugas. Or if you don’t mind where you go, simply take pot luck by booking onto the boat trips run by local operators, who have earned a trick or two over the years and may well have some surprises up their sleeves to share with you.
Wherever you don your mask and flippers, those snorkeling Key West FL may get to see tropical fish, conch shells and fascinating corals, as well as larger marine life like sea turtles, harmless sharks and grouper. You might also get to see some underwater shipwreck remains too.