The Best Snorkeling Spots in Key West
Key West in Florida is a great place to explore and enjoy a tropical snorkeling adventure! The excitement begins the moment you strap on your mask as you discover offshore coral reefs with colorful fish, shipwrecks and more! Find here the best snorkeling spots in Key West that wait for you with excellent year-round weather and a wide range of snorkeling opportunities!
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Best time to snorkel in Key West
The best time to go snorkeling in Key West is between December and May. The region experiences optimal weather during these months whit breezy, sunny days and ideal conditions for visiting Florida Keys snorkeling sites.
The hurricane season in Florida runs from June to the end of November. The Keys experience beautiful balmy weather during these months too, but there are also frequent and sudden thunderstorms. Moreover, the risk of tropical storms and hurricanes also high. Therefore, following the weather forecast and keeping the travel itinerary flexible is highly recommended if you plan your visit in this period.
Top snorkeling spots in Key West
Cottrell Key is located 9 miles northwest of Key West on the Gulf side. It was named after a captain of a lightship that was anchored there in the early 19th century. This impressive snorkeling spot in Key West is only accessible by boat. If you have your own one, use GPS co-ordinates 24.3674N 081 55.63W to find it.
Cottrell Key is famous for a unique sponge garden and large coral reefs. It’s also an excellent place to see dolphins, sharks, stingrays and Goliath groupers. The ocean’s floor in the area contains coral outcroppings and sand. Cottrell Key is suitable for kids and families too.
Fort Zachary Taylor
This beach is considered one of the best off-shore snorkeling spots in Key West. It’s located towards the end of Southard Street on Truman Annex at the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys.
This snorkeling experience doesn’t require a boat. You can just walk into the water and start exploring the underwater world. There are a variety of tropical fish species and living coral that will captivate your mind.
The best is if you bring your own equipment, but you can also rent on the spot. Not all vendors accept credit cards so make sure to bring plenty of cash to cover the expenses of the day, so you can enjoy this Key West snorkeling beach without having difficulties.
Those who look for snorkeling in the Keys without a boat should not miss visiting Higgs Beach. This beautiful beach is located on the south shore, along Atlantic Boulevard.
It’s one of the most popular snorkeling spots in the Key West because the US only shore-accessible underwater marine park can be found here. The area is filled with coral reefs, marine life, and coral species such as brain coral, sea fingers, sea whips, sea fans and more. It’s an excellent spot to see an abundance of butterflyfish, angelfish and parrotfish around the pier.
It’s a great place for those who are snorkeling for the first time to see plenty of tropical sea life, coral reefs and more. It’s especially memorable for children and families.
A large, family-friendly public beach with convenient vendors, water sports operators, umbrella/chair rental and bathroom facilities. The beach is free to enter however you need to pay for parking.
Smathers Beach is another spot where you can snorkel from the shore. Although the marine life is not as lively as at the outer reefs, it is a good option if you are looking for snorkeling for beginners in Key West. The shallow, current-free waters make it easy to get comfortable using your gear and you can even encounter fish and some critters.
Dry Tortugas National Park – Fort Jefferson
The Dry Tortugas National Park is probably the most impressive Key West snorkeling spot. It is located 70 miles west of Key West and accessible by boat or seaplane.
The easiest is taking the Yankee Freedom III ferry. They provide complimentary snorkels, masks, and fins for everyone and transport you to the secluded area where you will have the ultimate snorkeling experience.
A Dry Tortugas snorkeling trip is great for families with children too. Like most Key West snorkeling spots, this one also features a beautiful sandy beach with warm shallow waters that are perfect for snorkelers of all ages. Explore the ocean’s vibrant sea life such as thriving corals, queen conchs, sea stars while tropical fish surround you.
Little Africa Reef – Loggerhead Key
Loggerhead Key is the largest island in the Dry Tortugas Island Group that is home to Loggerhead Lighthouse. Since this key is not reachable via public transportation and even private sailors need a boat permit before entering the area, almost no one comes to this spot so it remains a little paradise!
Little Africa is the name of the untouched reef on the north side of the island where you can explore fantastic aquatic life in calm, shallow waters. This is a very beginner and kid-friendly snorkel spot with many soft corals such as sea rods and sea fans, hard corals like brain and fire corals as well as juveniles of various fish species.
Avanti Dutch Wreck
Those who love exploring interesting snorkeling places in Key West should visit the Avanti Wreck. The Avanti (also called Dutch wreck or Windjammer) is also situated in Dry Tortugas, a mile southwest of Loggerhead Key and rests shallow enough to offer excellent snorkeling. Actually, some parts of it are even exposed at low tide and the maximum depth is 22ft/6.7m.
This Florida Keys wreck is in excellent condition; it split into two parts and its parts of scattered over the seafloor with healthy corals growing on and around them attracting huge schools of fish and many sea creatures to the area.
Marquesas Keys is a chain of 10 uninhabited islands west of Key West that were formed by a meteorite millions of years ago. In 1622, a Spanish Treasure Fleet sank in the area; the commander of the fleet was Marquis de Cadereita and this is why it why the island group was named Marquesas Keys.
Today Marquesas Keys is known as one of the most popular diving and snorkeling destinations around Key West. Expect to find here untouched reefs with large coral pinnacles and coral heads, interesting caves (however these are accessible for scuba divers only) and crystal clear waters. The strong currents attract larger pelagic species to the area so there is a high chance of spotting jackfish and sharks here.
Often referred to as one of the best dive and snorkel sites of Key West, the Sambo Reef System offers fantastic conditions for underwater adventurers at all levels. It lies near Boca Chica Key and includes 3 large reef structures (Eastern, Middle and Western) For snorkeling, the Western reef is the best since this has shallow waters (between 3-30ft/0.9-9m)
While snorkeling at the Western Sambo Reef, you will see healthy hard and stony coral structures (branch, brain and elkhorn corals). On the eastern side, there is also a shipwreck.
Tip: If you don’t want to drive down to Key West stop at the Upper Keys. There is good snorkeling in Key Largo and in Biscayne National Park too.
A little east of Sand Key Reef, Rock Key is an under-the-radar spot to go snorkeling in Key West. It is part of the Sanctuary Preservation Area and Key West National Wildlife Refuge so the area is well-protected; a variety of Florida reef fish and sea creatures can be seen around the shallow bank reefs (the depth range is 5-35ft/1.5-10.6m) while the deeper cracks and canyons provide hiding habitat for larger marine animals such as morays, groupers and octopus.
In addition, you can encounter turtles and see sharks while snorkeling at Rock Key! If this were not enough, the area has many shipwrecks too so you can find remnants like spikes, tiles or ballast piles when exploring underwater.
Sand Key Lighthouse Reef
Sand Key is located seven miles south of Key West. This protected area is a favorite among snorkeling enthusiasts. Thanks to its remote location and the strict no-take policy (which means no fishing, spearfishing or lobstering), the Sand Key Lighthouse Reef is one of the healthiest coral gardens of Florida.
The water is often flat and calm which creates an optimal snorkeling experience for the entire family. Sand Key provides varying snorkeling depths of 1 to 15 feet surrounding the famous lighthouse built-in 1853. You will see a variety of tropical fish species, sea turtles, sharks and more!
From late spring through summer there is jellyfish season in the Florida Keys. Although most jellies that frequent the area are not harmful to humans, it is recommended that you wear a rash guard/UV protection clothing that will provide you with protection against the sun, jellyfish stings and waterborne irritants.
With a variety of shore snorkeling places and reefs accessible by boat, Key West offers some of the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys. Thanks to the area’s clear, shallow waters and vibrant marine life, it is a great destination for snorkelers at all levels.
The best Key West shore snorkeling sites where you can experience Florida’s marine life without going on a boat trip are the Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park Beach, Clarence S. Higgs Memorial Beach, Smathers Beach.
Yes, you can access free shore snorkeling places in Key West for example at Smathers Beach and Higgs Beach. Snorkeling excursions to Florida Reef’s snorkeling sites are available via tour companies.
To decide if you need a wetsuit when snorkeling in Key West depends on what season you visit the area and on your personal preferences. The water temperature is around 80-82.4F/26.6-28C during the summer months and around 68-73F/20-22.7C in winter. Such temperatures are comfortable for most people but if you tend to feel cold, a shorty or a 3mm thick wetsuit comes in handy especially in the colder months. If not wearing a wetsuit, UV protective clothing is recommended to avoid sunburn.
Although it is not guaranteed, there is a high chance that you will see sharks while snorkeling in Key West. The most common species to see are nurse sharks and reef sharks. Occasionally lemon and hammerhead sharks can be spotted too.
Both Key West and Key Largo have healthy coral reefs and beautiful marine life, therefore it really depends on your personal preferences what area will suit better for you. Choose Key West if you want to snorkel from the shore as there are a few beaches here that are suitable for snorkeling and it has beautiful reefs reachable with boat trips, while Key Largo features the area’s most famous snorkel spot, the Christ of the Abyss underwater statue that is also no to miss out.
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