Florida Keys snorkeling sites have something to offer for all ages and experience levels! With some shore snorkeling beaches as well as the best coral reefs of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary stretching out from Biscayne Bay to Dry Tortugas, the opportunities are endless to explore the area’s spectacular marine life. If you are planning a snorkel trip to the Keys, here are 37 incredible places that are worth visiting.
Table of Contents
- Biscayne National Park Snorkeling
- Key Largo Snorkeling
- Islamorada Snorkeling Spots Upper Keys
- Middle Keys Snorkeling Near Marathon
- Big Pine Key Snorkeling Lower Keys
- Key West snorkeling places
Biscayne National Park Snorkeling
Located in the Northern Florida Keys, just 70 minutes drive from Miami, one finds the Biscayne National Park which is an excellent snorkeling spot in the Florida Keys for those who don’t want to drive all the way on the Keys. The park lies in a wonderful natural environment surrounded by mangroves and coral reefs in crystal clear waters.
If you go snorkeling in the Biscayne National Park, you can discover the area’s unique aquatic life including hard and soft corals, colorful tropical fish, turtles, lobsters, shrimps, and rays. There are many snorkeling sites here; some are patch coral reefs with healthy hard and soft corals and sponges, while there are also some shipwrecks that serve as artificial reefs and provide a home for a variety of juvenile fish.
The best snorkeling shipwreck at Biscayne National Park are:
- Earl King
Half and full-day snorkeling tours leave from the jetty of the visitor center. It always depends on the weather/water conditions and what snorkel spot you will visit. The park staff also provides orientation on what you are about to see.
Author’s’ tip: The park is very busy on weekends so come on a weekday if you want a peaceful experience!
Key Largo Snorkeling
One of the most popular snorkeling destinations in the Florida Keys is the island of Key Largo. It is at the northernmost end of the Keys and just about 60 miles/1 hour drive from the Miami International Airport.
Shore snorkeling is limited in Key Largo; you can do it only in the John Pennekamp Coral State Park but there is little to see there. However, the region’s reefs (that are available by boat) offer exceptionally clear waters, healthy corals, and a wide variety of tropical fish and creatures to see.
To access these snorkeling places, you can sign up for boat tours in John Pennekamp Park or at any Key Largo snorkel tour provider. The best is bringing your own gear, but in case you are missing something, snorkeling equipment can be rented by the tour organizer.
Turtle Rocks/Turtle Reef
At the northern end of the Key Largo Marine Sanctuary, Turtle Reef is a shallow patch reef (7-12ft/2-3.6m). It has a sandy-rocky bottom that guarantees good visibility.
Snorkelers can observe the remains of two beacons here along with a range of corals and meadows of seagrass. In the small caves and under the archways, often moray eels, turtles and nurse sharks can be seen too.
6 miles off Key Largo, the Carysfort Lighthouse Reef is a developed, protected reef area. Thanks to its shallow waters, it is an excellent snorkeling spot for beginners where mostly hard coral species (Staghorn and Elkhorn corals) can be seen.
Approaching the lighthouse by boat is strictly prohibited, however, snorkelers should aim to swim as close as they can since that is the area where the best marine life can be seen with healthy corals and many fish.
John Pennekamp Coral State Park
The first undersea park in the country, the John Pennekamp Coral State Park was set up on Key Largo in Florida Keys with the aim of protecting the area’s coral reefs and sea life. The land area of the park is surrounded by mangroves that are best explored by kayak.
There is only one beach in the park where you can snorkel from the shore (Cannon Beach). The snorkeling here is pretty basic, there are only some crabs, small fish, and anemones. The water often gets so murky that you can’t see anything in it.
However, since the park extends 3 nautical miles into the Atlantic Ocean, it also includes some of the area’s best coral reefs. The official John Pennekamp snorkeling tours depart daily from the park, but other tour operators also offer such tours.
Christ of the Abyss – Key Largo Dry Docks
The statue of the Christ of the Deep is the most famous spot to go snorkeling in the Florida Keys. It can be found in the Dry Rocks Reef, to the east of John Pennekamp Park.
The nearly 9ft/2.7m tall bronze statue rests in 25ft/7.6m deep water which might seem a little deep, but thanks to the clear waters, it is visible for snorkelers too as its top is less than 10 ft/3 m from the surface. Those who can freedive and can hold their breath for a little longer will be able to swim down to the statue and take some good photos of it and the surrounding coral reefs.
The Horseshoe Reef is a smaller reef near Dry Docks. It is called Horseshoe because an ancient ship wrecked here carrying a cargo of horses and some pair of golden horseshoes.
Despite being not so popular, it is a nice place to visit as it is very shallow (maximum depth is 20ft/6m), and usually the visibility is excellent making the conditions ideal for underwater photography. You can see here healthy Elkhorn corals, lobsters, and many small fish hiding in little caverns and swim throughs.
Grecian Rocks has some of the best snorkeling in the Keys where boat tours take snorkelers on windy, choppy days since it remains enjoyable even in such conditions.
This protected, shallow reef (4-6 ft/1.2-1.8 m) is less than a mile away from the Christ of the Abyss and has many soft corals, sea fans, sponges and colorful fish like Blue Tangs, Parrotfish, Barracudas and Angelfish.
Cannon Patch/Garret’s Reef
Cannon Patch is an easy snorkel spot near Grecian Rocks. As its name shows, this place has two cannons in a shallow patch reef (4 ft/1.2 m) so beginners and kids can have a fun time swimming around here. However, the cannons are not easy to find since corals and sponges have overgrown them.
Patch reefs and sandy bottom channels build the White Banks reef that lies 2 miles north of Molasses Reef. Its close proximity to the shore and shallowness make this a prime snorkel spot for beginners where it is easy to observe the area’s typical coral species and sea creatures. It is also called White Banks Dry Rocks.
Another fantastic snorkeling spot in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary southeast of Key Largo is Molasses Reef. It is one of the most visited reefs near Key Largo because it is easily accessible both for divers and snorkelers and the water is usually calm and clear here.
The underwater life is also second to none at Molasses Reef. Besides many fish and large coral formations including huge tube corals, healthy Elkhorn, and brain corals, there is even an anchor and a large ship winch here.
French Reef is an easily accessible, triangle-shaped reef with many caves and tunnels southeast of Key Largo. It is a particularly safe place to snorkel and dive because it is not affected by strong currents.
The caverns and sea fan covered sea bottom offer excellent hiding places for fish; barracudas, and snappers are regular visitors to French Reef but sometimes sea turtles, spotted eagle rays and hammerhead sharks can be found here too.
A spectacular place to snorkel in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary about 6 nautical miles southeast of Key Largo in the Upper Keys is Pickles Reef. There is good coral on the south side where the reef is relatively shallow (5-6 ft/1.5-1.8 m).
Remains of a sunken ship that carried cement-filled pickle barrels can be observed here (this is where the name of the reef comes). The debris is scattered across the reef and got overgrown by coral, mainly barrel corals, sea rods, and sponge varieties that attract numerous fish species and sea creatures to the area.
Snapper Ledge Reef
A little south of Picklers Reef, Snapper Ledge is a great spot for snorkelers and beginner divers with a maximum depth of 25 ft/7.6 m. Hence the name, many yellowtail snappers are found here. Also, the healthiest brain corals of the Uppers Keys!
It is a unique place to go snorkeling in the Florida Keys as it functions as coral nursery where scientists grow Elkhorn corals.
This is just a short summary of the snorkeling places in Key Largo. If you need more detailed descriptions, see our Key Largo Snorkel Spots article.
Islamorada Snorkeling Spots Upper Keys
With its laidback vibes and a wide variety of outdoor opportunities, the Uppers Keys is a fantastic destination for those who want a relaxing vacation.
The Upper Keys include several keys but since Islamorada is the area’s most known and biggest town spanning over 5 islands, the region’s attractions are often associated with the name Islamorada. Therefore, we also use the term Snorkeling in Islamorada when referring to the reefs situated near the Upper Keys.
Unfortunately, there is only one beach where you can snorkel from the shore (Founders Park), but the area features many nearby reefs that are accessible with a short boat ride.
One of the most popular dive spots in the Upper Keys about 5 miles off Islamorada, Conch Reef (named like this since there are many Queen Conchs in the area) is a developed reef with a massive wall. It is a diving location primarily but also has some shallower areas (15-20ft/4.5-6m) that are suitable for snorkelers too if the water conditions are good.
An interesting fact is that there is also a research lab at Conch Reef with units designed to live underwater. Here scientists study not only the marine life but also how it would feel like living underwater. The lab is in deeper water and is not accessible to the public but is still very interesting that such places exist.
South of Conch Reef, Davis Reef is easily reachable by boat from Upper Matecumbe Key or Lower Plantation Key. It is an outer reef so is populated with a large variety of fish, mostly damselfish, butterflyfish, angelfish, and tangs.
You can expect to see rays, nurse sharks, and moray eels too. There is also an unexpected thing to see at Davis Reef, an underwater Buddha in 20 ft/6 m deep water at the south end of the reef.
Indian Key Historic State Park
Those who love visiting historical sites and want to combine their FL Keys snorkeling adventure with a little ruin exploration should visit the Indian Key Historic State Park. This deserted island is between Matecumbe Key and Islamorada and features remnants of buildings from the 1800s. There are plaques all over the island that introduce the locations and the ruins.
Snorkeling is the best on the Atlantic side. There are no huge reef formations here but plenty of smaller coral patches and sponges. You can see the usual colorful tropical fishes and also huge conchs!
The park is accessible by boat only, at the time of the writing only via kayak launch (the trip takes about 20-30 minutes) due to the boat ramp’s storm damage.
A very small, yet marine-life-rich patch reef in the southeast of Matecumbe Key is reachable with a short boat ride from Islamorada. With a depth between 6-20 ft/1.8-6 m, Cheeca Rocks is one of the best spots to snorkel in Florida for beginners.
Note that as it is an inside reef, the visibility may not be as good as out it in the barrier reef and the water might be a bit greenish but the sight of the good number of fish (parrotfish, angelfish, yellowtail snappers, tangs etc…) and nice coral formations will compensate you for the cloudy waters.
Southeast of Cheeca Rocks, the reef of Alligator is between the Upper and Middle Keys reefs. Therefore, the area has a constant flow of fresh ocean water making the visibility excellent and the aquatic life extremely vibrant. In the north of the reef, there is a 136ft/41m tall lighthouse (Aligator Reef Light).
The snorkeling area lies around the lighthouse (and under it where tons of fish hang out). In terms of corals, there aren’t many hard corals here rather soft corals that elegantly dance as the water gently moves them.
Middle Keys Snorkeling Near Marathon
Often referred to as the Heart of the Keys, the Middle Keys (including the keys around the city of Marathon) has the absolute best Florida Keys snorkeling places according to many. The reefs of this area are healthier than the ones at other parts of the Keys as they are situated in deeper waters and attract larger fish thanks to the Gulf Stream’s nutrient-rich eastern flow.
Although they are only reachable by boat tours (there is only one beach in the region where you can snorkel from the shore, Sombrero Beach) but it is worth the time and effort to join one and see Florida Key’s finest marine life. To learn what the best Marathon snorkeling spots are, let’s take a look at this list:
Reachable by boat only, Coffins Patch offers amazing snorkeling in Marathon. To be exact, it is between Marathon and Duck Key and offers not just one but six smaller reefs at various depths: Stake, Donut, Elbow, Sand Circle, Three Bag Reef, and Pillar Reef/Outer Edge. Usually, boats stop at 2-3 sites per trip.
This patch reef system has a rich marine ecosystem because it is less visited. It has many soft corals and healthy sponges plus some underwater caves to explore. Nurse sharks, turtles, and rays are regularly spotted here as well as colorful reef fish like angelfish and big schools of yellowtail snappers.
Sombrero Beach is a family-friendly beach park on Marathon with picnic areas, restrooms, and showers. It is one of the few beaches in Marathon where you can go snorkeling from the shore.
However, do not expect big coral formations here just a few corals and fish, crabs, maybe a resting stingray in the sand. The water is usually murky so try to get as far as possible from the shore where it may be a little cleaner or swim near the rocky edge. If you are looking for decent snorkeling, it is better to visit the reef with the same name!
3 miles east of Boot Key, the large Sombrero reef system is one of the most popular dive and snorkeling destinations in the Middle Keys. With varying depths between 6 and 60ft (1.8-18m), this is a perfect location to explore Florida’s marine life including smaller and larger reef fish, stony and soft corals.
Note: Regular visitors of this spot claim that the reef is not as vibrant anymore as it was once. This does not mean of course that you should not visit Sombrero Reef but maybe it is worth including other nearby spots in your itinerary so you can see different reefs even if this one leaves you unsatisfied.
A little northeast of Sombrero Reef rests one of the many Florida shipwrecks, the Ivory. The remains of the slave ship (mostly ballast) are scattered over in approx. 15ft/4.5m deep water. Sponges and corals that have grown on and around them created a decent reef here attracting lots of wildlife to the area.
Bahia Honda State Park
The good news for those who look for snorkeling without a boat is that you can snorkel right off the beach at Bahia Honda State Park. This remote island in Bahia Honda Key, just from Marathon was turned into a family-friendly destination where you can enjoy fantastic nature and do great things outdoors including exploring the undersea life of Florida Keys.
There are three beaches here for shore snorkeling:
- Calusa Beach
- Loggerhead Beach
- Sandspur Beach
These beaches in Bahia Honda State Park offer kid-friendly snorkeling and are great for novice snorkelers because the water is shallow but might not be so good for advanced underwater explorers as there is only a moderate amount of underwater life here; expect to see little coral and few types of fish, crustaceans, and rays. Although if you want, you can sign up for a boat trip to snorkel at the nearby reefs.
Big Pine Key Snorkeling Lower Keys
Including many small islands such as Cudjoe Key, Big Pine Key, Sugarloaf Key, Summerland Key, Big Torch, Middle Torch and Little Torch Keys, Ramrod Key, Big Coppitt Key, and Stock Island, the Lower Florida Keys are the perfect destinations for those love discovering small towns and staying at laid-back neighborhoods.
As Big Pine Key is the region’s most known key, many refer to this island when mentioning the attractions and things to do nearby so this is why we will also use the term “Big Pine Key snorkel spots” when summarizing where to go snorkeling in the Lower Keys.
Located at mile marker 35, Horseshoe Beach is a Florida Keys snorkeling site where you can see marine life right off the shore. The unusual shape of the beach was dug while building the Overseas Railroad (the location was a quarry). The inner side of the horseshoe has protected waters so it works as a fish nursery where you can see many types of juvenile fish.
With gorgeous turquoise waters, it is a family-friendly beach where usually locals go; since there are no amenities around, tourists do not visit this beach but this is how it remains quiet and peaceful most of the time.
Ramrod Swimming Hole – Ramrod Key
Another beach where you can snorkel from the shore in the Lower Florida Keys is the Ramrod Swimming Hole on Ramroad Key. It is technically in a channel on the Gulf of Mexico side so the visibility might be not so good, but you can see various sea creatures amongst the mangrove roots such as sergeant major fish, lobsters, crabs, and critters.
Snorkeling is not exceptional here, but if you are not keen on hopping on a boat taking a ride to the outer reefs, you may want to visit this Ramrod Key Beach.
Newfound Harbor Key Reef – Coupon Bight Aquatic Preserve
A remarkable site for snorkeling in the Lower Keys, Coupon Bight is a huge aquatic preserve within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The protection area includes seagrass meadows, mangroves, and patch reefs so it is richly blessed with sea life. Shallow patch reefs are found on the ocean side, south of Newfound Harbor Keys.
The spot where it is worth snorkeling is just off Little Palm Island and is called Newfound Harbor Key Reef. It is the only SPA protected reef in the Lower Florida Reefs which means that boaters need to follow strict rules needs when visiting the area, for example they can anchor only when there is a mooring buoy available and fishing is also restricted.
Thanks to this protection states, NewFound Harbor Key has amazing corals (mainly brain and moon corals and sea fans) and a good variety of fish, even large tarpons can be seen here. It is perfectly shallow to provide fantastic snorkeling (3-10 ft/1-3 m).
Knowns as one of the top reefs of the region, Looe Key is a Florida Keys snorkel spot that must be in travel your itinerary. Just south of Big Pine Key, this 5 to 25 ft deep reef (1.5-7.6 m) has clear waters and usually calm conditions so you can observe the marine life while comfortably floating on the surface. You can easily sign up for Looe Key snorkel tours at vendors in Big Pine Key, Cudjoe Key, or Sugarloaf Key.
Looe Key does not only have healthy corals (elkhorn, staghorn, brain, fire, and star corals) but it is highly populated with sharks and bigger fish, such as Goliath Groupers also like to hang around here so keep your camera ready to capture fantastic wildlife.
Author’s tip: sharks rarely get aggressive toward snorkelers but if you are afraid of them, read my tips on how to swim with sharks.
American Shoal Lighthouse
Seeing the 124ft/37.4m tall, striking red American Shoal Lighthouse standing in a tranquil bay 7 miles south of Sugarloaf Key is already an experience, but for those who love discovering the ocean’s life, it is good news that you can also snorkel here.
The American Shoal Lighthouse Reef is not the best spot to snorkel in terms of sea life as the drop-off (where the reef starts) is more for divers than snorkelers, but it is definitely an interesting one as it is not an everyday thing to swim around the base of a lighthouse. You will see many fish under the structure, though!
Key West snorkeling places
Florida’s southernmost region is known for its historic sites, pastel-colored houses, and for its coral reefs so it comes as no surprise that Key West is among the best places to go snorkeling in Florida Keys.
There are shore snorkeling spots and a variety of half or full-day snorkel tours available to take you to the nearby fantastic reefs; it all just depends on your personal preferences! Whether you are a beginner or an expert, you can enjoy discovering lively coral reefs as well as an abundance of fish and creatures when visiting Key West snorkeling spots.
An Outlying Island in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge marine protected area, Cottrell Key lies on the Gulf side. Thanks to its location, the water is calm here when the Atlantic side is choppy, so this can be an option to go snorkeling in the Keys when the weather conditions don’t allow visiting the outer Florida Reef.
Cottrell Key is a patch reef with soft sponge coral and many sea urchins. Surprisingly, bigger fish like Goliath Groupers as well as rays and moray eels also like hanging out here so keep your eyes open; you might see interesting creatures!
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
The best place to snorkel in the Keys without a boat is the Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park beach. Although the water is shallow and usually clear (not amazingly clear but clear enough to see some fish and small creatures) but you need to be aware when snorkeling with kids because there can be moderate currents.
I recommend snorkeling around the breakwaters. I am sure you will be surprised at the amount of fish you can see just off the beach. If you are lucky, you might even spot a stingray or nurse shark too!
Another popular shore snorkeling beach in Key West is Higgs Beach. This two-mile-long wide sandy beach is located at the end of Reynolds Street and offers a tropical scenery and various facilities such as picnic tables, grills, and outdoor showers. There is also a beautiful botanical garden you do not want to miss out!
The water can be murky at first, but it gets clearer as it deepens. While snorkeling at Higgs Beach you will see plenty of fish, urchins, eels, sharks, and rays, usually around the sea wall and old wooden pillars on the east and around the pier on the west.
Just 1.3 miles away from Higgs Beach, there is another Key West snorkeling beach you can visit, Smathers Beach. It is less crowded than the previous one, has ample parking, restrooms, and also some food trucks around that make it a perfect place to spend a comfortable day at the beach.
And the best is, that some snorkeling can be done too at this idyllic beach. It is pretty basic tough, but if you swim away from the shoreline where is a bit deeper and cleaner you can see some typical Florida fish, crabs, lobsters, and large conch shells.
Dry Tortugas National Park – Fort Jefferson
Dry Tortugas is a famous snorkeling site in the Florida Keys. The national park’s area is situated 70 miles west of Key West, southwest of the Florida Reef system. You can get to Dry Tortugas by boat or by seaplane.
Dry Tortugas has a rich marine life habitat: you find here healthy patch reefs with sponges, soft and hard corals, a myriad of colorful fish, nurse sharks, perhaps squids, octopuses, and turtles too.
The best areas to snorkel are at the Fort Jefferson Moat Wall and around the old dock pilings on the North Beach. You might check out the South Coaling Dock Ruins too. Just be careful and do not get too close to the old poles as you can get injured.
An unusually shaped island group that is believed to be created by a meteor, Marquesas Key is a paradise for underwater explorers. This Florida Keys snorkel spot lies about 20 miles from Key West and is North America’s only atoll. Due to this relatively big distance, fewer boats visit this area, so it is very quiet and relaxing.
You can snorkel in shallow lagoons, at lively coral reefs, and at interesting wrecks here, go kayaking, fishing or just work on your tan while lying on postcard-perfect white sandy beaches. The Marquesas is also a turtle nesting area so you will probably encounter turtles too!
Sand Key Lighthouse Reef
Another lighthouse snorkel spot in the Keys southwest of Key West is Sand Key Reef. It was originally an island, but due to erosion only a small part of it remained by now, but this is the reason why the area has so much sand which is not usual at the other nearby reefs.
What to see here? Sea turtles, huge lobsters, reef sharks, moray eel as well as an abundance of beautiful fish and colorful coral – Sand Key Lighthouse Reef is a highly recommended site to go to!
The large reef system of Sambo Reef 5 miles from Key West, south of Boca Chica Key has three sites: Eastern, Western, and Middle providing a home to numerous coral and fish species. All three sites are excellent for snorkeling, but the best is the largest one, Western Reef. This 10-40ft/3-12m deep area is an ecological reserve too and covers a huge area of patch and bank reefs.
Rock Key is a pretty remote site between Sand Key and the Dry Rocks islands, 7 miles southeast of Key West. Many ships were wrecked in the area which makes it a popular diving site. It is also a good snorkel spot as it is pretty shallow (3-30ft/0.9-9m)and the current is usually light here.
Its remoteness and the fact that it is a Sanctuary Preservation Area allow marine life to thrive at Rock Key; besides healthy corals, expect to see sea turtles, sharks, octopus, lobsters, rays, conch, and an array of reef fish.
Between late August and early April, you will likely encounter jellies too on our dives and at the beaches. Although most of them are not dangerous, take a few minutes and study the jellyfish of Florida Keys before your trip.
Visitors to the Florida Keys who want to snorkel will find various opportunities to explore the area’s rich marine life. From the Upper Keys through the Middle and Lower Keys to Key West, all regions offer shore snorkeling and reefs reached by boat tours for snorkelers at all levels. To experience the best snorkeling in Florida Keys, make sure not to miss out on Molasses Reef in Key Largo, Alligator Reef near Islamorada, Coffins Patch near Marathon, Looe Key near Big Pine Key and Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas National Park in Key West.
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