To see underwater kingdoms full of corals, tropical fish, eels, sharks, turtles, and other interesting sea life, Key Largo will get you covered. With some of the most beautiful reefs in all of Florida, it comes as no surprise that Key Largo snorkeling spots are among the best ones in the Florida Keys. To witness these underwater wonders, here is a list of our favorite sites.
Table of Contents
- What Is the Best Time of Year for Snorkeling in Key Largo?
- Best Key Largo Snorkeling Spots
- Turtle Rocks/Turtle Reef
- John Pennekamp Coral State Park
- Carysfort Reef Lighthouse (Carysfort Sanctuary Preservation Area)
- Elbow Reef – City of Washington Shipwreck
- Christ of the Deep – Key Largo Dry Docks
- Horseshoe Reef
- Grecian Rocks
- Banana Reef (Banana Patch Reef)
- Cannon Patch Reef
- White Banks
- Molasses Reef
- French Reef
- Pickles Reef
- Snapper Ledge Reef
- Is it safe to snorkel in Key Largo?
What Is the Best Time of Year for Snorkeling in Key Largo?
Florida’s title as the Sunshine State means that snorkeling is an all-year activity. However, certain seasons shine over others when it comes to providing ideal water conditions.
Summertime is considered the best time for Key Largo snorkeling if you want to enjoy bath-temperature waters. Generally, the period from April through August is considered prime snorkeling time in Key Largo. Getting an early start in April or May is smart for avoiding the crowds.
In addition, you need to be aware of that there is hurricane season in the area from June through September so following the weather forecast and warnings are essential if traveling during these months.
While snorkeling during the winter season is common, a wetsuit will be necessary to stay comfortable when the water temperatures dip from a warm-season average of 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30C) to around 73 degrees Fahrenheit (22.7C).
Best Key Largo Snorkeling Spots
These 14 spots offer the best conditions for snorkeling trips in Key Largo in the Upper Keys:
Turtle Rocks/Turtle Reef
Turtle Reef is a popular coral reef located on the northern extremity of the Turtle Rocks shoal that’s housed within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It is a shallow-patch reef with sandy, rocky bottom and depths of 7 feet (2.1m) in average, so it provides ideal conditions for snorkelers to take in the fantastic aquatic life.
While submerged, visitors can enjoy a range of hard corals and gorgonian n soft corals. The terrain also notably houses bountiful seagrass meadows. Additionally, the “architectural” wonder of this snorkeling site is a pair of small caves that form an archway where nurse sharks, moray eels, and turtles are commonly spotted.
The visibility at Turtle Rocks is usually excellent, however, the water can be a bit greenish; this is usual in the Upper Keys though.
John Pennekamp Coral State Park
One of the most popular spots for snorkeling in the Florida Keys, John Pennekamp Coral State Park offers access to beautiful and vibrant marine life.
This park also offers access to the only shore snorkeling spot from a public beach in all of Key Largo. Heading to Cannon Beach within John Pennekamp Coral State Park allows snorkelers to skip the need to book a spot on a boat! Snorkeling at Cannon Beach is not exceptional though; the water is often murky and there is only limited marine life to see so advanced snorkelers might not enjoy it at all.
Visitors at John Pennekamp actually prefer excursions that carry them out on the water in glass-bottom boats. By booking John Pennekamp snorkeling tours, you are signing up for an adventure in a one-of-a-kind underwater park that encompasses 70 nautical square miles of colorful reefs and rich marine life.
There are many offshore reefs within the park area, however, the most popular attraction to look for during a John Pennekamp snorkeling excursion is the bronze Christ of the Abyss underwater statue submerged near North Dry Rocks. The top of this 8-foot (2.4m) statue of Jesus Christ can clearly be seen clearly by snorkelers. You can read more on this iconic snorkel spot a little below.
Carysfort Reef Lighthouse (Carysfort Sanctuary Preservation Area)
One of the most remote reefs in the Florida Keys makes Carysfort Reef which is situated about six miles east of Key Largo. This spot is marked by a large 150-year-old lighthouse.
Approaching the lighthouse is prohibited by law, but snorkelers can enjoy crystal clear, shallow waters that are teeming with impressive staghorn and elkhorn corals around the base of the lighthouse. What’s more, the large star corals here create labyrinths of ridges and tunnels.
Divers can also look for sunken anchors and cannons left by ships dating back to the 1700s. While the Carysfort Reef Lighthouse site is known for its shallow areas with depths of just 5 feet (1.5m), it’s important to know that more treacherous spots around the reef’s northern side to 40-80ft/12/1-24/2m (this area is known as Carysfort Trench or Wall) so snorkelers should stay at and around the base of the lighthouse.
Elbow Reef – City of Washington Shipwreck
Elbow Reef is home to one of the most popular shipwrecks of the Florida Keys snorkelers can access. Built in 1877, the sunken steamship transported passengers and cargo between New York, Cuba, Panama, and Mexico before going down in Havana’s harbor. The reason why it rests in Elbow Reef today is that it got caught in the reef while being towed in 1917.
Divers and snorkelers now track down the City of Washington 25 feet (7.6m) in the water just east of Key Largo. Its hull, keel, and hollowed-out body are now home to tropical fish, nurse sharks, moray eels, and barracudas. The somewhat shallow depth of the wreck makes it a popular choice for night dives too!
Christ of the Deep – Key Largo Dry Docks
Also known as Christ of the Abyss, the Christ of the Deep Statue is the area’s most famous underwater site, therefore most Key Largo snorkeling tours make a stop here. The 8-foot (2.4m) bronze statue sits in a sand channel under 25 feet (7.6m) of water within the protected Key Largo Dry Rocks site.
Most people simply know it as Florida’s underwater Jesus statue which is a molded replica of an Italian statue that was placed into the Mediterranean Sea as a memorial for those who had lost their lives at sea.
Although the Christ of the Abyss statue is situated in deeper water, it is easily visible for snorkelers due to the site’s ultra-clear waters. In addition to being one of Key Largo’s most popular attractions for underwater photography, Christ of the Deep is also a beloved spot for underwater weddings!
Not so far from the Christ of the Abyss, Horseshoe Reef is a diverse Key Largo snorkeling site within the Key Largo Dry Rocks area that’s known for hosting Florida’s largest field of elkhorn coral.
The site also shows off massive areas of overhanging corals teeming with fluttering minnows and Goliath groupers. In addition, a vibrant mix of tropical fish, trumpetfish, barracudas, and spotted drums are abundant in 10-26 ft (3-8m) deep waters.
This snorkeling site is also a shipwreck graveyard that is peppered with old coal bricks that once fueled boat engines. Horseshoe Reef gets its name from the horse-shaped entry to the reef. According to other stories, a cargo ship ran aground here while carrying horses and 24 spare horseshoes were lost on the reef. Whatever the truth, it is an interesting spot to snorkel so make sure to add it to your itinerary when planning to go snorkeling in Florida.
Located a mile from the southern side of the Key Largo Dry Rocks, the crescent-shaped Grecian Rocks patch reef is a preferred reef over many neighboring sites due to the fact that it has slight protection from wind and waves. The maximum depth is about 30ft (9.1m) here but there are shallower areas too where the water is only 4-6ft/1.2-1.8m deep.
Giant parrotfish are known to dart among the robust elkhorn corals, soft corals and sponges at this site. Moreover, this is also one of the best spots for spotting conch shells that are responsible for giving the Florida Keys the nickname of the Conch Republic.
Banana Reef (Banana Patch Reef)
Found on the extreme end of the Grecian Rocks site, Banana Reef in Key Largo gets its name from its long, sloping shape that curves like a banana as it gets closer to sea. While the reef reaches 40ft/12.4m in spots, its top is around 10ft/3.4m making it an excellent snorkel spot.
Banana Reef’s somewhat shallow depths are responsible for the vibrancy of the coral coloring found here. Spotting stingrays and schools of fish aren’t the only exciting part about keeping your eyes out in the water here.
After the 1965 James Bond “Thunderball” movie was filmed at this reef site, the crew left behind some equipment that can still be spotted in the water today!
Cannon Patch Reef
Cannon Path is definitely one of the more understated Key Largo snorkeling sites. It is located right next to Grecian Rocks in the Key Largo Dry Rocks area. As a shallow patch reef with depths of just 4 feet (1.2m), it’s also one of the best spots for beginners and kids.
Easy doesn’t mean boring at this site! Cannon Patch’s claim to fame is that it is home to two sunken cannons. Finding the cannons in the water can be quite a challenge due to the fact that they have been enveloped by sponges and corals over the years.
Reaching a maximum depth of 15 feet (4.5m), this large snorkeling site consists of two shallow reef patches linked by a sandy channel. It is found southeast of Key Largo in the Dry Rocks area. Its ‘close to shore’ location ensures that it remains sheltered from winds and currents. As a result, White Banks is considered a great spot for beginners and kids.
While snorkeling at White Banks, expect to see healthy coral gardens with a variety of hard corals (brain, Elkhorn and Staghorn), soft corals along with a collection of colorful Florida reef fish.
This popular reef is found next to White Banks, east of the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. According to local stories, Molasses Reef gets its name from a popular legend that a barge carrying a cargo load of sticky molasses once got caught up in the reef. An old ship’s winch and Spanish anchor are interesting sightings here lying on the central side of the reef.
The reef’s location roughly 6 miles from the shore makes it one of the farthest reefs on the edge of the Great Florida Reef meaning that the water needs to be calm to have good conditions for snorkeling here. However, if you are lucky to snorkel at Molasses Reef when the ocean is smooth, you will be rewarded with crystal clear waters.
The marine life is more lively here than at other nearby reefs thanks to the reef’s outer location. Snorkelers on a Molasses Reef trip are likely to encounter hundreds of species of marine life. The area is alight with vibrant elkhorn, brain, fire, staghorn corals and soft “sea fan” corals. Snappers, nurse sharks, angelfish, and parrotfish frequent the reef. In addition, this is a top viewing spot for hawksbill and loggerhead sea turtles!
Author’s note: An interesting fact is that a large freighter ran aground on Molasses Reef in 1984 and destroyed most of the habitat. To restore the reef, corals from Pickles Reef were transplanted to the area.
Situated northeast of Molasses, 6 miles southeast of Key Largo, French Reef is a protected site in the Key Largo Existing Management Area. It has some deeper parts (80ft/24.3m) that are for divers only, but the shallow sections (3-20ft/0.9-6m) are just perfect for novice and intermediate snorkelers.
French Reef is an excellent spot for underwater photographers. The site’s many caves and crevices provide shelter for many fish and creatures so you can easily capture them while diving or snorkeling here. You can encounter barracudas, lobsters, large groupers and even sea turtles.
Located just 5 nautical miles off of Key Largo, Pickles Reef is a small coral reef that’s named after a series of barrel-shaped boulders peppering the reef came from a Civil War-era ship carrying supplies to Fort Jefferson that met its end here. Barrels on the ship eventually hardened to leave behind barrel formations!
The treat of viewing this wreck site is that a meadow of stunning purple fan corals creates a divide between the wreck and nearby sand channel. Pickle Reef is also teeming with spiny lobsters, filefish and trumpetfish. While an average depth of 15 feet (4.5m) and lack of currents, Pickles Reef offers perfect snorkeling for beginners.
Snapper Ledge Reef
This small coral island nested within the Florida National Marine Sanctuary near Pickles Reef does not belong to the Sanctuary Preservation Area but is The Coral Restoration Foundation’s official nursery for growing elkhorn coral. This is the way how scientists support the reefs’ natural recovery through the cultivation and out planting of reef-building corals.
Snapper Ledge is known for being a lively site with an abundance of colorful fish that congregate in an area known as the “fishbowl” that’s easily accessed by a swim-through area. Sightings of moray eels, grunts, snappers, nurse sharks and Florida reef fish are common. This spot offers friendly conditions for intermediate snorkelers with depths of 20-30 feet (6-9m).
Is it safe to snorkel in Key Largo?
While snorkeling throughout the Florida Keys is generally considered very safe, it’s important to take the right precautions. Pay attention to all weather conditions and advisories before departing on a snorkeling trip.
In addition, it’s important to become familiar with the depths of any diving sites you choose to ensure that they match your comfort level and ability. Wear safety accessories such as an inflatable vest if you feel you need one (gear including vest are usually provided by tour organizers).
Even though the water is comfortable enough for swimming year-round, wearing a wetsuit is not necessary most of the time, but a sun protection rash guard will come in handy in all seasons. It will help prevent not only sunburns but also jellyfish stings. Although most Florida Keys jellyfish are not harmful, it is better being safe than sorry.
Finally, snorkelers need to be aware of the dangers that exist when exploring undersea habitats. Reef creatures generally avoid humans. However, snorkelers should make an effort to keep a distance of at least 8-10 feet (2.4-m) from all rays, eels, and learn how to behave when swimming around sharks. It’s also important to avoid touching or rubbing coral because corals can puncture the skin to create dangerous infections.
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Key Largo snorkeling generally costs money if you want to enjoy a guided snorkeling excursion that includes a boat ride, guide, and snorkeling gear. However, there’s technically no charge to access the water. That means that anyone with access to a private boat can certainly go snorkeling for free. Shore snorkeling is the best way to snorkel for free in Key Largo because it doesn’t require special transportation. Cannon Beach within John Pennekamp Coral State Park is the only public beach in Key Largo that offers shore snorkeling. While the beach is public, visitors must pay the park entry fee.
Yes! Key Largo has great snorkeling for beginners, experts, and everyone in between. The robust Florida National Marine Sanctuary that covers the waters surrounding the islands provides access to many of the best dive sites for coral viewing, marine life and wrecks.
John Pennekamp Coral State Park is generally viewed as offering the best snorkeling in Key Largo because it provides access to a number of dive sites and wrecks. This park is America’s first undersea park created specifically for scuba diving and snorkeling.
While Key Largo snorkeling is possible all year, off-season snorkeling generally takes place between September and March. Snorkelers should prepare for cooler water temperatures by wearing wetsuits as the water temperature drops to 73 F/22.7C during these months. On the other hand, the perk of snorkeling outside of peak season in Key Largo is that you don’t have to deal with the last-minute interruptions caused by hurricane season from June through September.
Yes, it is possible to snorkel in Key Largo independently. Shore snorkeling can be accessed by car via Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. However, all other diving spots are offshore spots that require a boat.
Almost all snorkeling done in Key Largo is offshore snorkeling booked through a private snorkeling tour. Cannon Beach is the only beach that offers snorkeling from the shore.
Key Largo offers many shallow dive areas that are ideal for beginner snorkeling trips. The shallow sites are also considered appropriate for families with younger children. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Grecian Rocks, Snapper Ledge Reef, and White Banks are some of the best snorkeling for first-time snorkelers in Key Largo.
It’s generally agreed that both Key Largo and Key West snorkel sites are fantastic destinations when it comes to snorkeling opportunities. While both islands offer healthy, easy-to-access reefs, Key Largo boasts more interesting underwater attractions not only reefs, like the Christ of the Abyss statue in the John Pennekamp underwater park alone is enough to make Key Largo a more favorable destination for snorkeling than Key West.