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Located just 90 minutes south of Miami, Islamorada is a popular vacation destination in the Florida Keys thanks to its scenic views, small-town vibe and a wide variety of water activities. Although it is best known for its excellent fishing, water sports are also popular here making the area a great choice to visit for snorkelers and divers. Nearly all Islamorada snorkeling spots are designated Sanctuary Preservation Areas (SPAs) within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary so you can expect to find healthy reefs and rich marine life here. To learn sites are worth visiting, here is a summary of the best ones.
If you want to skip boat fees and enjoy snorkeling from the beach, you should visit Founders Park. Considered the jewel of Islamorada, this 40-acre recreational area is a gateway to clear water and exceptional shore snorkeling conditions. It’s common to spot reef fish, spiny lobsters, eagle rays, seahorses, sea stars or a nurse shark in the seagrass meadow just off the shore.
Getting about 20 yards from the jetty wall presents opportunities to see sponges and feathery corals. The area here has even been known to attract Florida manatees too, you so might even bump into this friendly “sea potato”!
With shallow, calm water that’s free of currents and undertows Founders Park has some of the best snorkeling in Islamorada for beginners and kids. The park is located directly next to the Overseas Highway at MM 87. It can get really busy over the weekends so if you can, come on a weekday!
Hen and Chickens Reef
Hen and Chickens Reef is situated just a few miles off Plantation Key in the middle of Hawk Channel. The fact that it is available with a short boat ride and has calm, shallow waters make this the best place to snorkel in Islamorada for novice snorkelers and families with kids.
This shallow patch has a unique “personality” among the area’s reefs because it resembles a mother hen (a bigger reef) surrounded by little “chickens” aka smaller reefs. This feature gives the area a varied underwater landscape with many channels and small caverns where marine life can hide.
Snorkelers can expect to find an array of soft and hard corals here such as sea rods, soft sponges, sea fans, star coral, brain coral, fire coral and many other sea creatures like Christmas Tree Worms at depths of just 5 to 20 feet (1.5-6m).
An array of reef fish (electric-blue tangs, angelfish, butterflyfish, sergeant majors, grunts, trumpetfish, parrotfish and wrasses) will make you feel like swimming in an aquarium while snorkeling at Hen and Chickens Reef! What’s more, Hawksbill sea turtles are also known to wade in this spot!
Reaching depths of 5 to 80 feet (1.5-24m), the Davis Reef Islamorada snorkeling site is famed for its submerged Buddha statue that sits 20ft/6m below the surface. It was placed in the water with the purpose of creating a similar underwater attraction like the Jesus Status in Key Largo.
An interesting fact is that the original statue was stolen so the current one is a replacement. People use to rub the Buddha’s belly for good luck so it you know how to hold your breath a little longer and can freedive, you can do that too!
The underwater ledge portion of Davis Reef is one of the hottest spots for observing Caribbean-like underwater life in the Upper Keys. It’s common for snorkelers to spot grunts, groupers, snapper, parrotfish, butterflyfish, angelfish but also green eels, eagle rays, nurse and reef sharks too! You can get to Davis Reef daily from launching points in Windley Key, Lower Plantation Key, and Upper Matecumbe Key.
Crocker Reef – Crocker Ridges
Situated near Davis Reef, on the southeast of Plantation Key, Crocker Reef is a deeper reef site that’s not contained within the Florida Keys Sanctuary Preservation Area. Although it is primarily a dive site due to its depths (30 feet to 60 feet in most spots, 9-18 meters) it has some shallower areas (up to 20ft/6m) that can be suitable for snorkeling too if the water conditions are calm and clear.
For those seeking a coral wonderland, a sloping area at the reef’s south end follows a wall painted with coral formations. This reef off Islamorada is known for its incredible sea life so it is an excellent place for seeing large fish and huge barrel sponges.
Indian Key Historic State Park
Located a few hundred yards From Florida’s U.S. 1 and reachable easily by kayak, Indian Key is a family-friendly snorkeling spot in Islamorada. You can launch your kayak between MM 77 and 79.
On this uninhabited island, you will not only discover the region’s marine life but can trace ruins of old buildings too! To learn about the location and the ruins, read the information boards that are placed all over the island.
The best area to snorkel on Indian Key is the island’s Atlantic Ocean-facing side. Depths here reach just 5-10 feet (1.5-3 meters) and although there is no real reef here, the shallow sunlit waters allow ocean life to thrive here.
Expect to see small coral patches, reef fish, lobsters and conchs. What’s more, sometimes even nurse sharks can be found resting under rocks or swimming over the seagrass meadow.
As this island is not situated on the barrier reef, the water might be greenish but thanks to its shallowness, the visibility remains fair enough to see interesting sea creatures. You might occasionally bump into jellyfish too, but you should not be worried about them as most common jellies in the Florida Keys (for example Moon and Cannonball Jellyfish) are not dangerous.
Also known as Cheeca Gardens, this patch reef offers depths of 10 to 20 feet (3-6 meters). This large inshore reef near Upper Matecumbe Key is a great spot to go snorkeling in Islamorada for families due to its calm conditions, easy shore access, and great presentation of vibrantly colored tropical fish.
While conditions are calm enough at Cheeca Rocks to make it a great spot for learning how to snorkel in Islamorada, the waters are shockingly abundant with sea life including parrotfish, angelfish, butterflyfish, snappers, green moray eels and healthy brain corals.
The main attraction at Cheeca Rocks is a large coral head that locals call Rick’s Rock. Additionally, you can see turtles and nurse sharks too and spotting a queen conch is also common here!
Alligator Reef Lighthouse
A 136-foot (41 meters) lighthouse marks the Alligator Reef Lighthouse dive and snorkel site just a mile from Indian Key, about 30 minutes from the shore.
Considered one of the most interesting Islamorada snorkeling spots, this is the place where the USS Alligator sank in shallow waters in 1825 after coming under siege from pirates. To prevent pirates from taking over the ship, the crew blew it into two pieces on the ocean floor.
The remains of the ship turned the area into an artificial reef -which became one of the biggest reefs in the Upper Keys- that gives home to an array of sea life. Expect to see here schools of yellowtail snappers, barracudas, parrotfish, blue tangs and sergeant majors, especially around and under the lighthouse structure.
You may encounter a spotted eagle ray, a sea turtle, or a shark too. In terms of corals, you will find here mostly soft species like sea fans and rods as well as sponges.
Perfect for everyone from experts to beginners, Alligator Reef Lighthouse offers depths ranging from 8 feet to 40 feet (2.4-12m). Situated on the outer Florida Barrier Reef, this site has clear water with fantastic visibility.
San Pedro Shipwreck
The popular Florida Keys snorkeling shipwreck, San Pedro is the oldest wreckage in the area. In July of 1733, this 287-ton Dutch-built ship, a member of the Spanish Treasure Fleet, was brought down by a hurricane.
It wasn’t until 1960 that the wreckage was discovered in Hawk Channel near Indian Key. Efforts to preserve the remains of the vessel helped to create what stands today as a popular underwater attraction covering an area that’s 90 feet (27.5m) long by 30 feet (9.1m) wide.
While ballast stones are all that remain of the original ship, anchor and cannon replicas have been added to enhance the experience when the area was turned into an underwater archaeological preserve. The wreckage can be easily accessed and seen by snorkelers too as it rests in just 18 feet (5.4m) of water.
Does Islamorada have good snorkeling?
Islamorada offers excellent snorkeling for families and beginners due to the shallow depths at its popular diving sites. Snorkelers don’t have to go “far and deep” to see amazing corals and sea life, they get to enjoy robust sightings of species that are typically found at much deeper dive sites.
Can you snorkel from shore in Islamorada?
Like most top snorkel spots in Florida Keys, Islamorada’s finest reefs require mooring of a boat, but Islamorada also has some spots that offer shore snorkeling. One is Founders Park where you can have easy shore access to shallow seagrass meadows and reef sites featuring basic, but interesting marine life including reef fish, lobsters, nurse sharks and maybe manatees too. The other site where shore snorkeling is possible is Indian Key Historic State Park, however first you need to get to this little island by kayak which takes about 30 minutes.
Where can I snorkel in Islamorada without a boat?
Islamorada shore snorkeling sites include Founders Park and Indian Key Historic State Park. However, a kayak is required to get to the latter one.
Is snorkeling safe in Islamorada?
The snorkeling conditions are generally considered safe at the reefs near Islamorada as the reefs are not too deep and the water is usually calm. However, currents and rough seas can be present anytime so make sure to go on an underwater adventure only if there is no weather warning. For safety, wearing proper gear that includes a high-quality mask, snorkel and fins and using a flag are highly recommended.
Is snorkeling better in Islamorada or Key Largo?
Islamorada and Key Largo offer very similar snorkeling conditions with relatively shallow patch reefs and clear waters. Most snorkel sites require boat access at both locations and there are only a few spots for beach snorkeling. However, the vibes are different in Islamorada and Key Largo. For travelers seeking a high-energy tourist spot with more attractions, Key Largo is the obvious choice. For travelers seeking a restful time in a laid-back beach village, Islamorada delivers a better fit.
Is Islamorada or Marathon better for snorkeling?
Both Islamorada and Marathon offer beginner-friendly shallow reef sites with shore entry. However, Marathon’s 16 islands outnumber Islamorada’s six islands. Overall, snorkelers at both locations can expect to see similar populations of sea life. Popular snorkeling spots in Marathon that are comparable to the best Islamorada snorkeling sites include Sombrero Reef, Coffins Patch, and Looe Key Reef.
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