John Pennekamp Snorkeling in Key Largo Florida Keys

If you are thinking about signing up for a John Pennekamp snorkeling tour when visiting Key Largo in the Florida Keys, this article will certainly help you out with useful information on visiting this state park that was founded with the purpose of preserving the only living coral reef in the continental United States. Today it is a great place for family outings where you can enjoy exploring the great outdoors, snorkeling from the shore and going on boat tours to discover the area’s finest reefs. Are you interested? Then let’s dive in!

About John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

The John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo was established in 1963 as the first undersea park of the US with the purpose of preserving and protecting the area’s coral reefs. It is named for John D. Pennekamp who was a pioneer in environment preservation and extends 3 miles into the Atlantic Ocean covering approximately 70 nautical square miles of water.

John Pennekamp State Park - Key Largo, Florida

The Coral Reef State Park is situated within the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary; these protected waters include a 2,900 square nautical miles area surrounding the Keys and give a home to coral reefs, seagrass beds and shipwrecks that provide habitat for a variety of marine life.

This high-level protection explains why participating in John Pennekamp snorkel tours provides an excellent opportunity to visit the best coral reefs of the Florida Keys.

Pennekamp Park - Nature Trail

What’s more, the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is not only one of the best snorkeling destinations in Florida but it also offers sunseekers and water lovers a fantastic opportunity to enjoy nature’s beauty.

John Pennekamp kayak, canoe rental

Swimming and camping are the most popular activities here, but you can enjoy walking the trails and learn about the local flora and fauna too. The park also offers canoe rentals; take a tour in the mangroves where you can spot alligators and small sharks!

How to get to John Pennekamp State Park?

The park is situated just 65 miles from Miami and can be reached with an approx. 90 minutes’ drive. You need to take Florida’s Turnpike south than the US 1. The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park entrance is at mile marker 102.5.

John Pennekamp road sign

The park is open every day from 8:00 a.m until sunset. There is an entrance fee, the actual prices you can check on the park’s official site where you will find all up-to-date information regarding opening times as well as about the snorkeling John Pennekamp snorkeling tours.

If you are looking for the best places to stay in Key Largo, here are our accommodation tips:

  • Playa Largo 4-star bayfront resort and spa with year-round outdoor pool, water sport options, hot tub and fire pits, great choice for couples
  • Reefhouse Resort & Marina family-friendly resort with two-bedroom suites available, excellent option for a nice break with everything on site
  • Hampton Inn affordable hotel with fantastic location very close to John Pennekamp Park

Snorkeling in John Pennekamp from shore

Although the official name of the park is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, unfortunately, you find very little coral available from shore.

John Pennekamp Cannon Beach entry point for shore snorkeling
Cannon Beach – John Pennekamp Coral State Park

The best beach for shore snorkeling is Cannon Beach where you can observe some fish and crabs hiding on the sandy sea bottom or in the seagrass. Not so far from the shore, there should be even an old cannon and anchor from a Spanish shipwreck.


Unfortunately, Cannon Beach is the only site that offers shore snorkeling in Key Largo; you might try to check the park’s other beaches too. for better options to snorkel from the shore, visit the nearby Islamorada or drive a little further and explore Key West snorkel sites.

John Pennekamp snorkeling spots

The shallow coral reefs around the John Pennekamp Coral State Park offer easy snorkeling for everyone. These reefs are situated just about 3-5 miles from the shore and available with a short boat ride so even those who use to suffer from sea sickness can safely participate in them.

Corals at John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park - Key Largo
Coral Reef in John Pennakamp State Park

There is a good amount of marine life to see at all snorkeling sites; various hard and soft coral species and colorful reef fish await you while exploring the underwater world. Snorkelers can also expect to encounter nurse sharks, sea turtles, lobsters, moray eels and eagle rays too.

Depending on the weather conditions, your tour operator or boat captain will decide which reef is the best to visit on the given day. For your safety, snorkel boats are not operating if the weather is windy, there are big waves or a storm is approaching.

Soft Corals at Pennekamp reef
Soft coral in Key Largo

Best John Pennekamp snorkel spots:

  • Grecian Rocks
  • Garrets Reef
  • White Banks
  • Banana Reef
  • Horseshoe Reefs
  • Key Largo Dry Rocks – Christ of the Abyss

Christ of the Abyss – The most popular snorkeling in John Pennekamp State Park

The best-known Key Largo snorkel spot is the Christ of Deep underwater statue. Boats only visit this snorkeling site by flat sea and calm weather conditions so you need to be lucky weather-wise to see it.

The “Christ of the Deep” statue is at Key Largo Dry Rocks reef. The 2,7 m tall (9 feet) bronze statue rests in 6 m of water (20 feet), the top of the statue is at 2,5-3 m (8-10 feet) depth.

Snorkelers at Christ of the Abyss
Snorkelers at Christ of the Abyss

The original Christ of the Abyss can be found in the Mediterranean Sea. This statue of Jesus Christ is a replica, the Underwater Society of America got it from Egidi Cressi in 1961.

Snorkel boats usually don’t go there during busy times for example on holiday weekends to avoid overcrowding. If you’d like to visit Christ of Abyss, the best is to make a special request to your tour operator or book a Key Largo private snorkeling trip.

Around the statue, you can see large brain corals, staghorn and elkhorn coral formations. Rays are common here and you can meet the big barracuda too who lives here.

Another interesting thing is, that The Christ of the Deep is a popular scuba diving site too and sometimes it works as an underwater church where divers use to have their wedding ceremony.

Tip: did you know that there is a shipwreck snorkeling trail in the Florida Keys? Check it out if you are looking for an extraordinary snorkeling experience!

Snorkeling John Pennekamp tour options

To explore the Key Largo coral reefs, you can sign up for a John Pennekamp snorkeling trip with the Coral Reef State Park or choose between many other snorkel tour operators in Key Largo.

John Pennekamp boat snorkeling tour

These companies go to the same coral reefs that the ‘original’ John Pennekamp boat trips take visitors, and the prices are very similar too, so it depends on your personal preferences which one you choose.

Sundiver snorkel tour - Key Largo

One of the best Key Largo snorkeling trips is the Sundiver Snorkel Tour. Although we chose John Pennekamp’s own tour, we recommend Sundiver too! We called them a few days prior to our trip and were asking about weather conditions, tour options, and they were super friendly and helpful!

How much is a snorkeling John Pennekamp trip?

In-house snorkel trips (departing from John Pennekamp Park visitor center/marina) are starting from 35 USD + tax for kids under 18. The adult price is 38.95 USD. This 2.5 hour long trip includes visiting one reef and you can spend approx. 1-1.5 hours in the water.

If you need assistance, personal snorkel guides are available to book. Moreover, private snorkeling charters can also be arranged upon request.

John Pennekamp glass bottom boat tours

Non-swimmers and those who do not feel comfortable swimming in the open ocean also should not give up seeing the underwater wonders of the Florida Keys. The state park offers glass bottom boat tour on a high-speed catamaran so you can get to see the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s finest coral reefs while remaining completely dry.

Tour boats - John Pennekamp

Such tours are departing several times from the park’s marine daily. Prices are starting from 32$ for adults and 19$ for kids. Reservations need to be done in advance through the park’s website.

What to bring

You can rent mask and fins, but it is an extra charge, so bring your own snorkel gear if you have your own! Snorkeling life vest is mandatory on all tours, but it is included in the price and will be handed out to everyone before the boat ride.

John Pennekamp marina snorkel gear rental

The clear water provides excellent conditions for underwater photographers; don’t leave your waterproof camera at home and you will be able to take amazing photos and film cool nature videos!

Bring a wetsuit if you find the water temperatures chilly; you can even rent one from your tour organizer. Even if you don’t need a snorkeling suit, make sure to wear UV protection clothing that will prevent getting a sunburn and helps avoid stings if you accidentally swim into a jellyfish.

Moon jelly - Key Largo - Florida

John Pennekamp coral reef conditions

Unfortunately, like all the coral reefs in the world, the Florida Barrier Reef System is experiencing declines due to factors such as climate change, human intervention and weather-related damages.

Soft corals - Grecian Rocks
Grecian Rocks Reef

Storms and hurricanes are frequent in the area and although soft corals resist stormy conditions well and can recover fast, hard corals are more sensitive to such damages.

Elkhorn and staghorn structures broke easily due to very strong waves and wind. As such coral species are growing slowly, unfortunately, it takes a longer time for them to start recovering. Generally speaking, the coral reefs in Key Largo are in acceptable condition but you will see here bleaching and dying corals too.

Sea life to see while snorkeling

While exploring the underwater world on a Key Largo snorkeling trip, you will get the opportunity of exploring Florida’s rich marine life. Among the most iconic species, snorkelers can observe hard corals (mostly brain, elkhorn, staghorn and fire corals) as well as soft corals (gorgonia sea fans, sea rods) and sponges too.

Key Largo coral and fish species

The Florida Keys supports a wide diversity of reef fish too; expect to swim along parrotfish, sergeant majors, barracudas, groupers, grunts, angelfish, butterflyfish, yellowtail snappers, filefish, trumpetfish, blue tangs.

reef fish - Key Largo

Bigger creatures can also be seen while snorkeling; nurse sharks (occasionally hammerhead sharks too), sea turtles, eagle rays frequent these waters. Common invertebrates on the reefs include sea urchins, lobster, shrimps and anemones.

Best time for snorkeling in John Pennekamp State Park

Key Largo in the Florida Keys is a year-round destination but there are some periods better than others. If you want clear sky and pleasant climate, choose the spring months.

The sea temperature is only 73-75 F (23-24 C) during this season so you will need a wetsuit for snorkeling, but the conditions generally are very good for water activities.

man wearing wetsuit while snorkeling at a Grecian Rocks reef

The sea is the hottest during the summer 83-86 F (28-30 C), but this is the rainy season with heavy rainfalls so the weather can force you to cancel your trips and change your plans. However, moderate hotel prices are moderate during these months.

Fall is the hurricane season. If you would schedule your visit for the months when there is a chance for hurricane activity, make sure to have good travel insurance in case of emergency and always follow the weather forecast.

Winter is the peak season with pleasant sea and air temperatures. Prices are higher and you find more people on the beaches, especially around Christmas and Eastern but if you don’t mind crowds and higher prices, weather-wise it is a good time for a John Pennekamp snorkeling experience!

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John Pennekamp snorkeling tips

Anett Szaszi

Anett is a certified scuba diver, freediver and an expert in snorkeling with more than 10 years experience. She fell in love with the ocean when she put her head underwater in the Red Sea in 2008. Since then , she is traveling all over the world to discover our waters. Wherever she goes, she takes her mask, fins and underwater camera with her. Visiting mega-cities is not her style but getting lost in tiny coastal villages, capturing the beauty of the sea while snorkeling. She is interested in sustainable traveling and marine conservation. She is hoping to inspire people to protect our oceans by sharing her underwater stories. Find her photos on @anett.szaszi Instagram too!