The Florida panhandle often flies under the radar when talking about prime tropical destinations, but if you’re into the beach lifestyle (and near year-round snorkeling), you’ll find that it has a lot going for it.
Not only does the area have some of the most excellent, fluffy white-sand beaches in the country, but the best Florida panhandle snorkeling certainly can go toe-to-toe with other more notable snorkeling destinations in the state like the Florida Keys. That’s pretty special considering it’s a spot that is easily less than a day’s drive from half of the country.
So long as you’re not looking for crowded theme parks or endless nightlife (which have their places, but we’re focusing on the snorkeling here!), it’s easy to have an awesome trip to places like Destin, Panama City or Pensacola that offer plenty of sand between your toes and excellent spots for snorkeling.
There truly are dozens (and dozens) of spots to snorkel in the area. But with such a plethora of spots comes the need for a bit of knowledge about Florida’s Emerald Coast. As with most anywhere, some of the spots are duds and the best Florida panhandle snorkeling isn’t always where you think it might be.
But, fear not — we’ll take a look at where to find the best Florida panhandle snorkeling for your trip.
The best Florida panhandle snorkeling can be found at Henderson Beach State Park, East Pass Jetty and Norriego Point near Destin, Pensacola Beach Gulf Snorkel Reef near Pensacola, Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary near Navarre, and St. Andrews State Park and Shell Island near Panama City.
Let’s take a look at each spot and what you need to know to have a great time.
Even before you hit the water, Henderson Beach State Park near Destin starts off strong.
The walk (and drive) in is incredibly scenic with 30-foot white sand dunes nestled against emerald waters along more than a mile of usually-uncrowded coastline.
What makes Henderson Beach special and a contributor to the best Florida panhandle snorkeling is a few different things.
First, the access is so easy, yet it’s rarely crowded, which is such a benefit. You can effortlessly drive to the parking area, grab your gear, walk down the beach and then straight into the water. And, since it’s a state park, the clientele is typically more sparse and also more chill and nature-focused which is not always the case at your typical public beach.
Next, the water is incredible. The temperature is excellent and refreshing (usually 75-80 degrees most of the year), and the water is typically really, really clear and a beautiful emerald color thanks to the sun bouncing off of the white sand underneath the surf. Since it’s a sandy-bottom swim, you aren’t going to see a ton of coral or other natural marine structures, but it’s easy to spot plenty of fish and other sea life like a passing pod of dolphins, if you’re lucky.
Finally, it’s all about the sea turtles! Henderson Beach State Park is a crucial nesting ground for loggerhead sea turtles so it’s not uncommon to see them passing through the waters off of the beach, especially in the summer months.
All of this pushes the park into some of the best Florida panhandle snorkeling near Destin, but should you want to mix it up a bit, Henderson Beach is also a great spot for camping, hiking, fishing and biking, and does have restrooms and showers available.
Henderson Beach State Park costs $6 per vehicle for up to 8 people to enter, and is open from 8am to sundown every day of the year.
The East Pass Jetty (along with the Destin West Jetty across the way) is one of the most popular places to snorkel near Destin, and for good reason. The East Pass Jetty is definitely some of the best Florida panhandle snorkeling in the area.
The jetties are actually man-made rock walls built to protect the adjacent inlet from currents, tides, sediment, etc., but another benefit is that they provide an excellent spot for marine life to set up shop.
Not only do the rocks give beautiful fish, crabs, octopuses, and plenty else a nice place to hang out with some shelter, but over time coral has been growing on the submerged rocks which has created a reef ecosystem that is flourishing.
The jetties also keep a lot of the waves from reaching their far sides, so it can be a really nice, calmer place to snorkel and swim, which is especially helpful for those newer to snorkeling.
You can reach the East Pass Jetty by car and on foot (park at the O’Steen Public Beach Access [map] and walk south). From there, just find a spot with easy entry into the water near the rocks on the north side of the jetty, put on your gear and go for it.
Easy beach access to snorkeling is always great, but it is also a fairly large area, and the equally-great Destin West Jetty across the inlet is no longer accessible by car or on foot. Plus, the snorkeling gets really good in some spots which are realistically only accessible by boat, so it’s not a bad place to do a snorkeling tour.
Pretty much all snorkel tours from the Destin area will stop near East Pass Jetty, and likely our favorite tour is the snorkel and dolphin sightseeing tour with Beach Weekend Marina (here on Viator).
Being able to both get to some of the best Florida panhandle snorkeling near Destin and see dolphins (bottlenose dolphins are really common in the area) is huge for us, plus the guides and boat staff really know the area well which gives us a leg up over going at it ourselves. They also do a great job with kids and snorkelers of different experience levels, so this ends up being a great tour no matter your group dynamic.
Whereas the East Pass Jetty (above) is located on the southwest corner of Holiday Isle, Norriego Point is on the northwest corner, so it’s right nearby. That means you get a lot of the same benefits, but also some differences.
As far as similarities go, it’s in a very similar location (of course), the water is protected by the jetties as well as the point itself so water is usually very calm, and there are a lot of fish (even some bigger ones like possible tarpon, wahoo, grouper, or mahi mahi) to see off of the shore. You can also easily just walk straight into the water and see plenty of fish.
The main difference, though, is essentially what the area is made of and how it impacts snorkeling. Instead of it being made entirely of larger rocks like the East Pass Jetty, Norriego Point is a natural sand peninsula. The downside of this is that there are fewer places for fish to hide and coral to grow (though you’ll still see plenty of fish), but the upside is that there’s a fantastic beach here coupled with more of the best Florida panhandle snorkeling.
If you need to choose between East Pass Jetty and Norriego Point, I would chose East Pass Jetty if you’re looking for the absolute best snorkeling between the two, or Norriego Point if I also want a great place to relax and spend a morning or afternoon alongside some still-great snorkeling.
The waters off of Norriego Point are also frequented by snorkel tours, so the snorkeling and dolphin watching tour (Viator) mentioned under East Pass Jetty will also help you get better access to this area.
Just southeast of Pensacola, the local government in 2011 built and installed an artificial reef about 500 feet off shore of Park East as part of an effort to combat the effects of previous lost reefs in the area. That’s great — artificial reefs are really benefitting marine ecosystems all over the world — but they also provide excellent snorkeling opportunities where there may not have been any before.
And that’s definitely the case with Pensacola Beach Gulf Snorkel Reef and it is for sure some of the best Florida panhandle snorkeling around.
This one is for stronger swimmers and more experienced snorkelers since the reef is about 500 feet off shore into the Gulf of Mexico, as mentioned, and in somewhat deeper water. But, if that describes you, the artificial reef is a fantastic opportunity to experience a bustling reef in the Florida panhandle with tons of fish and even small sharks, sea turtles and the occasional passing dolphin pod.
Locating the reef is made easy by the orange-topped locator poles on the beach at the easternmost tip of Park East (map). Just align yourself with those and swim roughly 500 feet straight out from the beach and you’ll hit the reef (it’s quite large, so it’s tough to miss).
(If you’re a less experienced snorkeler who might not feel comfortable swimming out into the gulf, there’s also the Pensacola Beach Bay Snorkel Reef on the bay side of the island where the Gulf Snorkel Reef is anchored. You’ll still want to be a strong swimmer since the waters are typically 7-10 feet deep, but the waters will usually be much calmer at the Bay Snorkel Reef. To find it, park at the Fort Pickens Road parking lot (map), head straight north to the beach and look for the orange pole markers.)
The 150-acre Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary houses 3 complexes of artificial reef systems along the sands of Santa Rosa Island, and as you might guess, they’re also some of the best Florida panhandle snorkeling that you can find in the area.
The reefs are becoming well established and attract a variety of fish, crabs, cephalopods (like octopuses) as well as some sea turtles, all with easy access from the beach. Two of the reef systems are built off of the northern sound coast of the island with another on the opposite southern gulf side (look for the signs and maps in the park).
The marine park is also well developed and much better for a family day than most areas. The park houses plenty of facilities like picnic areas, bathrooms and showers, kayak launches and the like, and it even has an on-site sea turtle conservation center along with a marine science education center, both great for kids.
One of the unique things about Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary is that if you feel like changing it up a bit from snorkeling, a clear-bottom kayak is a lot of fun to take over the reefs. Especially at night, which is exactly what Glow Paddle’s night glow kayak tour (on Viator) does. It’s a trip.
Navarre Beach also boasts Florida’s longest pier at 1,545 feet long where you can rent fishing gear and buy bait to try your hand at snagging a fish dinner in the waters off of the pier.
If you don’t have your own snorkel gear, you can rent what you need from the concessions in the park and there are several lifeguard towers along the waters which may help newer snorkelers to feel more at ease.
St. Andrews State Park is one of the nicest parks along the coast of the Florida panhandle, and conveniently, it also houses some of the best Florida panhandle snorkeling near Panama City.
Nestled between St. Andrews Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, the park is essentially split into two parts: the main part of the park (open from 8am until sundown, 365 days a year with a entry fee of $8/vehicle), which you can easily drive to, and Shell Island (outlined in the next section), which is only possible to take a boat to.
On the main side of St. Andrews State Park (the focus of this section), by far the best snorkeling is found along its jetties at the southern-most point of the main park area. The jetty system is huge with plenty of structures for fish and other marine life to congregate around, and the water depth is really modest (typically around 3-15 feet), so it’s easy to feel like you’re part of the habitat.
It’s also easy to slip into the water off of the jetty (once you enter the park, just follow the signs to get there) and have a great experience exploring the rocks alongside diverse marine life in clear water. But, as is similar to the East Pass Jetty above, some of the best spots are in nooks and crannies and other spots that are tougher to get to without a boat, so a tour snorkel tour of the area is a good option if you really want a top-level experience.
Near all snorkel tours from the Panama City area will go through the St. Andrews waters, and probably our favorite one is the snorkel and dolphin sightseeing tour with Captain Zach (at Viator).
Captain Zach really does a fantastic job piecing all of the various parts of the tour together (snorkeling, boating, dolphin seeking, etc.) to make for a really fun trip, and his ability to find where the resident bottlenose dolphins are hanging out that day is particularly impressive. I’m big on both snorkeling and dolphins (who isn’t?), so this is a no-brainer for us.
If you have a slightly larger group or just want more autonomy, B By The Sea Adventures’ snorkel and dolphin tour with Captain Brittany (here on Viator) is also well-executed, but instead with your own private boat and the ability to flex the itinerary to what you want to see most.
The other “half” of St. Andrews State Park is Shell Island, just across an inlet into St. Andrews Bay from the main area of the park, and it provides a completely different experience than the jetties on the west side.
South of the main part of the park, Shell Island is a 7-mile long undeveloped barrier island with expansive beaches and lots of nature that feels removed from the gleaming condos of Panama City. There are tons of spots to snorkel, kayak, hike and plenty else to scratch your nature itch. Sea turtles and bottlenose dolphins are frequently seen here as well.
The best snorkeling on Shell Island is at its west end off of the island’s own jetty structure, tucked back a bit behind a point that faces the Gulf of Mexico. Not only can you see a ton of marine life off of the jetty, but its protected position means the water is very much on the calmer side and great for a variety of snorkelers.
Shell Island is only reachable by boat, which means you either need to take the Shell Island Shuttle (a ferry for which you can buy tickets at the park’s concessions area, and which also provides snorkel rentals if you need it) or take a tour.
If we have the time, we always like to take a tour because the local knowledge of the guides is always going to top our best guesses about an area, and I really like Island Time Sailing’s snorkel and dolphin catamaran cruise to Shell Island (here on Viator). The crew is awesome, the boat is high energy, and you’ll be able to sneak in some snorkeling and dolphin watching before the drinks start getting passed around 🙂. It’s not a bad way to do some of the best Florida panhandle snorkeling near Panama City.
The spots for the best Florida panhandle snorkeling near Destin, Panama City and Pensacola are great since very few of them actually require a boat to get to, but there are some cool opportunities for excellent local tours (outlined above) to be able to find the best areas with the most marine life.
Plus, if you’re into scouting the Emerald Coast’s famous bottlenose dolphins, the snorkel tours are going to be by far your best way to do that since the dolphins are almost always further offshore than snorkelers would typically go.
If you’re working independently and are visiting the Best Florida Panhandle Snorkeling sites from this list on your own, your best bet for both water clarity and calmer currents is typically to visit from 2 hours before high tide to slack high tide (essentially the peak of high tide). You can check the tide report here for Destin, Panama City and Pensacola before going.
The Deep Dive
The Florida panhandle is so easily accessible from much of the U.S. and it’s a great spot for a winter (or really, any other season) getaway. But, so many visitors only focus on the powdery white sand beaches and chill vibes (both great!) yet don’t know that the area’s jetties, artificial reefs and state parks are actually excellent for snorkeling as well.
However, with the information from this article, you’ll be well equipped with knowledge on the best spots, times to go, and local tours to experience the best Florida panhandle snorkeling that you can.
If you’re planning a snorkeling trip to Florida, check out some of our other resources on snorkeling in Florida and snorkel travel in general: