If you’re planning a U.S.-based vacation that isn’t Hawaii (maybe next year!) and you’ve been known to do a little (or a lot) of travel snorkeling in your day, you would be hard-pressed to do better than the Florida Keys for your next trip.
You’ll easily find some of the clearest water, most abundant fish, and healthiest reefs in this part of the world. Not bad for a destination that’s so highly accessible (compared to a lot of great snorkeling in the world).
Plus, when you’re not donning your mask and snorkel, the Keys boast incredible beaches, food, and amenities that can be tough to find in a lot of tropical destinations around the world.
But, as with any destination, it pays to know the lay of the land (or sea) and what kind of snorkel spots fit your style best (e.g., Do you love off-shore snorkeling? Do you prefer to snorkel from the shore closer to civilization? Etc.) Fortunately, the Florida Keys have an excellent diversity of epic snorkel spots, and the information below will go a long way toward a great experience in the water.
So put that slice of key lime pie and that chilled coconut off to the side for just a moment and let’s take a look at the best snorkeling in the Florida keys.
The best snorkeling in the Florida Keys can be found at Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Zachary Taylor State Park (near Key West), Looe Key Reef (near Big Pine Key), Sombrero Key Reef (near Marathon), Cheeca Rocks and Alligator Reef (near Islamorada), and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (near Key Largo).
The Florida Keys are expansive, but thanks to wonderful highway infrastructure, it only takes about two hours to drive from the northeastern keys (Key Largo) to the southwestern keys (Key West), and you’ll be able to find a lot of snorkeling everywhere in between.
But, you do need to know where to look (or where to focus your stays) for the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys.
For example, the lower-most keys (e.g., Key West and its neighbors) and the upper-most keys (e.g., Key Largo and its neighbors) aren’t generally known for tip-top snorkeling since the reefs and conditions are bit different. Instead, the middle keys (Big Pine, Marathon, Islamorada, etc.) really take the cake for the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys.
However, if you have travel planned to upper or lower keys, don’t worry! There are still some gems to be found there, and we’ll walk through those as well.
You’ll also need to know the best way to get to some of these spots, be it by public ferry, snorkel tour, or easily by car, and we’ll make sure to include that information as well.
Let’s check out our picks for the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys, starting from most southwestern (lower keys) and working our way up to the northwest (upper keys).
How many national parks in the U.S. can you snorkel in? Not many. So, it’s pretty special to be able to do just that at Dry Tortugas National Park in the Florida Keys.
You may have noticed that one pin on the map above looked a little… far west. That’s Dry Tortugas, about 70 nautical miles west of Key West. It’s a bit out there, but that kind of ends up being half the fun as it ends up being a little adventure (in a good way) to get there.
To get to the park, you’ll take a high-speed catamaran ferry, the Yankee Freedom III, from Key West which takes around 2 hours and 15 minutes starting at about 7am. Fortunately, the ferry is plenty comfortable, has food available, and even boasts a full-on bar, so the journey is a lot better than your typical ferry.
(You can book tickets on the Yankee Freedom III ferry here on Viator. Tickets are $200/person roundtrip anywhere you book, which sounds steep, but it’s less of a ferry ticket and more of a full-day experience with the ferry transport, entry into the national park, a light breakfast and a lunch, snorkel gear rental if you need it, a tour at the park, etc.)
Once you arrive at Dry Tortugas, you’ll dock on the main island which holds a 19th-century fort (Fort Jefferson) and is surrounded by 6 other islands which comprise the Dry Tortugas National Park. You’ll have the opportunity to take a 45-60 minute tour of the fort, if you like, which does have an interesting history through the Civil War and up to today.
But after that, it’s time for some snorkeling! And we’re looking for some of the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys, of course.
There are several main spots to snorkel in and around the island, and the majority of them are right on the beach and are great for beginners. You’ll still see plenty of fish and be able to glide through the beautiful clear water having an excellent time (and the beach itself is fantastic as well).
But, if you’re more of an intermediate or advanced snorkeler, you’ll find the best spots about 50-75 yards (the water isn’t that deep, but it takes a few minutes to swim out) from the beach on the far west side of the island. Out there you’ll find several surprisingly healthy mini-reefs with tons of fish and a lot to explore with dolphins and sea turtles routinely sighted here. Ask one of the ferry guides to point you in the right direction if you’re an experienced snorkeler and this sounds like your jam.
You can easily spend a couple of hours snorkeling at Dry Tortugas, which makes it probably the best snorkeling in the lower keys and also some of the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys overall.
After plenty of snorkeling and beach time, you’ll board the ferry mid-afternoon and head back to Key West. It all makes for a great day!
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park is your other solid option for the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys if you find yourself in Key West.
As the name suggests, it’s a state park, which means it’s well maintained with some amenities like snorkel rentals, drinking water fountains, bathrooms, showers, fort exploration, and food and refreshments. This won’t be your most remote snorkeling (if that’s what you’re looking for), but all of this makes it really easy to for the park to be a great day trip for not only snorkeling, but laying out on a beautiful beach, hiking, fishing, swimming and anything else you might want from a prime tropical spot like this.
The best snorkeling lies just off the beach (no boat or tour required) around the various rock mounds that you can see from the sand since that’s where the majority of the fish are going to congregate. It’s a great spot for snorkelers of all skill levels since it’s deep enough for a nice swim but not so deep that you need to be an advanced snorkeler.
If you don’t have your own fins, it’s a great idea to have water shoes (we like the ALEADER Men’s Mesh Slip-On Water Shoes [Amazon] for men or the same ALEADER shoe version for women [Amazon]) here since it can get a little pebbly in the water here. And, make sure to shuffle your feet through the sand if you’re walking in the water to avoid stepping on any resting stingrays since the area is a great spot for these unique animals to get a little downtime.
The state park charges $6 for a vehicle entry and then 50 cents for each passenger after the driver, which is well worth it if you’re pining for a little extra snorkeling during your stay in Key West.
As we move northeast into the middle keys, we’re going to start seeing some absolutely fantastic snorkeling, and Looe Key Reef off of Big Pine Key absolutely fits that bill. It’s definitely in the running for the top spot in any list of the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys.
The downside is that since it’s on the edge of the barrier reef, it is offshore (so a boat is needed) and it is deeper with a bit more current (less experienced snorkelers should have a life jacket and a snorkel guide), but that also means there’s a ton more to see and you have a higher chance of seeing larger marine life like nurse sharks, grouper, dolphins, sea turtles, and plenty else. It’s a snorkeling haven!
This is a snorkel spot where it’s essential to have a good snorkel tour, not only because you need a boat to get there, but also with it being a larger open-water area, local knowledge goes a long way toward finding the best spots to jump in.
Our favorite guide company to go with when in Big Pine Key is Keys Boat Tours who offers an excellent private tour out to Looe Key Reef (here on Viator). Captain Brian bends over backwards to make sure every group has an awesome time and his knowledge of the reef system seems unmatched, both of which go a long way toward an awesome day. He does a great job with novice snorkelers as well.
Private snorkel tours are always my favorite, though the price may initially put you off. However, if you can include even three snorkelers in your group, you’re paying less per person than a lot of shared-boat snorkel tours in Hawaii.
Once you get out to Looe Key Reef, not only are you likely to be wowed by the amount of sea life, but the coral reef itself is actually alive and pretty well thriving, which is an incredible rarity today all across the world. Looe Key Reef is special for that reason, and absolutely some of the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys.
Like Looe Key Reef above, Sombrero Key Reef makes a play for the top spot in all of the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys with great topography, a perfect depth for snorkeling, lots of healthy coral and more fish than you could shake a stick at (but why would you?) It’s another snorkeling paradise.
I really dig the underwater topography here since there are a lot of channels and little canyons of coral and rocks that you can swim through in relatively shallow water (6-10 feet) or sometimes a little deeper up to around 20 feet (perfect if you want to get a little diving in). The coral and sea life are plentiful (even teeming) and in good shape, and the water visibility is usually much better here than closer to shore.
Like most of the best spots in the Keys, you’ll need a tour and boat to get there (even worthwhile just for the snorkel guide) and we like Rob over at Attractions4us who puts on a great tour to Sombrero Reef on his comfortable catamaran (here on Viator).
Not only does Rob make the day fun, this tour is actually per-person. Most snorkel tours in the Keys are on private boats, which are great if you have more than a couple of people to share the cost, but if you only have one or two people, the shared tour is a lot more economical.
And, even though this is a shared tour, it’s limited to 6 people, so the chaos of big groups won’t be there and you’ll still get plenty of guide help should you need it.
If you’re truly looking for the very best snorkeling in the Florida Keys, Sombrero Key Reef absolutely needs to be on your list.
Cheeca Rocks is another excellent snorkeling spot in the middle keys just a short boat ride from Islamorada, but what makes it extra special is that you can potentially pair it with Alligator Reef (outlined below), depending on which tour you choose, and hit two spots with the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys in one go.
The depth here is again perfect for snorkeling (around 6 to 20 feet) and you’ll be sure to see plenty of sponges, coral, fish and maybe even a sea turtle or nurse shark. It’s also only about half way between the key and the barrier reef further out, so it’s a bit easier and quicker to get to.
As far as tours go, the private boat with Captain Sam (Samantha) at KeyZ Charters (here on Viator) is my recommendation.
The biggest benefit to this tour is that, weather and time dependent, you’ll hit both Cheeca Rocks and Alligator Reef. It’s not possible to double up on any of the other best snorkeling in the Florida Keys spots on the rest of this list, so it’s huge to be able to do that, especially with a knowledgeable and fun guide (who is actually a marine biologist).
The tour can take up to 6 folks, so you may want to bring a few friends or family members to spread the cost per person out a bit (or not — don’t let me limit you), but in any case, you’re going to see a lot of fish and other marine life at two of the best spots in the Keys which are a lot easier to get to than a lot of the other places on this list. Winning.
Alligator Reef is just a touch further out toward the barrier reef than Cheeca Rocks (outlined above), but still easy to reach by boat. Once you’re there, you’ll find even clearer water (the farther out you go, the more clear the water tends to be) in a surprisingly shallow reef which is fun because you really feel like you’re “in it” and a part of the ecosystem while you’re there.
Also, don’t worry, alligators are not patrolling the area despite the name. 🙂
There are a lot of excellent spots to snorkel around Alligator Reef (a good guide will make sure you find them), but one of the most fun is around a lighthouse along the edge of the reef. Consistently, you fill find scores and scores (I mean, like, thousands) of fish congregating here. It’s a unique experience to see so many fish in one place, and just a ton of fun.
There is also a lot to see in the deeper water around the reef where larger species like barracuda, nurse sharks, grouper and bigger fish like to hang out.
Another excellent option for a tour that can take you to both Alligator Reef and potentially Cheeca Rocks is again with KeyZ Charters on their eco and snorkeling tour (here on Viator).
While the KeyZ tour mentioned under Cheeca Rocks above is pretty heavily snorkeling focused, this tour throws in some bird and nature watching in the mangroves and a bit of time at the famous Islamorada Sandbar in addition to the snorkeling.
So, this may be your go-to if you want a little diversity in your tour, but they’re always flexible so you can tailor it a bit to your needs. Plus, it’s with the same great people, so no matter which tour you go with, you’re set up for a fun day.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is probably the most popular jumping off point for snorkeling in and around Key Largo, though its its inclusion on this list is a slight misnomer.
The park itself is great (it was actually the country’s first undersea park) with a lots of opportunities for kayaking, fishing, camping, hiking and beachgoing. The snorkeling itself is nice as well, with plenty of chances to see fish in a seagrass-bottomed enclosed bay, and even explore the remains of a Spanish shipwreck a bit further out.
But, the best pure snorkeling — and what pushes this area into the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys list — is actually in the waters just outside the park boundaries in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Areas like Molasses Reef, Dry Rocks, and Sea Gardens are are excellent and provide a chance to snorkel with a lot of coral, both hard and soft, along with plenty of fish and other marine life. There’s also the 9-foot tall bronze Christ of the Abyss statue that was sunk about 60 years ago near Dry Rocks that makes for a unique swim.
To get to the best waters for snorkeling near the state park, a snorkel tour is again best. In general, each tour has access to all of the best waters and it will just depend a bit on conditions on the day of your trip which specific spots you visit, but it’s tough to go wrong in these waters.
As far as tours go, Pirates Cove Watersports does a great job with their half-day snorkel trip (here on Viator) to the waters around John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Their guides have always been friendly and knowledgeable about the area and also do really well with getting new snorkelers up and running.
With Pirates Cove, you’ll hit two different snorkeling spots near the state park (likely two of the ones mentioned above, but there are more out there that might make the most sense for the day) and snorkel gear, snorkel vests and even reef-safe sunscreen is provided.
Plus, it’s a shared tour (more rare in the keys), so it’s plenty affordable if you only have a couple of people in your group.
I’ve hopefully provided you with some useful links above to the snorkel tours in the Florida Keys with which I’ve had the best experiences, and those should get you a long way toward having an excellent day at any of the spots for the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys on this list.
Keep in mind, most snorkel and dive tours in the Florida Keys tend to be with private boats, so the overall cost is higher though if you have even a few people in your group they can become really economical. But, you can find some shared tours here and there which bring the cost way down for a couple (though if you have the ability, the private tours are always the best).
If you’re curious about other snorkeling tours (or any other tours while you’re in the Keys — there’s a ton to do), I like to use Viator and have always had great experiences booking tours for a multitude of things through their site.
The Deep Dive
There truly is some amazing snorkeling to be have throughout this part of America, but you do need to know a few things before heading out to find the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys.
Typically, your best snorkeling is going to be in the middle keys (Big Pine Key, Marathon, and Islamadora in this list), though a few gems can still be found in popular lower- and upper-key locations (like Key West and Key Largo, respectively) if you know where to look.
Armed with the knowledge in this article, you’re well on your way to experiencing some of the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys which others might not know about. So, put on some Jimmy Buffett, pull your flip flops out of the closet, and get ready for some beautiful snorkel time in the azure waters of the Keys. Life is good!
If you’re planning a trip to the best snorkeling in the Florida Keys, use some of our resources below to make sure you’re best ready for some excellent snorkel travel.