Key West in Florida is one of the best spots for underwater activities such as snorkeling and diving if you’re looking for a fun get away from your busy jobs. It’s located in the southernmost part of Florida and is host to a wide range of coral reefs, marine life, and even shipwrecks to bring you the excitement you need on your next adventure. In this article, we’re here to help you find the best snorkeling spots in the stunning turquoise waters of Key West that are teeming with a lot of marine life that you simply wouldn’t want to miss.
Best snorkeling spots in Key West
For first-time snorkelers and seasoned beach goers, Key West is home to a lot of snorkeling spots that we highly recommend you check out such as the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Sombrero Reef, Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, Cottrell Key, Bahia Honda State Park, Higgs Beach, Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson, the Sand Key Lighthouse, and more. Snorkeling in Key West is divided into three separate locations, namely, Upper Keys, Middle Keys, and Lower Keys. Read further to find the best snorkeling spots in Key West you should check out.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (Upper Keys)
For seasoned and first-time snorkelers, the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is one of the best snorkeling spots in the Upper Keys for all ages. The coral reef state park covers over 70 nautical miles of coral reefs as well as a multitude of vibrant sea life. It’s also the first underwater park in Key West, and one of the highlights of the snorkeling experience is going up close and personal with the famous Christ of the Abyss Statue by sculptor Guido Galletti.
Aside from finding Sea Stars, Brain Corals, and other marine life, the Christ of the Abyss bronze statue is submerged under 25 feet of water and weighs approximately 260kg, with a concrete base that weighs about 9 tons to keep it in place. The statue is a replica of Jesus Christ in the Mediterranean Sea and was placed underwater on August 25, 1965 by the Underwater Society of America. It’s best to book a guided boat tour in the state park so that you’ll be taken to the protected shallow reefs to bring you face-to-face with undersea creatures as well as the famous Christ of the Abyss statue.
Molasses Reef (Upper Keys)
Six miles from Key Largo, Molasses Reef is another snorkeling spot in Key West with diverse marine life to see. The reef is home to a wide range of creatures like colorful tropical fish, goliath groupers, elkhorn, sea stars, brain corals, and more. The Molasses Reef snorkeling spot is one of the easier places to access which is why the location is highly popular with first-time snorkelers and even seasoned beach goers. The place has a lot of dive shops if you want to scuba dive aside from the usual snorkeling activity.
Alligator Reef (Middle Keys)
The Alligator Reef, located within the middle part of Key West, is easily accessible by boat and you shouldn’t have any difficulty finding it yourself because it’s home to a 136-foot tall lighthouse standing on the north side of the reef. Despite misconceptions, there are actually no alligators within the reef and the lighthouse. It was named after the U.S Navy Schooner USS Alligator, which ran aground on the reef and sank in 1822. The reef has an average depth of 20 feet making it one of the ideal destinations for snorkelers and divers to explore the beauty of Florida’s Caribbean coast.
You’ll find a variety of marine life within Alligator Reef’s designated snorkeling areas such as barracudas, parrot fish, angel fish, and more. Chances are you’ll also be able to spot dolphins, moray eels, sea turtles, and maybe even a lobster from the cracks and outcrops that surround the reef.
Sombrero Reef (Middle Keys)
The Sombrero Reef is over 30 acres in size and is home to a thriving reef system filled with all sorts of colorful tropical fish and other marine life to observe and marvel at. Like the Alligator Reef, Sombrero Reef has depths between 2-30 feet making it an attractive spot for snorkeling and diving enthusiasts from the area. The reef is just south of Pigeon Key and is within the Sombrero Key Sanctuary Preservation Area with a lot of coral formations to see and enjoy.
It’s pretty common to spot a dolphin swimming within the area during the boat journey to Sombrero Reef, so you can enjoy your refreshments on board while observing in awe as the majestic creatures travel along with your friends and loved ones.
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park (Lower Keys)
While Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park is considered an off-shore snorkeling spot in Key West, it’s still one of the best locations if you’re into underwater activities and historical destinations in the U.S. The state park is located towards the end of Southard Street on Truman Annex and boasts one of the most historic Civil War-era forts in the country. The fort was built in 1866 and still proudly stands today making it a top destination for history buffs and snorkeling aficionados worldwide.
What makes the state park an ideal spot for people on a budget is going to the snorkeling sites doesn’t require a boat as you can walk directly into the crystal clear waters within the state park. There are a lot of rental stores within the state park if you don’t have your own snorkeling gear with you which are a plus.
Cottrell Key (Lower Keys)
Cottrell Key is one of the top destinations for snorkeling under calm waters if you’re finding the currents from the Atlantic Ocean to be a bit rough. It’s located 9 miles northwest of Key West on the Gulf side of the region and is only accessible by boat. The place was named after a lightship captain that anchored in the area during the early 19th century. It is home to the famous sponge garden as well as enormous coral reefs located within safe distances making it suitable for families with children to snorkel. Aside from the beautiful sights, it’s also an ideal place to spot other marine creatures such as stingrays, sharks, goliath groupers, and dolphins.
Bahia Honda State Park (Lower Keys)
The Bahia Honda State Park is another must-see for snorkelers, divers, and beach goers in general due to its picturesque vibe. The sandy beaches, crystal clear waters, and magnificent sunsets are what the park is famous for as well as the calm sea breeze that caresses the shores of the state park all year round. The state park was developed in the early 19th century and has become one of the top tropical destinations around the U.S for kayaking, snorkeling, boat trips, as well as a place to observe birds, and other wildlife such as plants and animals.
Aside from the kayaking and snorkeling at the state park, there is a wide range of other activities to do such as fishing, cycling, boating, and many more underwater activities. The Bahia Honda State Park is perfect for beginners as well as seasoned snorkelers as the area is filled with a lot of beautiful creatures such as numerous tropical fish, lobsters, sponges, sea stars, and other marine species.
The Higgs beach is a great alternative for vacationers who don’t have a boat during their stay in Key West. Higgs Beach is a highly popular destination for a lot of tourists and locals because it’s one of the only shore-accessible underwater marine parks in the U.S., which means, you don’t have to book an expensive boat tour to enjoy snorkeling under Florida’s pristine beaches. The beach is located on the south shore, just along Atlantic boulevard and is filled with a wide range of marine life, coral reefs, other underwater species, and more.
Snorkeling with your family is highly recommended here as it’s a great first-time experience for your children to see plenty of coral reefs, underwater marine life, and other treasures waiting to be discovered. They will surely make your children’s day memorable.
Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson
The Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson National Park is one of the most impressive snorkeling spots in Key West because you’ll be greeted with a thriving ecosystem of stunning sea life underneath the corals of the shallow waters. The national park also has access to much deeper depths for experienced divers and snorkelers if you’re up to the task. The National Park is only accessible by plane or by boat, which is part of the overall vacation experience.
The National Park provides complimentary snorkels, masks, and fins for everyone that visits the location as you get transported to secluded areas for the ultimate snorkeling experience in Key West. The place is a great choice for an outing with your family or friends as you have everything you need to relax and spend quality time with your loved ones. There are sandy beaches, warm and shallow waters, perfectly blue skies, as well as vibrant sea life when it’s time to do some snorkeling fun.
Sand Key Lighthouse Reef
Last on our list of the best snorkeling spots in Key West is the Sand Key Lighthouse, located just 7 miles south of Key West. It’s one of the most famous snorkeling spots in the whole of the U.S because the remote location is protected by law, which means there is absolutely no fishing, spearfishing, or catching of lobsters within the perimeter. The Sand Key Lighthouse Reef was built in 1853 and boasts one of the healthiest collections of coral reefs and marine life in Florida and is host to a wide range of tropical fish, sea turtles, sea stars, sharks, dolphins, and more.
The waters in Sand Key Lighthouse Reef are often calm all year round, creating the best snorkeling experience at any time of the year. The waters range between 1 to 15 feet in depth and are a great spot to experience snorkeling for the first time, especially for beginners. Visiting Sand Key is very easy as you can easily spot the lighthouse on this small island from a distance.
What’s the best time to snorkel in Key West?
The hurricane season in Florida usually runs from June to the end of November, and the state experiences the best weather between December and May. It’s between the said months where it’s the best time to book a vacation in Key West if you want your stay to have the best conditions possible.
While Key West still has ideal weather conditions between June to November, there can be frequent and sudden thunderstorms you should take note of when booking your vacation between these months. The risk of a tropical storm occurring is high so it’s recommended to study the weather forecast of the area and keep your travel itinerary flexible if you plan to visit during the hurricane season.
What are other tips I should know when snorkeling in Key West?
Wearing water shoes is always essential when visiting beaches and shallow waters to protect your feet from rocky areas when you’re treading the water. It’s also a nice idea to pack your own food and drinks to save money during your vacation with your friends and loved ones. Another tip you shouldn’t forget is to bring sunscreen and other important beach items, such as a beach umbrella, beach towel, and others.
For parents bringing along children for their first snorkeling experience, you should watch your children at all times especially when they’re in actual waters as the current can sometimes be unpredictable due to sudden weather changes. Lastly, finding natural areas for snorkeling in Key West is fun all year round so prepare yourself to have an awesome time once you decide to pick Key West as your next destination.