Best Places to Snorkel Coral Reefs in Florida
Your Florida Snorkeling Trip
Florida offers many water activities when it comes to the Florida Keys (you know, the highway over the ocean ending at Key West, some 90 miles from Cuba). Simply driving to the end is a great experience but can be a grind due to traffic—around 3 hours from the mainland.
If part of your adventure includes snorkeling (not scuba diving), I can help you with that. Planning is required. The things you need to consider are:
- Weather conditions during your planned snorkeling (if the forecast calls for wind, wavy sea conditions, or rain, you might think twice)
- Hotel rooms (between Nov-April) the cost is high per night. Consider proximity to where your snorkeling boat leaves from.
- Shop around for the best overall deal for snorkeling services. Some are better than others. Most boats take you out to a spot that is based on current conditions. Ask the name of the reef you're going to. Not all reefs are created equal. Try to get a boat with just snorkelers and ask how many. You don't want a jammed packed boat. Ask about how long will you be allowed to snorkel. Most allow at least one hour or more.
- In the winter months, sea temperatures are anywhere between 70-75. While this may sound warm, it feels a bit chilly, more like a freshwater lake. The ideal water temps of 80+ usually happen closer to April-May (the tail end of Florida's winter and dry period). In the summer, water is hotter, but it is hurricane season, and never snorkel in August-September due to jellyfish. So, ideally, try to snorkel in late March through mid-May.
Snorkeling is not that expensive, usually from $40-60 per person including snacks and gear. Taking a private charter is quite costly, but then you control which reefs to go to.
The Best Spots
There is a myth that the best spots are either in Key West area or at the entrance to the Keys at Key Largo. Now, the best spots is subjective and can vary easily due to conditions, but the MUST see coral reefs are in-between the two ends off Islamorada and Marathon. The problem is that hotel rooms are costly, even Airnb is. My suggestion is that you find a cheaper room in Homestead, which close to the entrance of the Keys. Then, on leave early on the trip day. It should not take more than 1.5 hours or so to reach either location. Islamorada is closer than Marathon and requires less time.
Key Largo, which is near the entrance to the Keys, offers some good snorkeling sites assuming your boat will take your there some 3-8 miles off the coast. Snorkeling in Pennekamp National Park is barely OK if you want to see tropical fish. There is no coral there. But, it is great for other things!
The best reefs in this area are: Molasses Reef (about 6 miles off coast) and to a lesser degree, Sea Gardens. Of the two, try to go to Molasses, which is very popular for colorful fish and coral.
However, the best reefs in the Keys are off the town of Islamorada, not far from Key Largo. Must see are: Cheeca Rocks Reef, Hen & Chickens Reef, and Alligator Reef (much farther to get to). All reefs are popular and offer some of the best tropical fish, coral reefs, sea turtles, sponges, etc.
Still further down the road, about midway to Key West, is Marathon. Like Islamorada, it is a small town, but off the coast it provides THE best snorkeling areas.
These are the epic Sombrero Reef and its lesser cousin, Coffins Patch Reef. Both will provide you with some breathtaking tropical fish that you see in aquariums, sponges, coral.
Since it is a popular spot, finding a snorkeling boat is not a problem. If you are there when weather is great, you will have plenty to talk about when you get back.
Now, if you are going to Key West, there are some decent snorkeling areas, but they do not compare to those mentioned because they are not that healthy. Key West reminded me of a miniature New Orleans with its party-like atmosphere!