Underwater Adventures: Experiencing Snorkeling in Key West
A Guide To Enjoying the World Beneath the Waves
“Nibblin’ on sponge cake, watchin’ the sun bake, all of those tourists covered with oil.” Jimmy Buffett’s classic song “Margaritaville” seems to be the perfect description of snorkeling in Key West, Florida. This southernmost island on the archipelago that splays off of the Sunshine State has served as a hard partying retreat for decades.
In recent years though, visitors have come to realize that The Conch Republic contains an abundance of historical and natural beauty. History buffs have enjoyed visiting Hemingway’s house (and seeing the descendants of his famous cats), seeing the Cuban architecture of the San Carlos Theater and hanging out at the island’s old seaport. Outdoor activities run the gamut as well, including everything from sunbathing and deep sea fishing to jet skiing and catamaran cruising.
Yet there is one athletic pursuit that lets participants enjoy the island’s beauty and can be enjoyed by almost every demographic: snorkeling. Read on to learn some general tips for Key West snorkeling, the best self guided snorkeling excursions and local outfitters who provide guided snorkeling excursions.
Tips for a Key West Snorkeling Excursion
One of the great appeals of snorkeling lies in its simplicity. Sure, scuba diving can open up an entire underwater world, but it requires a lot of gear and training. Plus, it carries a number of safety risks that snorkeling does not.
While it is true that snorkeling is generally easier and safer than scuba diving, a number of deaths in both Hawaii and the Florida Keys have caused experts to urge caution on a number of levels. Snorkelers who want to enjoy the water around the southernmost point in the United States should assess their own fitness level prior to participating and should never snorkel alone.
Additionally, some people think the rising popularity of full face masks, which have integrated snorkels, may factor in to some of the risk. No one has proven that such masks are linked to any deaths, but the more cautious will want to go with more traditional masks and snorkels. These types have no risk of overexposure to carbon dioxide.
Finally, before you head out for a Key West snorkeling trip, make sure you have a plan for your gear. If you would prefer to rent rather than bring your own, visit a reputable dive shop such as Finz Dive Center, Dive Key West or Lower Keys Dive Shop. However, you will almost certainly want to bring your own sunscreen. Key West has passed a legislation banning the sale of all sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate and the ban will take effect in 2021. While the state of Florida could overturn the measure, play it safe and bring your own, because many popular sunscreens simply may not be available.
Self Guided Snorkeling in and Around Key West
Unlike some other islands in the Keys, Key West has multiple areas where you can enjoy excellent self guided snorkeling right from shore. One of the most popular is Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, which is located on the island’s southern edge. Lots of visitors show up for the park’s historical reenactments in a Civil War era fortification, but others find themselves drawn to the beach (which is considered the best in Key Water) and the waters bordering it. This sheltered area boasts clear water and plenty of parrot fish, tarpon and yellowtail snapper. Bring water shoes though. You can encounter rocks.
Another excellent area is Higgs Beach (White Street Pier). Not only is it an enjoyable stretch of sand, but it also has the Key West Marine Park, which you can access just by jumping in the water. A large break wall extends out into the ocean where you will find abundant water life, including barracuda, conchs and lots of brightly colored tropical fish.
Yes, you will have to take a boat to get to Dry Tortugas National Park, which lies some 70 miles from Key West. That might not seem like the epitome of self guided, but once you get there, the shallow waters around the 19 century Fort Jefferson offer amazing snorkeling. In addition to the diverse fish species, you can also view sea anemone, various sponges, lobsters and sea turtles. The park has also taken great cares to preserve massive stony and soft corals. Make sure to check out Little Africa Reef, a coral shaped like the titular continent, and Windjammer Wreck, a 100 year old sunken vessel located in 20 feet of water.
Key West Outfitters and Snorkeling Tours
Sometimes the best way to experience a location is with an experienced guide. Key West contains numerous outfits and tour guides who can show you the beautiful underwater world around the island. Each provides its own unique twist on the experience. For example, Fury offers a number of snorkeling options including catamaran trips that ferry you to multiple reefs in a single day, and boozy late afternoon and evening excursions that have plenty of partying with paddling.
Snorkel Adventures Key West caters more to the ecotourism crowd, running clients into the back country areas of the island. In addition to snorkeling around the reef areas, you will also get to travel on a sailboat and enjoy paddling on a kayak. Clearly Unique Ocean Adventures has a similar package, but these outfitters take you into Great White Heron National Refuge in clear bottomed kayaks as you travel to your snorkeling destination.
Finally, both Sebago Watersports and Lost Reef Adventures offer budget minded snorkelers half day trips for around $40. Considering that merely renting your gear from a local dive should will run you about $15, that is a deal indeed!
No matter which Key West snorkeling tour you take, there is no wrong way to experience The Conch Republic. It is truly a jewel on the Sunshine State’s southernmost shores.