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Key West Reef Snorkeling

Coral Reef Snorkeling in Key West and the Florida Keys

The Keys are synonymous with snorkeling. They are, after all, home to one of America’s only coral reef ecosystems. This magical island paradise at the end of the road is the place to go to see fascinating fish, majestic sharks, gorgeous rays, and more.

Is Key West Good for Snorkeling?

The Florida Keys are home to the only living coral reef tract in America outside of Hawaii. The Florida Reef extends from offshore from Miami and parallels the islands, running about the same route that the Overseas Highway runs. While it’s easy to drive to the Keys, the reef line lies a few miles offshore, tantalizing visitors with its allure but accessible only by boat. The Keys are home to four distinct ecosystems, each with its own unique attraction.
The hardwood hammocks are coastal forests that lie inland, while the mangroves along the coasts are the most visible Keys ecosystem. Underwater, seagrass flats stretch for miles in every direction from the islands. As you get farther offshore, the fourth distinct ecosystem is the coral reef—and that’s the place to go for the best snorkeling.

It’s the coral reef that attracts all sorts of visitors to the Florida Keys. Here you will meet tourists from all over the world, documentary filmmakers, and marine scientists. But if you want to see the real stars of the show, head out to the reef and introduce yourself to the colorful schools of fish, roaming sharks, playful turtles, gliding spotted eagle rays, and countless other cool sea critters.

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Key West Coral Reef

Which Key Has the Best Snorkeling?

Once you get to the Keys, you’ll quickly see that each island is known for something. This one is the “diving capital,” while another is the “sportfishing capital.” In truth, no one island stands out more than the others in any particular area. 

You can find great snorkeling all along the Florida Keys. Key West makes an excellent base to immerse yourself in Keys culture and discover the best underwater world because it lies in a location that makes it easy to travel into both the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

Where Can I Go Snorkeling in Key West for Free?

While the Florida Keys all have beautiful clear water and fantastic scenery, they aren’t really a beach destination. In some parts of the world, you can lounge in the sand and take a leisurely swim to the reef. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible in Key West, nor anywhere else in the Florida Keys. 

The actual coral reef here lies between two and seven miles offshore. That’s way out of the range of swimming and even too far for most people to kayak to. The only way to access the best of the reef is by taking a tour or chartering a boat for the day. 

snorkeling charter key west fl
snorkeling package key west

That isn’t to say that you can’t swim and snorkel from shore. Several gorgeous beaches in Key West are perfect for giving it a go. However, for several reasons, you’re not going to see the same sorts of things you’d see at the coral reefs.

The Keys are naturally mangrove islands. Mangroves are those trees that you see along the water nearly everywhere here. Their unique root systems are the life-blood of the Keys. 

In these watery jungles, fish and crustaceans lay their eggs. In addition, the roots build up sediments and help stabilize the shorelines, protecting the islands from damaging storms.

But while the mangroves are full of life, they can also make the water murky. Additionally, the bottom near shore is usually covered in seagrass. 

Many critters call these ecosystems home, such as conch and stingrays, and maybe even a nurse or bonnethead shark. But on the grass flats, wildlife is spread out and harder to find. As fun as these mangrove critters are, it’s not the same as the fabulous coral reef you’ve seen in the movies and your imagination. 

Without taking a boat out to the ocean reef, you will not see the colorful and living coral formations nor the schools of big reef fish that call the reef home. Those coral formations create a living aquarium that attracts all sorts of ocean dwellers. And that’s what’s so special about trips out to the reef—you never know what you’re going to see, but rest assured, it will be unique and memorable.

Key West Reef Snorkeling

What is the Best Snorkeling Tour in Key West?

Now that you know you’ll have to hire a boat to get you to the reef, you might be wondering how to find the best tours. For several reasons, you’ll find the best snorkeling in Key West will be on small private charter boats. 

Large boats are sometimes called “cattle boats” because they pack a huge number of people on board. If you’re looking for a ride to the reef and back and looking to spend a few minutes in the water, they can be a good option. They are usually cheaper than private charters, ranging from $50 to $75 per person for a few hours trip.

However, the experience you get going on these boats is hardly the eco-tour you might dream of. Diving off the boat with 30 or 40 poor swimmers, all churning and splashing in the water, doesn’t encourage the critters to come over and say hello.

sandbar boat trip key west

Private boats are smaller and offer concierge service. At Casual Mondays, we take our trips with six passengers or less. You won’t share the boat with strangers, just your group and the captain. Best of all, we’ll visit places that the big boats don’t go to, so you can explore quiet waters away from the crowds. Our guests have experienced the majesty of a flight of spotted eagle rays gliding by, the thrill of seeing a curious sea turtle going about his business, and the delight of being surrounded by colorful angelfish, parrotfish, and filefish.

Final Thoughts

private snorkel charter key west

No trip to Key West is complete without spending at least one day out on the reef.

After all that effort of traveling to the end of the road, travel just a bit further to experience one of America’s greatest natural treasures, the coral reef. No matter what time of year you’re visiting, you’ll be rewarded with wildlife encounters and great photos to take home to your friends. 

Imagine the perfect day, gliding over the clear water with an experienced captain, heading to a secret spot away from the crowds, immersing yourself in paradise, and meeting the key’s most popular local critters. Now, stop imagining and make the dream come true! Check our schedule or call Captain Zak today to book your trip.

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