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Key West Reef Snorkeling

The Ultimate First-Timers Guide – Key West Coral Reef Snorkeling

Never been snorkeling before? Snorkeling is one of the best things to do in Key West Florida, and it’s a great way to get out on the water and enjoy a day in the sun.

Outside of Hawaii, the Keys are home to the only easily-accessible coral reef in the United States. The Keys are closer to the Caribbean than you might imagine, with clear warm water and lots of sea life. And even though you can drive to Key West by car, the snorkeling here is as good as on a remote island in the Caribbean.

Here’s a look at why snorkeling is one of the top 10 things to do in Key West, and what you should consider before booking that snorkel excursion in Key West.

What to Expect on Key West Snorkel Charters

Snorkeling is big in the Florida Keys. The coral reef that lies just offshore is world-famous among divers and snorkeling enthusiasts.

This unique and fragile ecosystem is one thing that makes the Keys special. Several national marine sanctuaries, national and state parks, and other protected areas are set up to protect the reefs for future generations. Plus, the reef makes the waters plentiful with fish, sea life, and lobsters by giving them food and shelter.

Why the Snorkeling is Awesome in Key West

Snorkeling is one of the most popular activities in the Florida Keys with good reason.

The Florida Reef is a barrier reef. It runs along Florida’s southeast coast, from near Palm Beach past Key West to the Dry Tortugas. In all, it’s about 350 miles long. It is the third-largest barrier reef in the world.

The reef is made of many smaller patch reefs, each with interesting features. In some places, the reef is just shallow sandy areas; in others, enormous coral gardens have grown over the centuries.

You can find reefs in deep waters far offshore, shallow areas closer to the islands, and everywhere in between. The best reefs for snorkelers are about 10 feet underwater and found between three and seven miles off the coast.

Can You Snorkel from the Beach in Key West?

Three to seven miles is a pretty long swim–even if you were the world’s best swimmer, you’d be crazy to try. In many parts of the world, there are amazing reefs right off the beach. But in the Keys, the most beautiful reefs with the most wildlife are out of reach of swimmers.

You need a boat to go snorkeling and see the best sights. Many snorkeling tours leave from the island, with trip options to make any traveler happy. For those on a tight budget, a head boat allows you to hop on board for the cost of one seat. If you’d like an exclusive private tour, Key West private snorkeling charters are available on every size and type of vessel.

That isn’t to say you can’t snorkel from the beach–you just aren’t going to see much. Between the islands and the reefs are miles and miles of sand flats and seagrass beds. These ecosystems are vital to the Keys and the reefs, and each is beautiful in its own way. But it isn’t the stuff of postcard photos and snorkeling bucket lists. Things are spread out in these areas, unlike the reefs where all the fish, sharks, rays, and other critters congregate.

Snorkel Tour Key West -- What You'll See

You’ll likely notice a few things when you first dive into the water. First, the water at the reef is usually much clearer than near-shore. This is because the reefs are fed by a steady flow of crystal-clear water from the Caribbean Sea thanks to the Gulf Stream current.

Boats anchor outside the actual reef to avoid damaging it. When you first dive in, you’ll probably see flat sandy patches and lots of seagrasses. But the captain will tell you which way to swim, and within a few yards of the boat, you’ll start to see some coral heads.

Coral reefs are enormous colonies of living animals. Each coral polyp is one tiny animal. It builds a hard skeleton that attaches to its neighbor. Together, thousands of polyps form elaborate coral formations. Each species of coral makes a different kind of formation. You’ll see many brain corals, star corals, and stag horn corals in the Keys.

Key West Reef Snorkeling

Some, like elk horn and pillar corals, are rarer.

Corals are also divided between hard and soft. Hard or stony corals form rock-like colonies, while soft produce billowing plant-like structures.

Beautiful corals are only one reason to visit the reef, of course. All those coral structures make the perfect home for wildlife. The coral provides food and housing to a plethora of critters. Check out our reef guide for a complete guide to identifying what you see on the reef.

Fish and Critters You'll See on a Snorkel Cruise Key West



Sea biscuits
Sea cucumbers

Moray Eels
Nurse Sharks
Southern Stingrays
Spotted Eagle Rays

Brain Coral

Brain Coral Photo complements of Matt Claiborne

Tips for the First-Timers Reef Snorkeling Key West

Here’s the answer to some common questions and concerns that you might have before you go snorkeling for the first time.

Do You Need to Be a Good Swimmer to Snorkel in Key West?

As long as you can swim, you’re good to go. Snorkeling is not as athletic or as challenging as many imagine. The key to seeing the most wildlife is to do as little “swimming” as possible.

Splashing and quick movements of your arms and legs will freak out the animals. Like critters in the forest do when they hear loud talking and stamping feet, they’ll all head for the hills. They will hide in nooks and crannies in the reef until the danger has passed, and you’ll never see them.

So when snorkeling, you want to move slowly. Keep your arms tucked in and only swim with your snorkeling fins. Swimming with fins is a new experience for most folks, but they are easy and natural to use. Just move your legs in a gentle scissor kick and let the fins do the work.

What to Bring When Snorkeling for the First Time

Most snorkeling charters provide the gear you’ll need. Check with the captain to see if there are any specific recommendations for your trip.

The basic thing you’ll want is a mask and fins. The mask should fit well and form a seal to keep water out of your eyes and nose. You might have to try a few until you get the right fit. The snorkel should fit comfortably in your mouth.

Snorkeling fins come in two types–those that strap on and those with rubber “shoes” built in. The fins with shoes are more comfortable for snorkeling–just pick a pair closest to your shoe size. Strap-on fins work fine and fit universally, but they work best with a pair of neoprene wetsuit booties.

Wetsuits should be considered during the winter months. A wetsuit is made from neoprene and traps a bit of water near your body. As you swim, it will keep you warmer for longer. Wetsuits don’t keep you dry, but they mean you can comfortably stay in cool water longer.

Winter vs Summer Water Temperatures in Key West — Water temperatures in the Keys sound good, with winter lows around 68 and summer highs above 85. But you will feel colder in the water than in the air. So if the water is a chilly 70 on a cold day in March, it’s possible to go without a wetsuit, but you might find yourself cutting your swim shorter so you can get on top and warm up!

Finally, you might want to consider an underwater camera. If you own an action camera like a GoPro, bring its waterproof case to capture shots of what you see under the water.

The Nitty-Gritty How-To of Snorkeling in Key West

1. Getting into the water depends on the boat that you’re on. Some you’ll jump off of, others you can go down a ladder. Some boats have big ladders, while some small boats have smaller ladders.
2. Unless you’re very comfortable in the water, it’s a good idea to wear a snorkeling vest. These can be inflated to give you a little more buoyancy, making it easier for you to float. You shouldn’t have to work at snorkeling, so make it easy on yourself.
3. Wear and use your snorkeling fins. These make it easy to swim in choppy waves or into strong currents.
4. Keep your arms at your sides and make smooth scissor kicks with your fins. You should find it easy to make your way through the water, and you shouldn’t have to work at floating on the surface. Remember, fish and animals swim away if you splash or make sudden movements.
5. If there is any current or wind, always swim into it. That way, if you get tired, you can float back to the boat. Avoid drifting behind the boat.
6. Look up occasionally and check your surroundings. With the mask on and looking down, it’s easy to swim right into buoys, posts, or other snorkelers. Plus, it’s a good idea to know where your boat is should you get tired and want to head back.
7. Don’t ever stand or touch anything while snorkeling–just float on the surface. Corals are delicate, slow-growing creatures, and touching them kills them. Kicking the reef also causes damage and hurts the animals. Even kicking up sand should be avoided. Remember, most things that look like ordinary rocks are often living pieces of coral.
8. Don’t swim over areas that are too shallow. You don’t want to get bumped into rocks should a wave.
9. Most reefs in the Keys are no-take zones. There’s no fishing or lobstering here. Hikers in the mountains have a leave-no-trace policy. On the reefs, we take only pictures and leave only bubbles.

What are the Best Key West Snorkeling Tours?

There are two ways to book a snorkeling charter boat in Key West. You can hop on a big head boat with dozens of tourists, but the best snorkeling tours in Key West are private charters.

The advantage of head boats is that they are inexpensive. If you’re traveling solo or on a budget, a trip on one of these cruises will get you to the reef for a few hours. Unfortunately, when there, you’ll wind up in the water with a gaggle of folks splashing and kicking wildly, scaring away all the cool wildlife. If that sounds a little crowded and impersonal then you’re getting the picture.

The alternative is booking Key West private snorkeling charters. This is usually on a smaller boat and is limited to six people. If you book the whole boat, you won’t have to share your experience with anyone else but your friends and family.

There are tons of advantages to grabbing a more personal charter. First, you’ll get to chat with the captain, a local guide who knows where to go for the best visibility and swimming conditions each day. You also get a lot of flexibility in choosing different locations–stay in one spot or make several quick swims at different reefs.

And you could even combine your snorkel experience with another kind of adventure. Check out the local sandbars–Key West’s best-kept beach secret. Or you could head out late in the day and make the return trip a sunset cruise. The choice is yours.


Casual Monday Charters, Key West

There are many snorkel charters Key West offers, each with its own vibe. A private charter, like one with Captain Zak on the Casual Monday, means a more relaxed experience and a much more enjoyable time at the reef. Call or message us today and book a trip while you’re on the island.

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