Best Reefs And Beaches For Key West Snorkeling

snorkeling locations in key west

Located 150 miles south of the mainland of Florida, Key West is an extremely popular paradise for vacationers. It boasts America’s only barrier reef, which is 221 miles long and runs from the Florida Keys to Dry Tortugas. 

Snorkeling is one of the most popular activities because of its clear, shallow waters. There are quite a few places to see tropical fish, living reef, and sea turtles. Key West has a few beaches for snorkeling, and there are quite a few boat charters that take snorkelers to amazing areas nearby.

Key West Snorkeling Boat Tours

There are a number of great boat tours and day trips that take visitors out for some amazing snorkeling. A popular one is Fury (see their video at the bottom of this page). The Florida Barrier Reef is the third largest in the world, and it is North America’s only living coral reef. It is truly a wondrous sight to see.

Tip: Even though these tours can do the trick for most of us, some people experience motion sickness when floating on the ocean. If this is you, maybe after reading this article, check out our tips and tricks about snorkeling and seasickness.

The barrier reef system is known as the Florida Straits, and there are a number of places to explore. It is a National Marine Sanctuary, which means that it enjoys special protection. There is nothing remotely similar to it in the United States. Here are a few of the most popular areas to snorkel in Key West:

Sand Key Lighthouse Reef 

Sand Key Lighthouse Reef is seven miles west of Key West. It is called the Sand Key Sanctuary Preservation Area. It is known for its red iron lighthouse, which was built in 1853. When it was discovered by Spanish explorers, they called it “Cayos Arens,” which means “Sand Island.”  The amount of sand that is there changes depending on the weather. 

The lighthouse is encircled by a spur and groove reef. There are ridges of coral that form the spurs. They range from five to twenty feet deep, and it has grooves that are sandy between these structures. There is a great deal of Fire coral in several sections. It is one of the healthiest sections of the barrier reef.

When snorkelers visit the northwest side of the reef, they see coral heads and other mixed rubble that is close to the lagoon. On the south side, the reef gradually slopes away, and there is a ledge at around 65 feet. In some places it actually drops to 90 feet. 

Snorkelers will also find many types of tropical fish and other marine life. Sand Key is protected and there is a no-take policy. This has helped it to remain as one of the best destinations for snorkeling in Key West.

Tropical Fish And Marine Life In Sand Key Lighthouse Reef

There are large schools of fish in the Sand Key Lighthouse Reef. Snorkelers will likely find snapper, angelfish, grunts, parrotfish, triggerfish, hogfish, trumpetfish and butterflyfish. In addition, there are two species of sea turtles: the Hawksbill and the Loggerhead. Finally, nurse sharks and bull sharks live near this reef, so encountering them on the reef bottom is a strong possibility. Bring your GoPro!

hawksbill turtle
Hawksbill turtles can grow up to 45 inches and weigh around 150 pounds.

Rock Key And Marine Life

Rock Key is a mile east of the Sand Key Lighthouse. It is a well-known dive site. However, it is also a favorite for snorkeling in Key West because it has flourishing coral and a variety of marine life. The coral at Rock Key has deeper and wider crevices, which double as hiding places for tropical fish and other marine life.

Snorkelers will find blue tang, sergeant major fish, parrotfish and yellowtail snapper. But there are other types of fish swimming around the canyons of coral as well. In addition, sea turtles and nurse sharks are found in this spot.

In the 1800’s, a ship from Barcelona is said to have sunk after running aground at Rock Key, and there is a second wreck that is still unidentified at this location. There are artifacts from these shipwrecks that are scattered throughout the coral reef, and other items on the seafloor. This is also part of the Sanctuary Preservation Area, so nothing can be removed, but it is there to discover.

key west shipwreck
Shipwreck in the Sanctuary Preservation Area

Eastern Dry Rocks And Marine Life

The Eastern Dry Rocks is right next to Rock Key, a mile from Sand Key Lighthouse, and seven miles from Key West. It is also part of the Sanctuary Preservation Area. It has rubble zones and long fingers of coral that are separated by coral canyons and deep sand. It ranges in depth from five to thirty-five feet.

The tropical fish and marine life are similar to what is found at Rock Key and Sand Key Lighthouse. Snorkelers will find nurse sharks and hammerheads, as well as brain coral, snook, shrimp, reef crab, octopus, lobster, parrotfish, stingray, angelfish, sergeant major fish, barracuda and sea turtles.

blue parrot fish florida
Blue Parrotfish can grow up to 30 inches

Western Dry Rocks And Marine Life

Western Dry Rocks is located about three miles west of Sand Key Lighthouse and seven miles southwest of Key West. It is popular for snorkeling, but it has less traffic than the spots mentioned above. It has larger variation in depth and marine life. The reef has more cracks, ledges, caves, and crevices than other spots for snorkeling in this area.  

The marine life does include hammerhead and nurse sharks, as well as barracuda, snapper, elkhorn, staghorn, and other stony and gorgonian coral. There are many tropical fish and other creatures, including grouper, spotted eagle rays, blue tang, parrotfish (also found in Hanauma Bay, Hawaii), yellowtail, grunts and tarpon. Snorkelers will see sea turtles and moray eels as well. This site has a wider variety of marine life and reef depth. It will be a different experience from the other sites mentioned above.

Spotted Eagle Rays can have a wingspan of up to 120 inches

Cottrell Key And Marine Life

Cottrell Key is named for a ship captain who kept his boat near the key and used his warning beacon to make sure that others passing by didn’t run ashore. This group of islands is found on the West side of Key West, about five miles into the Gulf of Mexico, where the ocean is calmer than the spots in the Atlantic. Cottrell Key is a mangrove island. It has a coral reef and sponge garden that is in shallow water. The bottom is sandy and covered in seagrass and coral. Snorkelers often see spiny sea urchins and conch shells moving across the ocean floor.

In addition, Cottrell Key has a diverse population of larger marine life, including snapper, stingrays, sea turtles, Goliath grouper, parrotfish, and some different species of sharks. 

Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park is a bit further away, located 70 miles south of Key West. It is at the end of the Florida Barrier Reef. It takes around two and a half hours to get there by boat. Snorkelers also travel by sea plane to reach this incredible spot.

There are four different snorkeling spots in this location. The first is outside the moat wall. Snorkelers enter the water from a white sandy beach. There are different species of marine life, many of which are immature. In addition, there are sponges and coral, with a lot of small details to take in. Two other spots are close to shore on other sides of the park.

The last spot is further offshore. Snorkelers swim between 50 and 80 yards out to reach it. This is where the patch reefs are, which run parallel to the fort wall. It is worth the swim to snorkel in this spot.

dry tortugas seaplane
Sea Plane at Dry Tortugas

Snorkeling Off The Beach In Key West

There are a few options for snorkeling off the beach. If a traveler doesn’t want to take the boat ride out to the reef, there are choices that involve only stepping into the water from the shore. Take a look at the following options.

Fort Zachary Taylor: Snorkelers can walk into the water from the beach and discover many different species of marine life. They include parrotfish, yellowtail snapper, hard and soft corals, and lobster. In addition, there is a spot where fishing is allowed. They have walking nature trails for those wishing to see bird and plant life. There is a lot to do in the park in addition to snorkeling.

Higgs Beach: Higgs Beach is next to Casa Marina, and there are a number of smaller fish off the shore. Snorkelers can travel along White Street Pier and see what they find out there.

Smathers Beach: This beach is over by the airport, and snorkelers can enter the water from the beach. They will find different species of fish here as well.

Snorkeling off the beach can be a great way for kids to learn how to snorkel. At least, when the ocean is calm and not too cold. If you’re interested, please read our complete guide for snorkeling with kids.

fort zachary taylor beach
Fort Zachary Taylor beach

What Is The Best Way To Snorkel In Key West?

Although vacationers can snorkel directly off the beach, most people recommend taking a day trip out to the reef. Key West has experienced a great deal of traffic in the waters, and as a result, there is a lot of bleached coral and fewer species of marine life. That’s not to say that there is nothing to be seen. It’s simply a matter of seeing more when you take a short boat trip.

Florida offers more beautiful snorkeling locations, like for example Key Largo and Destin.

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