You can go snorkeling in the Florida Keys and have a great time—or you can royally mess up the experience. I did a bit of both. Along the way, I learned what to do and what not to do the hard way.
Follow my tips in this post and you won't make the same mistakes I did. You'll even learn a little trick I learned to get a really cheap boat ride turned snorkeling experience unlike any other!
Shoreline snorkeling sucks. Don't bother.
Most shoreline snorkeling sucks. First-time travelers to the Florida Keys may hear about John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park and think it must have the best reef snorkeling ever!
Stop right there fellow plane-hoppers.
Don't assume you'll be able to see beautiful coral reef in crystal clear waters just because you can swim at a coral reef state park. This is what the water and bottom looks like at John Pennecamp:
The best you'll see at John Pennecamp is multiple upside down jellyfish and maybe a few tarpon fish swimming around a greenish brown muck.
The water is clearest off-shore around the middle keys. You may see a few things snorkeling from the beaches around Islamorado, Indian Key, the Bahia Honda Bridge and Seven Mile Bridge areas. But be careful of currents (especially near the bridges) and don't expect too much.
Ultimately, there is not much to see immediately from the shore anywhere you go in the Florida Keys.
Pay for a boat ride out
So, where is it best to snorkel in the Florida Keys? You must pay for a boat ride to take you off shore. The famous Florida Reef Tract ecosystem and all its most numerous and vibrant fish are not within swimming distance from the beach.
I looked into boats leaving from John Pennecamp. A 2.5-hour tour was about $30 per adult. Fins and a mask are $2 to rent and you must buy a snorkel (for you to keep) priced at $5.
The following are a few photos from my SCUBA diving experiences at Molasses Reef—one of the main reefs that boats will take you to see off of Key Largo.
Ahhh – much, much better.
A cheap night snorkel
As far as I know, there are no companies that will take people out at night to snorkel in the Florida Keys. But there's a way to con the system a bit and get a night snorkel in if you want it.
Why would you want to snorkel at night? Because it's awesome! Some of the creepiest, coolest marine critters come out at night. Big stuff like sharks and turtles roam around and there's even some nifty glowy stuff, too!
For $10 plus my own snorkel gear, I was able to take a ride out on Rainbow Reef's evening dive boat and have a snorkel at night.
You may need to get to know the dive staff a bit before you can do this, but it's worth it if you're savvy. I admit, I was taking advantage of the situation a bit. I had just spent the last 3 days with my partner, Jono, SCUBA diving with Rainbow Reef. At the last minute, Jono decided to go on his first night dive ever while I chose to sit the dive out.
After all the SCUBA divers on the boat jumped in the water, the captain allowed me to snorkel around the boat with my own gear plus a torch I had borrowed from a diver.
I don't think the captain would have allowed me to go if he was not already confident in my abilities and training as a diver. Thus, I would not recommend night snorkeling if you are not at least a confident and experienced snorkeler.
We were at Molasses Reef—a spot I was familiar with from diving it two times already. With a submersible torch in hand, I followed the divers around from above. I could spot them easily with their glow stick tags and torches moving along the bottom 10 meters below me. It was awesome watching them!
I had one of the best experiences snorkeling after dark this way. I saw some amazing stuff including 3 different turtles, a brown shark, and a reef shark.
My favorite sighting of all was a little bioluminescent squid! It was so cute! I was able get the attention of the divers below me so they could see it too.
If you sign up to take a ride out on a dive boat like I did, be sure to get a boat that is visiting one of the shallower areas such as Molasses reef or the Benwood wreck. Otherwise, it'll be way too deep for you to see anything.
The ride back inland from my night snorkel was extra special because of thunderstorms off in the distance. Huge flashes of lightning in patches all around us provided a beautiful light show as we made our way back to shore.
Overall, my 2 experiences snorkeling in the Florida Keys were polar opposite of each other. It totally sucked trying to snorkel from the beach, but it's absolutely worth it to get out to the main reefs on a boat.
While my main tip is to skip shore snorkeling in favor of boat snorkeling, I encourage you to deviate a bit. Push things even further if you're skilled enough. Use my tips to go on a night snorkel! The experience I had night snorkeling was one of the highlights of my Florida Keys trip!