Key Largo Snorkeling

An underwater view of various reef fish on Wheeler's Reef in Key Largo
Sights on a Key Largo Reef

Key Largo snorkeling is the best snorkeling in Florida. As far as I know, it's the best in the country.

Blessed with an abundance of warm, clear Gulf Stream waters and shallow coral reefs, Key Largo is a snorkeler's dream. For good reason, they call Key Largo the "Diving Capital of the World."

Due in part to the proximity of the Gulf Stream, Key Largo waters are the clearest in the entire Florida Keys. Farther north at Palm Beach the Stream comes even closer to land, and the waters may be consistently clearer than in the Keys. But while Palm Beach boasts excellent SCUBA diving--drift diving mostly--the depths there are generally too deep for snorkeling.

Key Largo's Waters are Protected

In 1963, the State of Florida recognized the splendor of Key Largo's Atlantic waters and established the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park to help protect the continental USA's only living coral reef. Pennekamp is about 25 miles longand extends three miles out to sea.

Beyond Pennekamp, Key Largo's waters receive the protection of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Best Reefs for Key Largo Snorkeling

Good, shallow snorkeling reefs here in Key Largo are numerous. Although I can't speak from personal experience about all of these, here is a partial list:

  • The Carysfort Light

  • Christ of the Abyss-- For more information on this Key Largo icon, read my article on my other web site, about Key Largo.

  • Molasses Reef

  • Pickles Reef

  • City of Washington Wreck

  • French Reef

  • Elbow Reef

  • Grecian Rocks

  • Wheeler's Reef

Getting on a Boat

Unless you have your own boat, you can either rent a boat or catch a commercial snorkel boat out to one of the Key Largo Snorkeling reefs.

Rent a Boat

To rent a boat at Pennekamp call 305-451-6325. Theyhave 20, 22, and 23-foot skiffs with a center console and a bimini top. With your own rented boat you can take yourselfout to the reefs.

Catch a Commercial Snorkel Boat

Don't wanna be your own captain? In Key Largo, there are plenty of dive operators who'll happily take you out to enjoy the reefs.

One such operator who is rapidly getting to be my favorite is the Sundiver Station snorkel shop, located at Mile Marker 103 Bayside. Although Trip Advisor has mixed reviews, my opinion is they're friendly, knowledgeable, and competent, and their 46-foot boat--Sundiver III--is fast, roomy, and doesn't have that "cattleboat" feel.

A view of the snorkel boat Sundiver III moored at its dock.
The Sundiver III

They normally go out for about two and half hours, taking only about 15 or 20 minutes to arrive at the reefs.

To make reservations, stop by or call the shop at 800-654-7369.

There, you'll get your ticket, and they'll give you a map showing where to catch the boat at your appointed time. They like for you to show up at least 15 minutes or so early.

An interior view of the Sundiver Snorkel Shop with Laura waving from behind the counter
Laura - One of the Friendly Staff Members at Sundivers

Check my Key Largo site, for a complete article I wrote about a day's snorkeling aboard the Sundiver III.

Captain Ken and First Mate Matt took us this day out to Wheeler's reef, a few miles off shore. The water visibility was about 30 feet or so.

Speaking of "viz," in Key Largo it can vary from 15 feet or so up to 100, depending on wind conditions. When strong winds stir up the shallow waters, visibility drops.

There are plenty of snorkel and dive operators on the island. If you have a specific dive site in mind, you might need to check around with different dive operators to find who's going that day to that site. Different operators go to different places depending on where their boat is docked, and the day's sea and weather conditions.

If you have some particular site in mind where the Sundiver III is not going that day, call around and find someone who might be going to that location. Otherwise, if you want to get out quickly to some snorkeling good reefs, I'd recommend Sundiver.

An underwater view of a snorkeler on a Key Largo reef
My son, Warren, explores Wheeler's Reef in Key Largo

Best Time of Year to Snorkel Key Largo

Key Largo snorkeling goes on year round.

Wintertime water temperatures, however, can be in the 60s Fahrenheit--a bit chilly for some people. During the cooler months, a wet suit makes good sense. In summer, however, water temps are usually in the low 80s, making the ocean a warm and inviting place to be.

While winter may be the busy tourist time on land, summer is the busy dive and snorkeling season.

Watching Marine Life

Watching marine life is half the joy of coral-reef snorkeling. And since Key Largo waters are protected, most of the sea creatures here aren't too skittish. Here, I happened upon a fairly large ray half-buried in thesand.

An underwater view of a sting ray half buried in the sandy bottom
A Sting Ray Lies Half Hidden in the Sand

Tropical fishes lend amazing color variations to Key Largo's coral reefs.

An underwater view of several colorful reef fish
Alive with Color

Check out this brain coral.

Brain Coral
Brain Coral

What Danger Does Marine Life Pose While Key Largo Snorkeling?

Sharks

Unless you're an experienced ocean diver/snorkeler, you might be uneasy about what creatures you could encounter in the open sea--like sharks, for instance.

While it's possible you could see one here in Key Largo, in my experience at least, it's unlikely. Personally, I've seen maybe one or two in my lifetime, not counting nurse sharks, which are more plentiful. But I've never heard of a nurse shark bothering anyone who didn't bother it first.

I remember seeing about a five-foot shark one day while in the water at Looe Key. Other than the thrill of just seeing the shark, there was nothing spectacular about the event. He went his way. I went mine. End of story.

So, while shark attacks happen in Florida waters, they are extremely rare considering the number of people who enter Florida waters each year.

Barracudas

Other than sharks, you'll probably see some barracudas--maybe some pretty big ones.

To avoid a problem with barracudas, don't mess with them and don't feed fish, barracudas included. Also, it's probably a good idea to avoid shiny jewelry which could act as a lure.

Treat a barracuda as you would a bad dog. Watch him, don't approach him, don't antagonize him. Slowly move away, and go on about your business.

I've had some large ones "trail" me through the water for a while, but I carefully watched them out of the corner of one eye, and otherwise ignored them. Never had a problem.

Morays

Leave them alone and you shouldn't have any problems.

Coral

Perhaps the most likely danger in Key Largo snorkeling is injuring yourself from brushing up against coral. Go way out of your way toavoid doing this for two reasons:

  1. You don't want to be injured or stung.
  2. and

  3. You don't want to damage the reef's fragile coral whichtakes years to grow any length at all.

In my estimation, the drive down I-95 to Key Largo is a lot riskier than reef snorkeling. :-) If you use common sense with regard to marine life, bad encounters will be rare indeed. Expect to enjoy your Key Largo snorkeling.