The best snorkeling in Key West
Home to the world’s third-largest barrier reef system, the waters off of Key West feature clear conditions and abundant marine life. Here are the area’s best snorkeling spots.
The southernmost city in the continental United States, Key West is a popular getaway that welcomes around 3 million tourists every year.[^1] The eccentric island is famous for its pastel houses, rich history, and stunning natural surroundings, including diverse marine environments.
Key West makes a great base for snorkelers visiting the Florida Keys and has a few snorkeling beaches. However, you’ll need to travel off the island to get to the area’s top snorkeling spots.
Here are the best places to snorkel when visiting Key West.
Sand Key Lighthouse Reef
Sand Key Lighthouse Reef is a must-see for snorkelers in the area. The reef is located about 7 miles off the southern shores of Key West, within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The coral formations are part of the 350-mile-long Great Florida Reef, the world’s third-largest barrier reef ecosystem and the only coral reef system in the continental US.1
With more than 40 species of corals, the vibrant reef provides a habitat for diverse sea life, such as sea turtles, moray eels, nurse sharks, bull sharks, and tropical fish.2 Despite its offshore location, the protected waters on the reef often result in calm conditions for snorkeling with fantastic underwater visibility.
The depth at Sand Key ranges from around five to 20 feet in most areas before dropping off to about 65 to 90 feet on the southern side.3 The shallowest parts are just around the lighthouse, so stick to this area if you’re not comfortable in deeper waters. Just don’t get too close to the lighthouse itself, as there are some hazards on the aging structure.
While only accessible by boat, getting to the reef is relatively easy thanks to several large catamarans and various private tour operators that run trips there daily. You can visit the Sand Key reef with your own vessel or book a guided excursion (we recommend booking reef snorkeling tours with Fury Water Adventures or Sebago Watersports).
Eastern Dry Rocks
Another excellent spot to explore on the barrier reef is Eastern Dry Rocks. Located only around a mile east of Sand Key in the Atlantic, it’s easy to visit both places in a single trip. This site is known for its crevices and canyons with finger-like coral formations, which are home to conch, octopus, grouper, barracuda, eagle rays, and other sea creatures.
There are also numerous shipwrecks, including an old Spanish galleon and various wrecks from the 1800s. Many of these wrecks rest in fairly shallow water, making them accessible to snorkelers as well as scuba divers.
Like Sand Key, Eastern Dry Rocks is part of a protected area and subject to special regulations. Take extra care to avoid touching corals, and do not disturb or remove any marine life.
Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson
With a historic fort, seven picturesque islands, clear turquoise waters, and abundant marine life, Dry Tortugas National Park tops many snorkelers’ bucket lists when visiting Key West.
The 100-square-mile park is known to have some of the best snorkeling in North America thanks to the pristine, untouched environment. Visitors can view diverse sea life, such as triggerfish, angelfish, damselfish, parrotfish, and queen conchs. The waters also contain around 30 species of coral, including endangered species like staghorn, elkhorn, and pillar corals.2
Dry Tortugas is located about 80 miles off of Key West, which presents some logistical challenges when getting there. The Yankee Freedom ferry runs once per day, but tickets are typically fully booked anywhere from four to eight months in advance, depending on the time of year. If you’re looking for an alternative way to reach the park, you can take a seaplane from Key West or book a private boat charter.
Keep in mind that Dry Tortugas also caps the number of daily visitors, so you’ll need to plan ahead if you want to visit this incredible snorkeling spot. Once you reach the park, you’ll have easy access to snorkeling from the beaches just next to Fort Jefferson. The calm, shallow waters make this spot suitable for all snorkelers, whether it’s your first time or you’re a seasoned underwater explorer.
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
If you don’t have time for a day trip off of Key West, you’ll find the island’s best shore snorkeling at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. Head to the main beach at the park’s southern end for the best conditions.
The waters here host tropical sea life like hard and soft corals, yellowtail snapper, parrotfish, and lobster. While marine life is more vibrant at the offshore sites listed above, Fort Zachary Taylor is a good choice for beginners. If you’re new to snorkeling, consider planning your first outing here to warm up before heading out to the reef at Sand Key or Eastern Dry Rocks.
There is a small fee of $6 per vehicle to get into the park. Once there, you’ll have access to various amenities, including showers, bathrooms, chair and umbrella rentals, picnic tables, and grills. If you don’t have your own snorkel gear, you can rent a mask, snorkel, and fins from Chickee Hut at the beach.
Although it’s known as Key West’s best beach, the sandy shores at Fort Zachary Taylor have unfortunately suffered from erosion over the years. Much of the sand beneath the waterline has washed away, leaving behind a fairly rocky seabed. Still, the park is a nice place to spend the day. In addition to snorkeling, you can enjoy stunning sunsets and outdoor activities like birdwatching, biking, hiking, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, and scuba diving.
Located in the Gulf of Mexico about 9 miles from the shores of Key West, Cottrell Key features calm waters and an interesting collection of tropical marine life. While not as nice as Sand Key, the area is known for its patch coral reef and sponge gardens.
Snorkelers can view colorful sponges, sea fans, coral heads, hogfish, stingrays, turtles, and numerous tropical fish. The area is also a popular lobstering spot during the spiny lobster season (August through March) and mini-season (end of July). If you’re interested in lobstering on your Key West vacation, you can find more information from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Visitors can get to Cottrell Key with their own boats, a private charter, or as part of a guided excursion. The mangrove island lies within the Key West National Wildlife Refuge, so make sure to familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations before visiting this protected area - especially if you’re heading there on your own.
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park, about a 45-minute drive up the Keys, makes a fantastic day trip for those visiting Key West. The park is home to the best beaches in the Florida Keys and is known for its crystal clear waters and breathtaking sunsets.
Entry into Bahia Honda costs $8 per vehicle. The park concession offers a variety of lunches and snacks as well as gear rentals, including chairs, snorkeling equipment, kayaks, and more. You can also book a reef snorkeling tour from Bahia Honda to the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, available daily.
Bahia Honda is a very popular destination and has capacity limits that can result in temporary closures, especially on holidays and weekends. Try to arrive early or plan your visit mid-week to avoid the crowds.
Best snorkeling tours and boat charters
If your timeframe and budget allow, don’t hesitate to spend the money for a boat trip out to the reefs and mangrove islands off of Key West or to Dry Tortugas. Those who want to experience the Great Florida Reef should try this half-day reef snorkeling trip with Sebago Watersports or Fury’s two-stop snorkel adventure visiting several of the best locations on the reef.
If you’re looking for a multisport backcountry adventure, consider booking this half-day cruise with Danger Charters, which features snorkeling, kayaking, sailing, and wildlife viewing off the coast of Key West.
Travelers who want to visit Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson can book a private charter or check out this full-day snorkeling trip, which includes round-trip ferry service from Key West to the national park. Just make sure to plan ahead, as the trip is often fully booked months in advance.
If larger, mixed-group tours aren’t your thing and you want a more personalized experience, you can try a private boat cruise with snorkeling, kayaking, and paddleboarding in the Key West backcountry.
Best places to stay
Since you’ll need to travel off the island to get to the best snorkeling sites, almost any hotel in Key West makes a suitable base for visitors who want to snorkel. Here are some traveler favorites to consider for your Key West vacation.
Hyatt Centric Resort and Spa is a top pick on the Gulf side with numerous amenities, including a pool, spa, fitness center, and watersports rentals. You can take a charter directly from the hotel’s private dock, and you’ll be just a short walk away from the departure point for many guided snorkeling excursions and boat tours.
Ocean Key Resort and Spa is another waterfront resort just next to the Hyatt Centric that is a popular pick among travelers. The resort overlooks the harbor and is minutes away from many of Key West’s top attractions.
On the Atlantic coast, The Reach is a 4-star resort on a private beach. The hotel is situated between Higgs Beach and Fort Zachary Taylor, providing you with easy access to the island’s snorkeling beaches.
Key West Snorkeling FAQ
Is snorkeling in Key West worth it?
While you’ll find exciting places to snorkel near Key West, the island itself does not have many interesting snorkeling spots. If you only get to snorkel from Key West’s beaches, you will likely be disappointed with the snorkeling experience. Still, Key West is a good destination for snorkelers who have the time and budget to take some day trips to the area’s most attractive underwater environments, such as the Florida Reef or Dry Tortugas.
If you’re limited on time or can’t leave the island, try Higgs Beach or Rest Beach, located next to White Street Pier. The seabed is mostly sand and seagrass and has some snappers and minnows swimming around, but overall the sealife is much more exciting at the other places on our list.
When is the best time of year to snorkel in Key West?
Key West’s tropical maritime climate means it’s possible to snorkel year-round, but springtime typically brings the best conditions. March, April, and May are ideal because the water is warmer than in the winter months, making it more pleasant for swimming, snorkeling, and other watersports.
The period from June to November falls within the Atlantic hurricane season, with the highest risk of storms occurring from mid-August to mid-October (1). You can still plan a snorkeling trip during these months, but you should prepare for the possibility of high humidity, increased rainfall, and poor conditions.
December to February is a good option for travelers who can only get away during the winter. However, water temperatures can be chilly (around 69 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit, on average), so you may want to wear a wetsuit (2).
Last updated 01 July 2023