I am an avid free diver, snorkeler, scuba diver, and anything-in-the-ocean kind of person. I spent two summers working at dive shops in Roatan Honduras, and have also lived in Hawaii. So the Florida Keys are naturally one of my favorite places in the world.
I love the turquoise waters packed with marine life of all types (I love nudibranchs especially!), the island vibes, and the cultural influences of South Florida and the Caribbean.
If you snorkel the Keys, you will be welcomed by a reef home to grouper, snapper, the occasional sea turtle or shark, Christmas Tree worms (love those too), tang, and grunt.
There are lots of options for boat tours to take you to offshore spots, but I really recommend you bring your own gear so you can check out the little patches of snorkel heaven from shore, too.
In this guide, I will take you through some of the best snorkeling spots in the Florida Keys, so you can check out all that marine life for yourself.
Snorkel spots in the Keys
Pennekamp State Park
Matt Kieffer from London, United Kingdom, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is home to the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States. The park itself covers nearly 70 square miles, and there are tons of places to snorkel within it.
After you’ve checked out the pristine reefs at the park, be sure not to miss the mangrove and seagrass bed snorkeling here either. These are both unique habitats that offer a different experience than the reef. Mangroves are breeding grounds for many fish species and important to their population’s health, and you can see the numerous fish hiding within their extensive root systems.
Perhaps the most famous spot in Pennekamp is the Christ of the Abyss statue, located in about 20 feet of water off the coast of the park. It is accessible with a tour group and is very beginner friendly.
Ahh… nothing like a dip in the ocean in the Keys! (Cannon Beach)
Cannon Beach is a beautiful little spot located inside Pennekamp State Park. It not only is a great spot for a day in the sand, but there is also one of the best spots for beginners. There is a designated swimming area where you can get your feet wet at snorkeling (figuratively and literally), and its one of my favorite beaches to just hang out and spend some time.
It’s also the safest spot on this list for small children, although you still need to watch them carefully. And, as the name implies – there are cannon on the beach. You can read more about their history here. There is also kayaking, paddle boarding, and other water activities here too.
The water is clear and calm, so this is a very beginner friendly area, and there is a reef just a short swim from the entrance. While the snorkeling here is not as good as other spots on this list, especially some of the off-shore spots, it is one of the best places to go if you have never been snorkeling or don’t have much experience in the water.
Alligator Reef is another popular spot located in the Upper Keys, about 4 miles offshore from Islamorada. It is named after a Navy schooner the Alligator, which was an anti-piracy ship that ran aground in this area in 1822. A lighthouse was built here about 50 years later to warn ships of the jagged, shallow reef that has caused the downfall of numerous vessels.
This is another off-shore spot, but well worth a snorkel boat tour so you can see it! Like other spots in the Keys, the reef here is pristine and filled with reef species, like tang, grunt, angelfish, and butterflyfish.
Cheeca Rocks is a popular snorkeling spot located just off Islamorada and marked by just 4 boundary buoys. You will need a boat to get here, so it’s best to book with a local guide who can take you there. But the waters here are incredible!
Because Cheeca Rocks is a National Marine Sanctuary Preservation Area, no fishing is allowed here, which means you’ll find a larger abundance of, and bigger, fish than you might in areas that have been heavily fished.
Curry Hammock State Park
Ebyabe, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Curry Hammock State Park is a hidden little gem located in the Middle Keys, and is the largest stretch of undeveloped land between Key Largo and Big Pine Key.
There isn’t a coral reef at Curry Hammock, but there are seagrass beds that are an important habitat for many species of fish. It’s a great place to get in the water, get experience snorkeling, and see another important Keys habitat.
Because the seagrass beds are an important nursery ground for many species of fish, most of what you will see here will be small, so keep your eyes peeled for the little baby fish, shrimp, and other wildlife. Please note that you must have a diver down flag to snorkel here.
There are tons of other activities in the park, including biking on the Overseas Heritage Trail, fishing, hiking, and camping.
Franz Stellbrink, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Sombrero Beach is in Marathon, and is a pristine white sandy beach with shallow waters perfect for snorkeling. The entrance is right from the beach – no boat required – and the area is filled with marine life.
In addition to snorkeling, you can also go kayaking and of course just hang out on the beach here. This is a turtle nesting spot, and typically some of the beach is reserved for their nests. But if you get lucky you might just be able to see one!
And if you live in the Keys, you can volunteer to help monitor beaches for sea turtles, rescue injured turtles, and provide other support. Sombrero Beach would be a top spot for these volunteers, where you can get up close and personal with these majestic, ancient creatures.
Not to be confused with Sombrero Beach, the reef is located in Sombrero Key, several miles offshore. The waters here are shallow, from around 2 feet to 30 feet deep, so they are ideal for snorkeling.
Bahia Honda State Park
Located in the Lower Florida Keys, Bahia Honda State Park is one of the best places in the area for snorkeling and beach activities. There are a total of three beaches here, as well as a large reef system.
Best of all, it’s beginner friendly too. The water here is shallow and usually calm, so you don’t have to worry as much as other spots about ocean current, tides, etc.
Fort Zachary Taylor Park
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic Park is located in Key West and offers a variety of outdoor activities, including snorkeling. The park boasts clear, shallow water and a variety of marine life, including parrotfish, sergeant majors, and queen angelfish.
This park is very friendly for beginner snorkelers, with easy access from the beach. There isn’t as much reef here, but the rock jetties form kind of an artificial reef and are home to some really cool fish. When I was here last, I saw big barracuda and other game species hanging out around the jetties. Honestly, outside of maybe the Tortugas and Pennekamp it’s my favorite spot to snorkel in the Keys.
Fort Zachary is also a good spot for bicycling, swimming, hiking, and paddle boarding.
Looe Key Reef
Located about 5 nautical miles off the coast of Big Pine Key, Looe Key Reef is a hidden gem that offers some of the best snorkeling experiences in the Florida Keys. The reef is part of the Looe Key Sanctuary Preservation Area, and its shallow, crystal clear waters make it an ideal spot for snorkeling.
Since this is an off-shore snorkel trip, the best way to explore Looe Key Reef is by taking a tour with a local operator. The guides are knowledgeable about the reef and can take you to the best spots to see the different species of fish and coral.
While you’re in Big Pine Key, be sure to check out its many nature reserves, including the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge and the National Key Deer Refuge, which provide a unique opportunity to see some of the local wildlife above the water too. The Key Deer is a (really cute) endangered species, and if you’re lucky you may get to see one during your visit here.
The Dry Tortugas are a group of islands located about 70 miles west of Key West. In fact, they are so far out you could just about get to Cuba in the same distance! Because of that, the Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the system.
While you do need a boat to get here, the good thing for beginner snorkelers is that once you’re there you can snorkel from the beach. The ocean is not quite as calm as Cannon Beach, but it is still beginner friendly, and the reef is among the best in the entire Keys. Water depths are around 15-20 feet, with huge pieces of coral supporting the myriad tropical fish that call it home.
While you’re in the Tortugas, check out Fort Jefferson, a fort the US government spent nearly 30 years building in the 1800s but never completed. It was built with the intention of supporting Naval ships patrolling the Gulf of Mexico, and it also played a role in the Civil War when the Union army used it to cut off Confederate shipping routes.
The Florida Keys is a treasure trove of underwater wonders, and snorkeling is the best way to explore them. There are places for everyone to have a great time snorkeling here, regardless of your skill level. There are a variety of ecosystems to explore here too, so while the reefs may be what they Keys are known for don’t miss out on the snorkeling opportunities in the mangroves or seagrass beds either.