Personal Experience Snorkeling in the Florida Keys

An introduction to snorkeling in the Florida Keys written by someone who has been doing it for years.
  1. There are really two kinds of snorkeling that people do in the Keys.

    The most common is taking a charter boat out about 5-10 miles offshore to one of a dozen nice sections of the barrier reef that has large coral colonies and lots of tropical fish. These are very protected and the water varies from 5 to 30 feet deep at most sites. Typical charters will give you about 90 minutes in the water. Some do two sites and 45-60 minutes at each site. These are very interesting and what most people want to see.

    My wife and I do one of these every couple of years. We think of these as being like going to the movies. You get to see some very cool stuff like big stony coral colonies, lots of sea fans, lot of tropical fish and maybe even a shark, a giant grouper or a big stingray. But there is very little touching of anything and very little personal interaction with sea creatures. You can take some great photos. But it’s mostly visual… like going to the movies.

    A slow day at Looe Key Reef moorings. Some days this five acres of water looks more like a boat parking lot!
    01 t Looe Key Reef.jpg
    This photo is courtesy of @Ron Reefman, ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

    Corals 10 to 15 feet down at the big reef.
    02 Corals about 10 feet down at the big reef..jpg
    This photo is courtesy of @Ron Reefman, ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

    The other less common snorkeling is in much shallower water and off the beach. Rather than being like going to the movies, these are more like going on a safari or an expedition of exploration. Now the sea floor can be as close as 1 foot to about 5 or 10 feet if you want to wander out from the beach. Now you can touch things. You can roll up a rock and see the creatures that live underneath during the day.

    Bahia Honda State Park has a huge area off an oceanside beach that is a great place to snorkel. It’s especially good if you keep your eyes open and are interested in less ‘big reef, big coral, big tropical fish’ and are more into ‘up close and personal’ encounters with smaller ocean creatures. Although some big creatures come in near shore on occasion.

    At the State Parks everything is still protected, so there is no collecting of live animals, but at least you are allowed to pick them up, look them over, photograph them and put them back. And there are lots of other locations that are not state parks and that have similar environments and ecosystems that are open to limited, regulated, licensed collecting. We do this kind of snorkeling 95% of the time because we find it way more entertaining. In my opinion, once you have seen a big reef in the Florida Keys it’s a ‘been there, done that’ kind of experience. But snorkeling in unprotected shallows is more of an exploration of discovery and a chance to get up close and personal with very alien looking creatures.

    Snorkeling in less than two feet of water just off shore at Little Money Key.
    03 Snorkeling in less than 2 feet .JPG
    This photo is courtesy of @Ron Reefman, ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

    So what kinds of things do we see during these ‘off the beach’ snorkel trips? The list is long, but the more observant you are and the more you spend time looking closely, the more you’ll see. Quickly skimming over shallow areas can become boring as so much of it looks the same. But if you slow down and just drift with the current, or even hold a position for more than a few seconds, you start to see more activity and diversity. And yes, sometimes knowing where to look can be helpful.

    Some of the most common things we see are big vase sponges, large ball sponges and lots of other variously colored sponges. We’ve seen red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple and black sponges. Some areas have lots of gorgonian corals, so many it almost becomes a forest! We find a wide variety of mollusks, crabs, anemones, sea cucumbers, sea stars, juvenile tropical fish, sea biscuits, macro algae, urchins, lobsters, upside down jellyfish, spaghetti worms, big bristle worms and even some zoas, sea fans and even some nice small SPS corals. And to be perfectly clear, it’s 100% illegal to collect any LPS or SPS corals or sea fans!

    If you’re really lucky you might see a flamingo tongue, small octopus or squid, a small mantis shrimp, a small nurse shark, a stingray or even a moray eel. We once found a 2 foot long green moray eel living in/under a big black ball sponge just 50 feet off the beach in less than 3 feet of water at Bahia Honda State Park. And with a dozen snorkelers and even some youngsters just splashing and playing nearby! I’ll add a bunch of photos we’ve taken at various sites we’ve snorkeled right off the beach in shallow water in a few posts after the article.

    This bright yellow stony coral with feather dusters attached was found in about 2 feet of water and 15 feet from dry land!
    04 This bright .JPG
    This photo is courtesy of @Ron Reefman, ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

    The following is an outline of what goes into a typical weekend snorkel trip when we go to the Florida Keys. We live about four hours from the Middle Keys by car, so it’s not expensive or difficult for us to do a long weekend. Here is the basic timeline for our travels:

    A weekend in the Keys starts about 10 to 14 days ahead of the weekend. We try to do trips when there is less going on in the Keys like lobster season, lionfish tournaments, speed boat races or on-shore festivals. It makes boat ramps more accessible and restaurants less crowded. We make motel reservations because they can easily get booked full but can be cancelled 24-hours before check-in if the weather turns bad.

    The most important thing we do is continually watch the weather predictions for the area. Winds for the weekend and even the day or two before the weekend are most important. Winds that are less than 10 mph make for the best visibility in the water which should be almost clear. Winds of 10 to 15 mph can stir things up and make visibility less than desired as well as making actual snorkel time a little less comfortable due to the water getting choppy. When winds get over 15 mph we are looking at aborting the trip altogether or looking for other things to do while we’re there. It’s really a very good idea to have at least one or two side trips picked out in case the weather doesn’t cooperate. There is more about other activities at the end of the article.

    An afternoon shower passing by well to our north. It's about a 50% chance thing, sometimes they miss you and sometimes you have to move.
    05 miss.jpg
    This photo is courtesy of @Ron Reefman, ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

    By the time we get down to a few days before the weekend, we have a pretty good handle on what to expect, and we’ve kind of roughed out our weekend. But we are always keenly aware that a snorkel weekend in the Keys is a very fickle thing and that we have to keep a very open mind to every aspect of the trip. Where we snorkel, even if we snorkel and what we do if we don’t snorkel is always open to change on the spur of the moment. A simple little afternoon thunderstorm cell that is headed at our snorkel site can dramatically change our afternoon. And a shift in weather patterns can disrupt the entire weekend with only one or two days' warning.

    We try to do at least a trip or two before the rainy season starts brewing up afternoon thunderstorms. Those become a little more frequent during June and become a semi-regular afternoon forecast from July through September. But even during the rainy season we usually can get in a before-noon snorkel and 50% of the time even an afternoon snorkel.

    Thunderstorms in south Florida and the Keys are very spotty and not at all like big fronts that create lines of thunderstorms in other parts of the country. But even the small (in area) thunderstorms can be severe and need to be taken seriously. But if you have a weather radar app on your cell phone, you can see more or less where that nearby storm cell is headed. We’ve snorkeled in sunny conditions where we’ve watched thunderstorm cells approach from near the horizon and past by 5 miles away and cause little more than some closer watching on our part.

    The day or two before the trip involves getting all our gear packed and ready to go. That involves things like checking the Zodiac and trailer from top to bottom and end to end. BTW, we snorkeled off beaches that were accessible by car for many years before we got the Zodiac so we could get away from the shore and visit smaller uninhabited islands that lie just off shore.

    Then I’ll gather up all the livestock collecting and holding gear. We use a 5-gallon Gatorade cooler (because it’s insulated) with a lid and a battery-powered bubbler for holding livestock in the boat. I use a small container like a plastic peanut butter jar with holes drilled in it to allow water to flow through and a hole in the top so a string can be attached with a loop at one end so I can fit it over my wrist and not lose it. We spend time charging batteries for cameras, VHF radio and GPS for the boat, prepping laptops, packing a power cord to run the a/c powered bubbler we use at the motel. Finally, Thursday evening we fill our tow vehicle, a Scion xB, and the boat with gas, check the tire pressures as well as water and oil levels so we are ready to leave bright and early the next morning.

    Our old soft-floor dinghy and 5hp Honda outboard. The dingy would roll up and fit in the trunk of our car.
    06 The dingy.jpg
    This photo is courtesy of @Ron Reefman, ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

    We usually drive to the Middle Keys (the city of Marathon on Vaca Key) on Friday morning, arriving at our motel, usually the Blackfin Motel & Resort, after stopping for a relaxing lunch along the way in the Upper Keys. Once we get to the motel we unpack and then decide what kind of ‘test’ snorkel we’d do in the afternoon. Test snorkels allow us to determine what we’ll want to wear when we do all day snorkeling on Saturday and Sunday.

    If the water is 85 degrees or more, all we need is a dive skin to keep the sun off and prevent sunburn. If the water is cooler we need to decide on the light-weight or medium-weight wetsuits. But lots of people just wear a bathing suit a t-shirt and lots of sun tan lotion. These short test runs would typically be just snorkeling out 100 yards from the motel beach to a small island. But if we knew the water was going to be really warm and a dive skin is all we would need, we’d drop the Zodiac in the water at the motel boat ramp and ride out to islands or shorelines that were further away from the motel.

    The view out from shore to the island we snorkel to for testing the water temperature. The tiny island at the left edge of the photo has hundreds of shallow-water rock flower anemones.
    07 The view rock flower anemones.JPG
    This photo is courtesy of @Ron Reefman, ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

    Saturday morning we would have a very light breakfast under a thatched roof canopy out on the beach. We enjoy getting outside and being close to the water and this also allows us to see first hand the wind and water conditions. Then we can discuss locations to snorkel based on observed conditions.

    Some locations are very open and exposed, so the wind can make the water choppy. The direction could determine which side of any island would be the lee side (the side down wind) and therefore calmer and more comfortable to snorkel. If the wind was toward the high end of acceptable, we’d pick a location that was better protected from the wind. We even have a couple of spots that are very well protected from the wind and waves and then only visibility becomes an issue. Waves that stir up sediment and find sand on the windward side of an island reduce visibility just about equally everywhere. Waves can be blocked by an island, but poor visibility spreads everywhere.

    After breakfast we would tow the boat to the boat ramp closest to where we wanted to snorkel and launch from there. There aren’t as many public boat ramps in the Middle Keys as I would like. On days that were calm with no serious threat of afternoon thunderstorms, we would usually plan two snorkel locations we could get to by boat. We would snorkel one for a couple of hours, take a lunch break in the Zodiac and then move to a second location and do another couple of hours snorkeling. Then back to the boat ramp, pack up our gear and anything we collected, pull the Zodiac and tow it back to the motel.

    At the motel we would shower and get cleaned up… and rest. I would also set up a cooler (rather than an aquarium) with the 120 volt powered bubbler, a small powerhead and maybe even a heater. If we kept the cooler in our room the A/C cooled air going through the bubbler would lower the water temp from the mid 80’s to the low 70’s overnight, thus the need for a heater. If there was access to electricity outside and the weather was good, I could leave the cooler outside with just the bubbler and the powerhead. The overnight temperature would only get down to about 80 so no need for the heater.

    Sometimes we’d go out for dinner. But sometimes we’d both be exhausted from the snorkeling (neither of us is as young as we wish we were) and we would make a meal with food we would bring with us and have more time to look at photographs we took during the day. Underwater photographs are usually kind of ugly until you do some computer enhancements. Most of the time our photographs just need the basic auto-correct by simple computer software. But some photos need special enhancements due to lighting issues or poor water clarity. We usually get to sleep early because we are tired from the day's activities and to help us prepare for Sunday’s snorkeling.

    If things are going well, like good weather, then Sundays look a lot like Saturdays. However we do sometimes cut down to just one location and stay there longer. After the day’s snorkeling is done, I always do a 75% to 100% water change to the cooler at the motel that is holding Saturday’s livestock. Natural sea water is only a short walk from our motel room. There is no filtration on our transport cooler so the big water change covers for that and it helps with keeping the water temperature about where the livestock is used to. We do try to get out for dinner on Sundays as a way to top off the weekend.

    Mondays we have yet another breakfast on the beach, this time just to enjoy the weather and the view! Then we pack up all our gear and the cooler gets loaded into a big plastic bag to protect the car in case of any leak or spill. The 120 volt bubbler gets switched out for the drive home with the battery powered unit we use while out on the boat. The drive home is usually uninterrupted by a stop for lunch as we are both looking forward to getting home, cleaning the boat, washing up snorkel gear, sorting out livestock and spending more time looking at and playing with photos on our laptops… oh, and getting home to our cat!

    So that’s an ideal weekend.

    But there are times when the weather just doesn’t cooperate. It can be a nice warm, sunny day, but if the wind is blowing the water could be rough and the in water visibility could be terrible. Although it’s perfectly okay to snorkel on overcast days, sunny ones make for much better photos. Light underwater gets dim pretty fast and starting with an overcast sky just makes it worse. And that’s a curiosity because when you aren’t underwater many times an overcast sky will make for better photos (softer shadows) than a bright sunny day. The sun also makes the colors pop more underwater so it makes looking for things easier.

    Afternoon thunderstorms and overcast skies can make snorkeling less fun.
    02.JPG
    This photo is courtesy of @Ron Reefman, ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

    Okay, it’s a bad day for snorkeling, so what do you do? We’ve been to the Aquarium Encounter, the Turtle Hospital, the History of Diving Museum, the Shady Palm Art Gallery and the Rain Barrel Artisan Village to name a few. We also look for photography opportunities that we can take advantage of even if it’s raining. And of course there are a host of other possibilities in all the Keys and especially in Key West. We also take advantage of these days to find new places to eat. We’ve found the variety of venues for food and drink are just about limitless. From small mom & pop diners to high end dining, from sports bars to quiet hideaways and from cheap fast food to reasonably priced restaurants with some kind of special atmosphere.

    I moved to SW Florida in 1999 and met my wife about nine months later. She already enjoyed snorkeling as much or more than me. So we started doing a trip to the Keys that first summer. The next year we did two trips and went along with our local reef aquarium club when they did a weekend ‘field trip’ to snorkel and collect.

    From that point on we get to the Keys to snorkel at least three times and occasionally even 4-5 times over a year. I guess to me it’s a combination of a chance to enjoy a totally alien environment, have some quiet time away from people while relaxing out on the water, explore and interact with various sea creatures, take some very cool photos, and collect a few critters I can take home to my reef tank. And over the winter, by February, we’re both anxious to get back to May and a snorkel trip to the Keys!

    If anybody is interested in asking questions about anything related to this article, please ask in the discussion here or go to my thread about snorkeling and collecting that I try to keep updated after every trip. There is a link to that thread in my signature file below.

    Over the next week or two I will post a lot of photos from our snorkeling trips. So check back every few days.

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    Author Profile: @Ron Reefman

    @Ron Reefman has been keeping saltwater aquariums for almost 20 years. A few weeks ago, there was a profile of him. He lives in Florida and is happy to share his ocean adventures with us all.

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