Best Places For Snorkeling In Florida
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Couple a remarkable coastline with a plethora of natural springs and throw in a hot, sunny climate and it’s no wonder Florida’s so great for snorkeling. It’s the perfect way to cool off as you make the most of the clear, warm water to take in the state’s underwater sights. But where should you go?
Here’s a roundup of the seventeen best places for snorkeling in Florida: they should give you some inspiration before your next vacation in the Sunshine State.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Key Largo
John Pennekamp is well known for an underwater statue of Jesus, also referred to as Christ of the Abyss. Boats head out when the water is calm to ferry snorkelers to this iconic 9 foot tall bronze.
It’s surrounded by various types of coral including staghorn and elkhorn coral, and you won’t be underwater for long before you spot rays and barracuda swimming nearby. It’s also possible to snorkel straight from the shore.
Head to Cannon Beach and you can share the water with the cannons and anchor of a wreck. Watch shoals of snapper, mackerel or tarpon dart in and out of the seagrass or check out the crabs that scuttle on the sandy sea bed.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Offshore from Key West is Dry Tortugas National Park, a cluster of islands in the Gulf of Mexico that you’ll need a boat or a seaplane to reach. But when you do, you’ll find the water teeming with marine life. Exploring these islands is one of the top things to do on the Florida bucket list.
Take a look at Fort Jefferson before heading into the clear water from white sand beach into this protected marine sanctuary. Colorful tropical fish dart in and out of the coral reef and gently swaying sea grass.
One of the best sites is easy to find close to the moat wall and the shallow water makes it accessible for anyone who can swim. More experienced snorkelers will enjoy exploring two sets of coaling dock ruins.
The metal pilings that once supported the wharves are now rusted and encrusted with coral; expect to catch sight of sea anemones, sponges and barracuda.
Phil Foster Park, Riviera Beach
A short distance north of West Palm Beach you’ll come across the Blue Heron Bridge at Riviera Beach. There, the local authorities have created a special snorkeling trail, constructing an 800 foot long artificial reef from limestone boulders and prefabricated reef modules which sits in between six and ten feet of water.
You can reach it by swimming out from the beach, so there’s no need to mess around arranging boat transport. Simply don fins, pull on a mask and you’re good to go.
Awaiting those who venture offshore are starfish, squid, spotted rays, octopuses, seahorses and tropical fish – the structure is specially designed with ledges to attract a diverse range of marine life.
You’re also guaranteed to see three hammerhead sharks – though they are concrete statues which form an art installation rather than the real thing.
Sometimes the drama is more important than the detail: this extraordinary flooded underground cavern with a history dating back to prehistoric times is one of the best places to snorkel anywhere in Florida.
The warm water maintains a consistent temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit no matter when you visit, but in winter, when the warm air escapes from a vent in the cave’s ceiling and meets the cooler layer above, you’ll often see steam.
Light filters through that hole to give the cavern a magical feel. Underwater, though it doesn’t have the same marine variety as some sites do, you are still likely to be snorkeling alongside shoals of fish.
Reach the water by descending two sets of stairs which lead to a barely submerged platform – great for kids who might need to haul themselves out for a rest every now and again.
Egmont Key State Park
Wildlife enthusiasts should add Egmont Key State Park to their Florida itinerary. Located in the St Pete Beach area but only accessible by boat, it tends to be less crowded than other snorkeling spots along this part of the coast.
Hop on one of the summer ferries and slip into the water for a good chance of glimpsing bottlenose dolphins, crabs, octopuses and fish such as snapper. The place is also home to one of the biggest sea turtle nesting grounds in Florida.
Another reason to snorkel here is to explore the submerged ruins of some Spanish-American War era fortifications, located to the south west.
At Crystal River, located 80 miles north of Tampa, you’ll have company when you snorkel – this part of Florida is home to a sizeable population of manatees and tours can be arranged for you to swim alongside them.
Though weather, tides and seasonal variations alter the number of these magnificent creatures on a daily basis, Crystal River does have a resident population which stay in the area year-round, making sightings common.
As a protected species, the welfare of the manatees is crucial, so if you wish to get into the water with them you’ll be given a thorough briefing before doing so.
To improve visibility and reduce the chance of kicking a manatee accidentally, you’ll wear no fins and an experienced guide will accompany you while in the water.
This interesting island, reached by boat from Key West, takes its name from the captain of a lightship that was anchored here in the 19th century. Cottrell Key, which sits about five miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, boasts a sizeable coral reef which is rich in marine life.
Snorkelers here might see rays, spiny lobsters, sea urchins, parrotfish, snapper, grouper, sea sponges and even sharks in the warm shallow water. The sandy sea bed, littered with coral and seagrass, is a good place to spot conch shells.
Though people also come here for river tubing and scuba diving, snorkeling is one of the most popular activities at this natural warm water springs.
Connected to the Santa Fe River, the water temperature reaches about 72 degrees Fahrenheit, making this comfortable for snorkeling year-round, though the visibility is best during summer and early autumn.
Don mask and fins to spot fish such as mullet, bass and catfish. You might also catch sight of turtles in the clear water, and occasionally even an alligator.
It’s no hidden gem, however, and on weekends the place can get really busy – try to time your visit for when it’s likely to be quieter, out of peak season and on a week day. There are seven different springs to explore, so you might want to come back for a return visit.
Biscayne National Park
Handy for Miami, Biscayne National Park boasts a tempting combination of coral reefs, mangroves and shipwrecks. The area’s Maritime Heritage Trail boasts six wrecks and three of the sites can be enjoyed by snorkelers (for Erl King, Alicia and Lugano, you’ll need scuba gear).
In addition, you can snorkel around the base of the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, which is the latest landmark to be added to the trail. Close by, you’ll find the Arratoon Apcar, a steamship which broke apart in 1878.
However, the highlight for snorkelers is Mandalay. This steel-hulled schooner had a magnificent teak deck and mahogany fittings. It was the ultimate in luxury before it ran aground on Long Reef on New Year’s Day in 1966.
Stripped of its valuables before salvage teams could reach it, what’s left is an extraordinary shallow water wreck just waiting to be explored.
Point of Rocks
Close to the powdery sands of Siesta Key lies one of the Gulf Coast’s best snorkeling spots. Located at the south end of Crescent Beach, Point of Rocks is a limestone outcrop that attracts shoals of fish.
It’s worth getting your bearings at low tide, when the rocky ledges poke out from the water, but you’ll need to return at high tide to snorkel with the myriad marine life. Then, the depth of the water is typically between five and twenty feet deep.
It’s not uncommon to find yourself sharing the space with tropical fish, hermit crabs, crustaceans and sometimes even dolphins or manatees.
Though you can venture in year-round, the cooler winter temperatures mean you’ll need a wetsuit for the chilliest few months.
Midway along the overwater highway to Key West, pull in at Pigeon Key where the waters surrounding the old Seven Mile Bridge are a popular spot for snorkeling.
The bridge originally carried Henry Flagler’s railroad to Key West, but the tracks became redundant after the damage wrought by the 1935 Labor Day hurricane and eventually the structure was bypassed by a new bridge.
Today, bits of metal encrusted with barnacles make for interesting underwater exploring, so throw your mask and fins into the car if you want to see for yourself.
The current around here can be strong, so you’ll also need to carry a dive flag and register with the visitor center before you ease yourself off the dock and into the water.
However, despite such formalities, this place is still suitable for beginners who’ll enjoy watching the fish weave in and out of the seagrass beds.
If you find yourself in the vicinity of West Palm Beach, then jump in the regular shuttle boat or a water taxi for the short ride out to Peanut Island. It’s one of the best snorkeling locations in this part of Florida.
This islet originally served as the shipping terminal for a factory manufacturing peanut oil, hence the name. These days, the water around its shoreline is crystal clear and the rock breakwater that protects it serves as an artificial reef that’s a magnet for marine life.
Among the various species that you might see are sea sponges, parrotfish, angel fish, starfish, tarpon and green moral eels. The calm waters also attract manatees – they also hang out in the mangroves which you can see from the boardwalk.
Half Moon Shipwreck
You’ll find this wreck off Key Biscayne near Miami. Originally a German racing yacht, it was built in 1908 but was confiscated during World War One by the British.
A few years later, a Norwegian by the name of Hannevig bought it at auction and sailed it across the Atlantic. He too didn’t own it for long before going bankrupt. It changed hands again several times, serving various functions such as a floating bar and a fishing boat.
Eventually, the pattern of damage and repair came to an end in 1930 when it foundered during a storm. The Half Moon lay forgotten on its side until 1987 but today is in pretty good shape for a wreck, making it a must-visit for snorkelers.
In fact, it’s been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2001 and lies in just a few feet of water, making it relatively straightforward to get a good look.
If you want to admire the ship’s bell, however, you’ll need to stop by the Marine Museum and Discovery Laboratory at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Nature Center on Key Biscayne before you leave.
Twin Ledges lies offshore from Fort Lauderdale. It’s best suited to experienced snorkelers and you’re best off signing up for a tour to get out to this site.
Once you’re there, you can drop into the water, but be warned, the bar jack and porgies might see you as dinner and have a – harmless – little nibble. They’ll most likely give up as soon as you start to move away.
Follow the long and narrow Twin Ledges reef, which offers extraordinary views of the seabed. Stick close to the rock for the best underwater scenery. Blue sea fans and colorful soft corals sway gently, a home for surgeonfish, pufferfish, sergeant major fish, parrotfish, angelfish and snapper.
Avoid sudden movements or they’ll dart away. Look closely and you might also spot the telltale antenna of a lobster concealed within a rocky crevice.
Silver Glen Springs
Another of Florida’s famous natural springs is Silver Glen, located in the Ocala National Forest. Its fabulously clear water is a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit all year round.
Some of the water is shallow enough to wade in, but you’ll be glad of your snorkel equipment as you dip your head in to peer down into the deeper areas. Most of it’s about two to four feet deep, with limestone, roots and algae on the bottom.
You can expect to share the place with myriad marine life including turtles, plenty of striped bass and other fish such as mullet and sunfish.
In winter, manatees have been known to venture here too, lured by the promise of warmer temperatures.
Henderson Beach State Park
There are a number of great places to snorkel near Destin, and one of the best is Henderson Beach State Park. This part of Florida is nicknamed the Emerald Coast because of the vivid color of the water against the bright white sand of its beaches.
Henderson Beach State Park, backed by beautiful, thirty foot tall dunes, is a nesting ground for turtles. Snorkel in the transparent water and you might just find yourself beside one, though resist the temptation to touch as they’re a protected species.
Also in the area, you might want to head to East Pass and Destin Jetties, where the jetties themselves act like artificial reefs and draw in fish such as snapper and barracuda. Local tour operators will kit you out with mask and fins as well as direct you to the most likely marine life hotspots.
If you’re not a strong swimmer, time your visit for slack high tide when the visibility is better and the current not as powerful.
John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, North Palm Beach
Step right off the beach into a marine paradise at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park at North Palm Beach. The shoreline here stretches for two breathtaking miles along Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Brown rock reefs are exposed at low tide and covered by around ten feet of water at high tide. They host a diverse range of species.
Snapper and grunts hang out beneath ledges, and you can also see squid, lobsters, snook, yellow jack, sea anemones, tarpon, shrimp and crab.
Best of all, you won’t have to swim far – perhaps 50 yards at most – to see them. The occasional shark slides through and there’s also the possibility of loggerhead and green turtles. April to October is ray season.
Ready To Explore Florida’s Snorkeling Spots?
Now you’ve worked out where to go for the best chance of seeing marine life, all you need to do is unpack your fins and mask before heading down to the water.
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced snorkeler, and no matter which part of Florida you’re planning to visit for your vacation, there’s a site that’s just perfect for you.
It’s time to find out how enjoyable the Sunshine State’s wrecks, reefs, ledges and natural springs are for those who spend time in these warm, clear waters.