I have been a Florida resident for nearly 10 years and have had the opportunity to travel throughout the state. Florida has a lot of great sights and beaches, but there are only certain places that are amazing for snorkeling. Snorkeling is when you dive in a body of water using a mask, flippers on your feet (called fins), and a snorkel. The snorkel is a tube that allows you to breathe. The mask fits over your eyes and nose, and the snorkel goes in your mouth. The snorkel is bent so that the other end comes out of the water, allowing you to breathe through your mouth while your face is in the water. Snorkeling can be a lot of fun for older children and adults who are comfortable with swimming and who are physically fit. Unlike SCUBA diving, snorkeling does not require certification or an oxygen tank, so many people can do it. In general, most people who snorkel remain close to the surface of the water and occasionally dive down to see something closer. Snorkeling is a great way to be in nature and is really good exercise.
If you are planning to snorkel frequently or do not like the thought of sharing gear with other people, you should think about getting your own snorkeling gear. You can buy the mask, fins, and snorkel at a dive shop in your community or in Florida. When you purchase these items you should try on the mask and fins. The mask is the most important. It should fit your face well with no gaps and allow you to see your surroundings. Prescription masks can be purchased for people who wear glasses or contacts. Also, consider buying a dry snorkel, which prevents water from going down the tube into your mouth. Although more expensive, a dry snorkel can allow you to better snorkel when water is rough or if you want to dive deeper in the water.
There are two types of snorkeling in Florida—freshwater snorkeling in springs and rivers, and saltwater snorkeling in oceans. This review covers my experiences with the more common saltwater snorkeling.
Gulf Coast Snorkeling
If you are going to be near the Tampa Bay area (Tampa, St. Petersburg, or Clearwater), one interesting place to go snorkeling is Egmont Key. Egmont Key is a Florida state park and wildlife refuge. It is only accessible by boat. If you are visiting the area, you can get to it from a ferry that departs Ft. Deto Park (which is consistently named one of the top beaches in the United States) in St. Petersburg or you can take a chartered boat or group tour. There are a number of attractions on the island, including a lighthouse and picnic areas. The highlight of the snorkeling is that you can snorkel through the ruins of Fort Dade, which was erected in 1898 during the threat of the Spanish-American war. However, when I snorkeled there in July, the water was quite murky. I have heard there is better visibility at different times of the year, but have not had the opportunity to go back.
Florida Keys Snorkeling
The Florida Keys consist of hundreds of islands, some of which are connected by a two-lane stretch of U.S. Highway 1. The Keys are grouped into three categories: the Upper Keys (closer to Miami), Middle Keys, and Lower Keys (including Key West). I have snorkeled in three places in the Florida Keys: Key Largo, in the Upper Keys; Marathon, in the Middle Keys; and Key West, in the Lower Keys. The advantage of snorkeling in the Florida Keys is the beautiful clarity of the water. Both times I have visited the Keys were in the summer. The water was very warm and clear, like a swimming pool. One thing to note if you have never been to the Florida Keys is that beaches are rare and small, unlike other places in Florida.
Snorkeling Key Largo
If you want to go snorkeling and want a relatively quick and easy trip from Miami, Key Largo is a great place to go. There are several ways to go snorkeling in Key Largo. You can charter a private or group snorkeling charter or you can select a snorkeling trip at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The snorkeling trips leave regularly from the park via a large boat. It is inexpensive, and you can rent snorkeling equipment if you need it. The boat will take you to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. In most group boat trips, you will be issued a life jacket for your snorkeling experience. During my dive at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the boat anchored at a distance from the reef. I am a strong swimmer, but for those who are not, the length of the swim may be tough. One of the best parts about this reef was that it was shallow, giving you a close view of fish, the reef, and other creatures. In fact, it was so shallow that it was difficult to swim without kicking the reef, which can cause damage to the coral. You have to be very careful. Another good aspect of this snorkeling experience was that the water was calm, like glass. In short, I would highly recommend this snorkeling experience if you happen to be in Key Largo.
Without a doubt, my best snorkeling experience was in Marathon, Florida, in the Middle Keys. In Marathon, I went on a group snorkeling trip with about 20 other people. The large open boat left from a marina and went to Sombrero Reef, which is known for its historical lighthouse constructed in 1857 by Union General George Meade. The day that I went was clear and sunny, but the water was rough. Consequently, some people on the boat were seasick. Our boat was able to get very close to the reef, so we did not have to swim far to see the vibrant wildlife. When I jumped into the water, the experience was amazing. It was like being dropped into an aquarium of large and colorful fish, including a school of barracuda that were about four feet long, who were lounging under the boat. The water was relatively shallow and clear allowing you to see every detail of the reef and fish nearby. While I did not have any difficulties with snorkeling in the rough water, it was hard for some other people. Despite the rough conditions, I would highly recommend the snorkeling.
Snorkeling Key West
Key West is in the Lower Keys and is famous for many things, including its nightlife, Ernest Hemingway’s house, cats with six toes, sunsets, and street performers. During my trip to Key West, I had the opportunity to snorkel two times. One time was at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. If you are staying in town, you can walk or bike to it. The park has a beach with a lot of tree shade. It offers picnic tables and grills if you want to bring your own food. The snorkeling at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park was simple in that you did not have to take a boat anywhere to do it. You did not have to wear a lifejacket. You could just walk into the water! One of the best parts of this experience was that there were large rocks in shallow water. If you were careful, you could stand on them and see fish in the clear water.
My other Key West snorkeling experience was through a group snorkeling and kayaking boat tour, which took us to small islands close to the Key West harbor. The snorkeling was remarkable in that I snorkeled with a medium sized nurse shark. However, there was less to see during this excursion, as compared to my other Florida Keys snorkeling trips, because I was not near a reef. The water was relatively clear, but there was little sea life to see. Besides the shark, most of what I saw included tiny fish and lobsters. The kayaking portion of the tour was much more interesting.
If you are thinking about a trip to Florida and have the time to go snorkeling, I would highly recommend it. I look forward to new snorkeling adventures during my travels around Florida!