As many of us have found while living or vacationing in Florida, snorkeling can be a hit-or-miss proposition. With nearly 1200 miles of coastline, Florida offers a plethora of shore types, open-water visibility conditions and sea floor compositions. The quality of the snorkeling experience varies widely throughout the coastline of Florida.
But Key West offer a consistent and favorable snorkeling experience all yearlong with clear visibility and hundreds of colorful, and accessible, living coral reefs from which to choose.
Many Key West snorkeling reviews address the topics of Florida Keys snorkeling from shore and snorkeling in the Keys without a boat. Here we will open up the kimono to see all that the Keys has to offer in breathtaking snorkeling by guided tour boat.
I grew up on the West Coast of Florida and I’ve snorkeled and spearfished extensively there, as well as throughout the Florida Keys. In my experience it’s all about local knowledge and access to the best snorkel spots. I’m talking about the kind of locations which the typical tourist will never know about nor experience.
In reviewing the 3 top-rated snorkeling tour operators we will give the highlights and select one that will be named none other than our “Editor’s Choice”.
First, let’s take a look at the 3 snorkeling excursions in Key West along with details of each.
- Key West: Shipwreck and Wild Dolphin Encounter Snorkel Tour
- Islamorada: Eco-Adventure and Snorkel Tour
- Key West: Half-Day Cruise with Kayaking and Snorkeling Tour
Then we’ll share some considerations for choosing the snorkeling trip that best suits your tastes. Here’s an overview of the 3 top picks:
Best Snorkeling Tours in Key West
#1 Best Snorkeling in Key West: Shipwreck Snorkel and Wild Dolphin Encounter Tour
As far as the bucket list of snorkeling goes, swimming with dolphins tops the list. And a shipwreck visible from the ocean surface isn’t far behind. On this amazing little excursion you may actually do both. While it isn’t a guarantee with weather and seasonality that you’ll be swimming among the dolphins, the shipwreck isn’t going anywhere.
Take a catamaran ride on the spacious and comfy Echo to the waters just off of Key West on the way to a shipwreck dive and a shallow water coral reef dive.
Echo departs from the old seaport called Key West Bight. You will then begin the journey into clear blue waters off the Key West coast for this exciting 4-hour adventure.
Wide-body catamarans are a quick and comfortable type of sailing vessel. And the professionally-captained Echo is a well-maintained vessel, suited to carrying passengers under sail or power.
But you won’t feel rushed to get to the dive sites on this chill boat ride as you take in the sites and search the horizon for dolphins, turtles and other sea life.
The Shipwreck Tour and Wild Dolphin Encounter is also an excellent option for guests who won’t be taking part in the snorkeling, but who would rather relax with a beverage and take in the scenery while looking for dolphins and other sea life.
On the return trip you’ll be served fresh fruits, snacks and beverages. Beer and wine is available for guests over 21 years of age.
Note: All snorkeling equipment is provided onboard Echo and is sanitized prior to use.
For tour prices, transportation and availability:
#2 Best Snorkeling In Islamorada: Eco-Adventure and Snorkel Cruise Tour
The Eco –Adventure and Snorkel Cruise combines the ecology of the Florida Keys with the history of the Florida Keys. It is a unique water tour experience that covers some 13 miles of the Florida Keys in and around the island city of Islamorada.
Islamorada is situated in the upper stretch of the Keys about 80 miles from Downtown Miami and 80 miles from Key West, making it easily accessible to many travelers.
Cruising on a 30 foot Parker power boat this tour can cover more territory than sailboat-based snorkel tours.
If snorkeling the reefs is what interests you most then the tour can be tailored to hit as many of the area’s beautiful reef structures as possible.
Other activities can be selected on the tour which include:
Features of the Eco Adventure Tour:
- Sightseeing at Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park
- Tarpon feeding at Robbie’s Marina
- Tour of the Matheson House (1919-built)
- Visit to Indian Key Historic State Park
The Coast Guard-certified captain knows the history and highlights of the region and can explain the history, as well as the natural ecology, of this unique marine destination.
Eco –Adventure and Snorkel Cruise tour gives its guests a variety of experiences from which to choose.
The boat is comfortable, speedy and spacious. There are padded seats with back rests for rougher seas and also a much-appreciated bimini shade top covering the entire center console.
So this trip is for great for snorkeling, power boat cruising, sightseeing and just plain relaxing around the islands and reefs of Islamorada, Florida.
The added bonus is the historical backdrop from which to take in the whole experience and to actually get some “local flavor”.
It’s not the typical touristy “brochure-type” tour.
For tour prices, transportation and availability:
#3 Key West Snorkeling: Half-Day Cruise with Kayaking and Snorkeling Tour
If kayaking and snorkeling are on your list of preferred water activities in the Florida Keys, then the Half-Day Cruise with Kayaking and Snorkeling is a good opportunity to do both in one combined excursion. The tour leaves from the Westin Marina in Key West by sailboat and takes you through the canals and waterways of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge.
There you are free to navigate the maze of mangrove-clustered islands in a kayak and experience a variety of tropical birds, sting rays and game fish.
Occasionally small sharks are also spotted in the crystal clear waters. After kayaking you will snorkel over a colorful, living coral reef – home to hundreds of marine species.
Tropical fish, rays, lobster and eels are commonly spotted along with predatory fish including barracudas.
The guide(s) on this tour will provide instruction for both kayaking and snorkeling. And they are well-informed about Florida Keys history and its abundance of marine wildlife.
Half Day Snorkel Tour Highlights:
- Includes sailing, kayaking and snorkeling in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge
- Choose from a morning or afternoon departure on a sailboat with room for up to 21 people
- Snacks and beverages are included in the tour package (Beer, wine, sodas and water are available)
- All snorkeling equipment is provided and included in the tour package
Whether you’re an avid snorkeler or you enjoy kayaking – or you like both – then this half-day sailing cruise is ideal for you. Don’t miss out on a half day of spectacular water activities in the Florida Keys.
For tour prices, transportation and availability:
Since we were kids the proposition of staying below the surface of the water while still breathing the surface air was simply fascinating. For as long as we dared we could stay facedown in our neighbor’s pool and experience a whole other world – underwater – without concern for holding our breath or “running out of air”.
As we ventured into the natural world of ocean snorkeling it became a challenge of adequate water clarity and reasonably calm surface conditions. And if things were just so then an incredible array of wildlife could be experienced including fish, shellfishes, crabs, coral and marine plantlife.
Weather conditions have everything to do with underwater visibility and the overall quality of the snorkeling experience. Luckily, the snorkeling excursions listed above are based in the Florida Keys where visibility is excellent – nearly swimming pool clarity. And sea life thrives in the year-round warm water of the Keys.
Snorkeling Class for Beginners
The Ideal Snorkeling Experience
For those who have experienced great snorkeling they know that visibility is numero uno and what’s in the water to be seen is a close second. Coral reefs are the most popular attraction for snorkelers. Because they offer color, diversity and of course – fish. Even the famed, magnificent moray eel, and its relatives, hang in and around the reef.
The ecosystem of a living, growing coral reef has fascinated the scientific and naturalist community ever since the first underwater excursions discovered reefs using diving helmets in the 1800s. The existence of pristine blue waters and a healthy, living coral reef which is just a few feet below the water’s surface is a remarkable site.
Water depth, like visibility, plays a large role in the snorkeling experience. If marine life is in deep water then it’s unlikely to be fully-visible using just snorkeling apparatus. Likewise, if a man-made structure such as a ship or boat wreck is too deep to be accessed by snorkeling then it warrants looking for snorkeling sites with more shallow depths. We’ll talk more about water depth in the “Be Safe – Know Your Limits” section below.
Ideal conditions for snorkeling exist when water clarity and reasonable water depth exist, (anywhere between about 4 feet and 25 feet) and there is interesting marine life or man-made structures to view.
Some examples of underwater features for snorkeling:
- Multi-colored reef structures
- Rocky shorelines
- Offshore rock formations
- Man-made reef structures (concrete debris etc.)
- Man-made wrecks (boats, ships etc)
Florida Keys Snorkeling
There are said to be some 600 species of sea life on the reefs surrounding Key West and the Florida Keys chain of islands. It will depend on your mode of accessing the reefs as well as the seasonal weather conditions whether you experience some, or many, of the aquatic wonders of the Florida Keys.
Some reef structures may be near the shore and accessible by “walk-in snorkeling” while most of the reef structures of the Florida Keys are only accessible by boat.
The Florida Keys are a one-of-a-kind ecosystem and living coral is a fragile organism. Standing on reefs and touching coral will break it, therefore separating it from the coral farm and killing it.
Federal and Florida state regulations, as well as Monroe County statutes, are in place, and well-enforced, to protect coral reefs from damage and deterioration. Nonetheless, water pollution, sedimentation and tourist impact have taken a toll on the coral reefs in recent past.
Spearfishing is strictly regulated because of the impact it has on living coral as well as the game fish populations of the Florida Keys. The rules and regulations on spearfishing in the Keys can be tricky. For more information of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the regulations for spearfishing in Monroe County, Florida see the following:
Always be respectful of the reef system and obey these guidelines to ensure the future of the ecosystem for generations to come.
Be Safe – Know Your Limits
Being deemed a “good swimmer” is a relative matter. And when snorkeling in open waters such as the Florida Keys you should always be respectful of the physical challenges, as well as the dangers. Especially in wind and choppy seas the snorkeling experience can be physically demanding.
As mentioned above some underwater features will be too deep to access using just a mask, snorkel and fins rig, and are better suited to scuba diving. It is important to know just how far you can free dive, and hold your breath safely, and as a good rule of thumb don’t push the limits until you’re comfortable with more depth and duration.
Very few snorkeling accidents are reported. Nonetheless, it’s good practice to stay safe and be respectful of your own physical human limits. A great day of snorkeling should not be a laborious undertaking. And a lot of the coral reef structures of the Florida Keys can be witnessed when just floating on the surface above the reef.
Be safe and have fun in the underwater playground in Key West.