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Florida Keys Snorkelling adventures: Where to go and what to see

… This is a guest post by James Buff of TheAdventurerr.com …

The joy of discovering the underwater world begins with the simple act of putting your face in the water. That first snorkeling experience is quite often the beginning of a lifelong fascination with the ocean. That’s how it started for me over 20 years ago, snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. If it is this fabulous to snorkel, what must it be like to dive? The next year I became a certified scuba diver and haven’t stopped exploring the oceans since.

We have some great snorkeling and diving right here in the USA, and particularly in the Florida Keys. You can rent a mask, fins, and snorkel almost anywhere in the Keys for a very small price compared to the enjoyment you and your family will experience drifting over the coral.

Age doesn’t matter, so get everyone involved in snorkeling and increase their comfort level in the water before starting kids or adults on dive certification classes. Once they get a birdseye view of what incredible things you can see, you won’t be able to drag them out of the water.

Florida Keys snorkelling at Dry Rocks

Some of the best snorkeling reefs in the Keys include Carysfort and South Carysfort, North Dry Rocks, Key Largo Dry Rocks, Molasses Reef, Coffins Patch, Sombrero Reef, Looe Key and Western Dry Rocks. All of these areas have sections as shallow as 15 feet, with many rising all the way to the surface.

You can easily see branching elkhorn coral, brain coral, star coral and hundreds of species of fish including Sergeant Majors, Yellowtail Snappers, Blue Striped Grunts, Parrotfish, Blue Tangs, and Trumpetfish. Bring an underwater camera on your snorkelling adventure to capture some colourful memories and to help you identify what you saw when you’re back on dry land.

Keys diving is good year-round with average water and air temperatures of 80º F. Visibility is normally 60-80 feet, although it can extend to 100 feet or more when the clear waters of the Gulf Stream bathe the reefs. Surface conditions are usually calmer in the spring, summer and fall because the trade winds are not as brisk as in the winter. The current can vary from none to strong, depending on the Gulf Stream or the tides.

There are literally hundreds of dive sites in the Florida Keys covering more than 100 miles of reef. Some favorites beginning in the north at Key Largo and working our way south to the tip of the Keys at Key West.

Carysfort and South Carysfort Reefs in the northern section of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary have a gentle slope from the surface to about 65 feet with excellent coral coverage and lots of fish. North Dry Rocks are inner bank reefs that are closer to shore. Like the outer bank reefs, they have well developed spurs covered with coral alternating with sand channels, providing habitats for a wide range of fish species.

The reef rises from 30 feet at Key Largo Dry Rocks and includes the Christ of the Abyss statue that can be seen by divers or snorkelers. Large boulders of brain and star corals and huge branches of elkhorn coral cover this area. A series of swimthru’s and caverns make French Reef a nice dive and Molasses Reef is a favorite of all the dive shops with a wide diversity of marine life and coral formations.

The Christ of the Abyss statue can be seen by snorkellers and divers alike in the Florida Keys

Coffins Patch is a sprawling shallow reef area off Marathon that contains numerous dive and snorkel sites. The coral cover is very good, including some pristine brain coral colonies and large elkhorn coral. Nurse sharks gather in the nearby sand and will let divers feed them. Sombrero Reef is marked by one of a series of historic lights constructed in the Keys during the middle 1800’s. Sombrero provides good diving and snorkeling, with depths from 10 to 70 feet.

Named for the British vessel HMS Looe that sailed around here in 1744, Looe Key Reef provides a large variety of dive sites. The shallow inner reef area is good for snorkeling and the slightly deeper buttress zone, dominated by large mounds of hard corals, is a favorite area for divers. The deep reef features many giant barrel sponges and lush soft corals.

Near Key West, Western Dry Rocks is a lovely reef system with extensive shallow corals over sand pockets. The Dry Tortugas extend another 70 miles beyond Key West and are only accessible by live-aboard dive boat, private boat, ferry, or seaplane. The trip is worth the effort though, because the reefs are loaded with fish and Fort Jefferson is a fascinating place to visit.

The Florida Keys are strung together by a long ribbon called the Overseas Highway, or Highway 1. This highway makes getting around easy and fun. Panoramic views of the emerald and blue waters of Florida Bay and the Atlantic Ocean alternate along the entire 106 mile route from Key Largo to Key West. The dive shops, restaurants, and hotels provide a range of choices that should satisfy anyone’s taste and budget.

Coral at Key Largo on a Florida Keys snorkelling holiday

Keeping track of where you are is simple with the system of mile markers on the road. Directions normally give the mile marker and the side of the road, so everything is easy to find. Starting at 0 in Key West, and ending at 106 in Key Largo, there are six distinct areas in the Keys: Key West, Big Pine Key/Looe Key, Marathon, Islamorada, Key Largo, and Key Biscayne.

Even though the ocean is only steps away in most places, don’t expect to dive from shore. The reef line curves along with the islands, but most of the reefs are three to five miles offshore. The convenient access by boat and numerous high quality dive operations are what make diving in the Keys easy. Prices are good; the service is excellent, so wherever you stay there will be a good dive shop nearby.

The Keys are also a great choice for dive instruction, with many dive shops offering the full range of PADI and NAUI courses from beginning to instructor level. So what are you waiting for—head to the Keys for some great family fun!

This has been a guest post by James Buff, a certified scuba diver, who has been exploring the oceans around the world for 20 years. Other than Scuba, he enjoys skiing and snowboarding, among some other adventure sports. He writes an adventure blog at TheAdventurerr.com.

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