A GUIDE TO SNORKELLING THE CORAL REEFS OF THE FLORIDA KEYS WITH KIDS
last updated: December 2017
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- TIPS TO PREPARE CHILDREN FOR A SNORKELLING TRIP
- GENERAL SNORKELLING TRIP PREPARATION TIPS
- NOVEMBER 2016 TRIP
- JANUARY 2017 TRIP
- NOVEMBER 2017 TRIP
The first time I snorkelled, I was 16 years old and in Barbados with my dad. I picked up some gear from a kiosk on the beach of our hotel in Christ Church and swam to the reef not far from shore. I didn’t know how to snorkel or knew what I would find there. Every time I saw a fish, I went the other way. True story.
I’ve since snorkelled many times including in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and the remote Mergui Archipelago of South Myanmar. My appreciation and love for the ocean have grown over the years, and my fear of its inhabitants has dissipated. Not to say that poking my head underwater still doesn’t give me pause, but I no longer swim the other way. I love to travel to destinations that offer opportunities to see marine life in their natural environments. It is important for me to be able to share those experiences with my two sons in hopes that they too will love our natural world and appreciate the ocean.
The Florida Keys are home to the third largest coral barrier reef system in the world and is the only tropical coral reef in the continental United States. The reef runs the length of the Keys and can only be accessed by boat. Numerous tour operators from the upper to lower Keys offer trips to the reef. The tours vary, and some reefs and operators are better than others. It’s approximately 3-6 miles offshore depending which Key you’re leaving from. With so much talk of the damaged and dying coral reefs around the world, it is hopeful to see the abundant coral and marine life in the sites we visited.
After 7 snorkel trips to the reef from the Upper to Lower Keys, I’ve compiled a list of tips and sharing what I experienced with 6 different operators.
- Most variety of colourful tropical fish: Sombrero Reef (Marathon)
- Reef shark, nurse shark and sea turtles: Molasses Reef (Key Largo)
- Goliath groupers: Looe Key Reef (Ramrod Key)
- Shallowest coral reef: Grecian Rocks (Key Largo)
- Backcountry snorkelling: Key West
TIPS TO PREPARE CHILDREN FOR A SNORKELLING TRIP
- Enroll your children in swim lessons so that they are comfortable in the water and have basic swimming skills.
- Invest in a dry top snorkel set with just the mask or a set that can grow with them. A dry top snorkel helps to keep the water out of the top.
- Practice swimming in lakes close to home, so they get used to the open water feel.
- Practice snorkelling in swimming pools.
- Practice snorkelling from shore before your snorkel excursion. Sombrero Beach (Marathon) Bahia Honda State Park (after the 7-mile bridge towards Key West) and Clarence Higgs Memorial Beach Park (Key West) are our favourite beaches in the Keys.
- Research what marine life you will see and get them involved and excited.
- Talk about all the colours of the marine life.
- Learn the hand signals for some of the marine life or make up your own.
- Discuss rules and safety.
GENERAL TIPS TO PREPARE FOR A SNORKELLING TRIP
- Check out the Tropical Snorkeling blog for fantastic information about snorkelling in the Florida Keys and other destinations around the world. I’ve taken their advice for snorkelling in Aruba.
- Always use only reef-friendly sunscreen
- Take anti-fog solution (toothpaste also works), so you can snorkel before or after your snorkel excursion
- Consider a long-sleeve UV protected swim shirt or rash guard; the Keys has Moon jellyfish
- Take an easy to pack a wet bag. It’s especially helpful if you have to fly out the same day, and your swimwear hasn’t had time to dry.
- I recommend a small dry bag to keep your valuables dry, great for car/hotel room keys, money and cell phones.
- Bring water shoes for shore snorkelling if you need to walk in a bit. I have a small, lightweight mesh drawstring backpack that I use to carry a small dry bag in with valuables, extra batteries and water shoes.
- Consider bringing a snorkel vest for kids to snorkel from shore.
- Don’t forget insurance and make sure it covers adventure travel insurance. Also, check what your credit card covers.
- Consider an anti-nausea medication if you ever feel queasy on rides or road trips. It can take 30-60 minutes to get to the reef.
All tour operators included masks, snorkels, fins, snorkel vests and offered water noodles. Some offered wetsuits. They all had an anti-fog solution and a rinse bucket available. We brought our dry top snorkel and mask but borrowed fins. The snorkel vests were mandatory, but you could inflate/deflate as much as you wanted. I also enjoyed the use of the noodle as it helped keep my hands free to take video.
NOVEMBER 2016 – 3 TOUR OPERATORS IN THE MIDDLE & LOWER KEYS
SUNDANCE WATERSPORTS – departure from Duck Key
We spent two nights at Hawks Cay Resort (read our experience here) on Duck Key and booked our first snorkelling trip in the Keys with Sundance Watersports.
After a friendly check-in, we boarded Blue, a 65-foot catamaran, on a beautiful sunny day. Blue is a perfect boat for snorkelling trips as it has sturdy ladders off the back for easy entry, seats along the perimeter, wide open space in the middle, and shower heads on board to rinse the salt water off after snorkelling.
We arrived at the Stake and were greeted by small flying fish. After instructions from the Captain and staff, we took to the glistening azure waters. The waves were a little choppy, but visibility was good. We saw French, Queen and Gray Angelfish, Blue and Stoplight Parrotfish, Great Barracuda, Blue Hamlet, Wrasse, Trunkfish, Sergeant Major, Yellow Jack, Butterflyfish and countless other tropical fish species.
Thanks to the team at Sundance and their helpful instructions on how and where to snorkel, my son had an incredible first experience snorkelling; we were the last ones back to the boat.
Who: Sundance Watersports – https://sundancewatersports.org
Where: *December 2017 – Sundance is now departing from Robbie’s of Islamorada due to rebuilding at Hawks Cay Resort after Hurricane Irma.
Note: My experience is based on a departure from Hawks Cay Marina at mile marker 61. I visited Robbie’s in November 2017; there are restrooms on the premises. From Hawks Cay Marina – you travel about 4 miles offshore to The Stake at Coffins Patch. You don’t have to be a guest of Hawks Cay to snorkel with Sundance. However, it did make it convenient to be a guest there as you can enjoy water activities in the morning, have brunch at the resort, relax and change in your room and then take the tram to the marina for afternoon snorkelling. At the marina, there is a store called the Dockside shop, and it has change rooms. You can purchase snacks and drinks to take on board.
Snorkeling with Children: Coffins Patch appeared to be the most shallow of the three reefs which brought us closer to the reef and made underwater viewing easier. My son had no problem snorkelling there. I recommend this for children 6-7 years old+ who can swim, are comfortable in the water/salt water and with getting splashed as there will most likely be some waves even if the waves are small. Consider your children’s personality and abilities. There was a young child about 4-5 years old on board; he was in the water for only a few minutes as he was afraid. It’s a fantastic beginner reef with much to see.
About Coffins Patch from Franko Maps:
To 25′ Beginner. Southern stingrays, brain coral, fire coral, and pillar coral are common here. Visibility is sometimes good here, sometimes not so good. A great place for snorkelling. Caution: Surgy, fire coral.
SPIRIT SNORKELING – departure from Marathon
When I called to book with Spirit Snorkeling, they weren’t sure if they were going out as the forecast had called for high wind. Fortunately, it wasn’t windy, and we were off to Sombrero Reef for our second snorkelling excursion in the Florida Keys.
It was another sunny day, and the ride to the reef took us under the 7-mile bridge to the Sombrero Lighthouse. It was a smooth ride out, and visibility was good. We saw a variety of fish and coral, much like Coffin Patch plus some marine life we hadn’t yet seen such as Blue Tang, Banded Butterfly, Scrawled Filefish and Jellyfish. Some snorkelers in the group saw an eel, sea turtle and nurse shark. Sombrero is a spur and groove coral reef and was deeper than Coffins Patch, but we could still see the marine life, just not as close. With calm seas and good visibility, it is a special place in the Florida Keys.
Kim (divemaster) was friendly and helpful. The boat was equipped with ladders off the side and back. It also had a rope platform to sit on in the front of the vessel. After snorkelling, we were given lollipops to help get rid of the saltwater feeling on our lips. What a great idea and it worked.
Who: Spirit Snorkelling – http://captainpips.com/snorkeling/
Where: Depart from Captain Pip’s Marina at mile marker 47.5 and travel about six miles offshore to Sombrero Reef at the Sombrero Lighthouse
Notes: There is a change room/bathroom available at the marina should you need it. There were plastic round tubs to keep our bags dry. They also offer snacks and sodas on board, and you can bring alcoholic drinks.
Snorkelling with Children: My 11-year old son had no problem snorkelling there. It is deeper than Coffins Patch, but some parts of the reef came closer to the top which made it easy enough to see the fish. There was a 6-year old girl on board who snorkelled for an hour; I don’t know her previous swimming or snorkelling experience. I recommend Sombrero Reef for children who can swim, are comfortable in the water/salt water and with getting splashed as there will most likely be some waves even if the waves are small. Consider your children’s age, personality and abilities as it is further out and deeper.
About Sombrero Reef from Franko Maps:
To 35′ Beginner-Intermediate. Marked by the 142-foot Sombrero Key Light, built in 1858. This classic spur-and-groove reef system provides sand channel alleys and finger reefs just loaded with fish and giant brain coral, which make for cleaning stations for barracuda, turtles and other customers who come to be picked clean by the tiny cleaner wrasse. This site is terrific for snorkelling. Caution: Currents.
LOOE KEY DIVE CENTER – departure from Ramrod Key
We moved to Key West for our last night in the Keys. Our final snorkel trip was to Looe Key Reef with a fully outfitted dive centre, and we had several divers on board. In my research about Looe Key, I kept coming across the phrase “not for the faint of heart”. My understanding is that Looe Key is on the edge of the barrier reef. The reef was deeper than the previous two reefs we snorkelled, but with the large reef patches that came close to the surface, viewing was great. If some members of your group or family scuba dive, this is a fantastic reef for you. So much to explore. It’s an exciting reef.
We lucked out with the third day of sunny skies and good visibility. This time we were aboard Kokomo Cat II, a 45-foot Catamaran with ladders on the side. We saw many of the same fish we had seen at the other two reefs and others I haven’t ever seen before like the Horse-eye Jack and Black Durgon. We saw a lot more Great Barracuda and the ones we saw were larger and swam closer to the surface. We also saw moon jellyfish and had an incredible sighting of three goliath groupers, one in the first location and two in the second. The moon jellyfish and groupers made my son a bit nervous, but he handled it well and again we were amongst the last to get back on the boat. The goliath groupers are a protected species, and they had to be about 150-200 lbs or more. I was secretly hoping for a sighting of a nurse shark. Others in our group saw a reef, hammerhead or nurse shark.
Looe Key Dive Center is an excellent, friendly and professional snorkel and dive operator. The staff were knowledgeable and helpful. They also have a motel and tiki bar on-site.
Who: Looe Key Dive Center & Resort – http://www.diveflakeys.com
Where: We departed the Looe Key Dive Center Marina at mile marker 27.5 to Looe Key Reef, about 5 miles offshore. We snorkelled in two locations for an hour each.
Notes: Arrive a little early to browse the shop, and you need to sign a waiver before boarding. You can purchase reef-friendly sunscreen here. It’s the closest operator to Looe Key reef, so you spend less time on the boat and more time in the water. The captain cooks hot dogs between snorkel spots; my son loved that. They also sell snacks and soft drinks on the boat.
Snorkelling with Children: My 11-year old did well at this reef though he was a little nervous about the moon jellyfish. Admittedly, I was a bit too as I hadn’t ever snorkelled with jellyfish before. However, they are slow swimmers, so there is time to move away from them. Be aware if you’re snorkelling in August and September as I understand that is moon jellyfish season. I recommend Looe Key Reef for children with intermediate swimming skills, are quite comfortable in the water/salt water, with marine life and with getting splashed as there will most likely be some waves even if the waves are small. The fish were more prominent here than the fish in the previous two reefs. There is a possibility of seeing sharks as well as the giant groupers. My son was also nervous of the groupers, but they didn’t come too close. Consider your children’s personality and abilities. There was a 10-year-old on board who was audibly nervous. He didn’t have previous snorkelling experience but snorkelled for about an hour. He didn’t snorkel in the second location.
About Looe Key Reef from Franko Maps:
EAST END to 35′ Intermediate. “The name comes from the British Man-O-War, HMS Looe, which ran into the reef here and sank in 1744. The reef is made up of parallel limestone ridges that come within 10 feet of the surface. Looe Key dive is brilliant over an 800-yard stretch. Here you will find a variety of soft and hard corals, sea plumes, sea fans, sea rods, and sea whips. A good snorkelling site. Caution: Surgy.”
WEST END to 35′ Intermediate. The Looe Key consists of 800 yards of magnificent underwater variety, which is perhaps equal to the entire Florida Keys’ collective assortment. In fact, a common nickname for this reef is the Jewel of the Middle Keys. The west end is a classic spur-and-groove reef formation where you will find brain, star, and giant star corals, brown tube and orange elephant ear sponges, elkhorn coral, yellowtail snapper, sergeant majors, surgeonfish, French grunts, damselfish, barracuda, mutton snapper, and Nassau groupers. This is also a good snorkeling site. Caution: Surginess can make for an added challenge, but the Gulf Stream Current can be very difficult. The current sometimes rips along at over 3 kts., making this a great drift dive, but it is very demanding on the dive boat operator to make sure you don’t wind up heading for Europe.
JANUARY 2017 – A return to the Florida Keys and windy days
I returned to the Florida Keys in early January, this time with my adult niece in hopes of snorkelling again. We spent 1 night on Long Key and 2 nights on Little Torch Key. Here are my follow-up experiences with the same three snorkelling tour operators:
We attempted to book a snorkelling trip with Sundance, but unfortunately, all excursions were cancelled due to the expected high winds. I have to shout out to Fourie (sp?) at Sundance as he was extremely helpful in explaining the situation and pushing our reservation to the following days while we were in the Keys in hopes the winds would die down, sadly, they didn’t.
This time there were high winds as mentioned above, and the Captain decided to go out. As we made our way past the 7-mile bridge, the seas were rough, and the waves got increasingly bigger as we got closer to the Lighthouse. I wondered if we were going to turn back because as the front of the vessel dipped into the waves, water spilt into the boat. The guests seated at the front were soaked. The boat filled with some water, fortunately, the boat is made for that, and the water quickly flowed out of the drainage holes. I wondered about visibility in the water and was also concerned about the senior snorkelers on board as it was hard to walk around the boat and navigate the ladder. Visibility was not good, at maybe 3-4 feet. Despite that, I managed to see about five different species of fish in the ten minutes we had in the water before we were abruptly called back to the boat due to the black clouds and the storm rolling in. We got caught in the rainstorm on the way back to the safe harbour. The ride back in was smoother than the way out to the reef due to the wind being at our backs instead.
I believe the Captain did the best job he could, given the conditions. However, I feel a partial refund should have been offered as we only had ten minutes to snorkel and many had less than that. I don’t think I would have allowed my 11-year old son to get in the water had he been with me that day. Once my head was down and looking underwater, the waves didn’t bother me. My issue was poor visibility.
I would still recommend a trip with Spirit Snorkelling on days that don’t have strong winds as my first experience with them was perfect. I would have preferred to have been told that visibility would be poor and that the seas would be rough when I called or at check-in with the option to cancel or reschedule. I feel that we should not have gone out that day because what is the point of snorkelling in such poor visibility and rough seas. We were told that the storm was due to arrive at 4 pm and we were to be back at the dock by about 3 pm. It came early.
Tip: If there is a visible sway of palm trees (wind) and you are at all concerned, call another operator to see if they are going out. Make your decision based on that, if you could handle rough seas and your abilities.
Looe Key Dive Center and Resort
I stopped at the Looe Key Dive Center and asked if they would be going out that day or any dates that week. All excursions were cancelled due to the high winds expected for several days/weeks but recommended we check with an operator that has a larger boat in Key West, to see if they would be going out.
I hope this guide will help you experience the best snorkelling the Florida Keys has to offer. Stay tuned for video footage.
NOVEMBER 2017 – A re-do, 3 operators and a visit after Hurricane Irma
I returned to the Florida Keys with my 12-year-old son, my 7 year old son and my niece. After my trip in January, I knew I needed to return with my niece as she didn’t see the Keys and snorkel it the way I did in November 2016. I had hoped to snorkel in the middle Keys again as we had planned to stay on Cudjoe Key. Unfortunately, Hurricane Irma had other plans, and our accommodations were cancelled due to damage. The lower keys were the most impacted by the hurricane. I struggled with the idea of whether to cancel the trip or to go ahead with it. I didn’t want to get in the way and wasn’t sure how to feel about going on holiday while others worked to rebuild or lost everything. I followed the rebuilding closely and finally decided to continue with our visit as I wanted to support tourism and the independent smaller businesses in the Keys. Key Largo in the Upper Keys and Key West at the bottom end didn’t suffer as much as the rest of the Keys, so we stayed for 4 nights in Key Largo and 2 nights in Key West.
There were visible signs of damage and US 1 was lined with debris from the length of the Keys with the lower Keys having significant more damage as I had heard. Most of the restaurants, hotels and attractions in Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon and Key West were reopened.
Although I couldn’t compare the state of the reefs from before and after Irma, it was my understanding that most of the reefs faired well.
KEYS DIVER – departure from Key Largo
Our first snorkelling excursion of our trip began with Keys Diver in Key Largo. I called the office to inquire about the trip and ask some questions. I wanted to know what the process was if my 7yo old son wanted to get out of the water and stay on the boat in case I needed to stay in the water with my 12 yo. Whoever answered the phone answered my questions, and I booked the 3 location trip. I was concerned about how my 7yo would feel being in the open ocean. It wasn’t about him being far from shore but how he’d be able to handle the waves if there were any as my oldest son and I had experienced the year before. Keys Diver allows children to stay on the boat without parental supervision.
It was a sunny day, and visibility was great. We snorkelled in three locations starting with Grecian Rocks. The waves weren’t bad at our first stop. We saw a variety of fish and coral as well as a large barracuda. The water was shallow which made visibility even better. Some snorkelers saw Conch. We then went to the Christ of the Abyss statue for about 20 minutes and ended with Dry Rocks. The boat was equipped with ladders off the back of the boat and a small restroom. They sell snacks and soft drinks on the boat. Wetsuits are available.
Who: Keys Diver – http://www.keysdiver.com
Where: We departed from the docks near the Holiday Inn in Key Largo. We snorkelled in three locations starting with Grecian Rocks. We then went to the Christ of the Abyss statue for about 20 minutes and ended with Dry Rocks.
Notes: You have to go to the shop first. There they give you directions as to where to board. As with other operators, you need to sign a waiver.
Snorkelling with Children: My 7-year old snorkelled the shallow Grecian Rocks for almost an hour and then ingested some salt water as he looked straight below him, the top of his snorkel dipped forwards into the water. We swam back to the boat, but it was near the end of the first stop. He decided not to snorkel the other locations and did well for his first open water experience.
Conditions were rough at the statue as it’s not a protected spot, but my 12 yo and niece seemed okay with it but tired from the swim to/from the statue. You could feel it on the boat as we rocked side to side. My 7yo and I could’ve used some anti-nausea medicine while waiting for the snorkelers but we managed to fight it off. Others on board were not so lucky. Tip – Stare at the clouds or into the distance at the horizon if you feel queasy. We also chewed some peppermint gum I happened to have with me. Captain Bedford was great, and brought my son to the upper deck to blow the horn at the end of our second stop. Unfortunately, none of us went in the water for Dry Rocks so I can’t speak of the conditions. My 12yo did well at both locations he snorkelled.
SAIL FISH SCUBA – departure from Key Largo
I can’t say enough about Sail Fish Scuba. I wanted our first trip to be with them, but they were booked until a few days into our trip. From Holly in the shop answering all my questions and concerns to Glenn our snorkel guide to Captain John, we had a fantastic experience. Glenn was hands-on with my 7yo as he snorkelled the Winch at Molasses Reef. There was a current but having Glenn with us was a welcomed relief as it allowed me to enjoy the experience thoroughly.
Glenn not only helped my 7yo son in the open water but also guided my niece through a group of moon jellyfish as she was nervous. He calmed any of our fears we had about the jellies. He helped us see and identify a variety of fish and sea turtles. We saw a Caribbean reef shark, nurse sharks and several sea turtles.
Having a guide in the water with you is wonderful. It’s also fantastic to have someone else to take the photos and give you access to Dropbox. Photos were also taken by the diver’s guide that was on the boat. It was a treat to be welcomed back with some snacks; my sons loved that.
Our view of the nurse shark and the dive guide below us at Molasses Reef. Photo courtesy of Sail Fish Scuba.Who: Sail Fish Scuba – https://sailfishscuba.com
Where: We departed from the canal behind the shop. We snorkelled in two locations on Molasses Reef.
Notes: As with other operators, you need to sign a waiver before boarding. Wetsuits are available, and the dive shop is well equipped. There is a restroom to change as well as a variety of hair care products you can use should you need to.
Snorkelling with Children: Molasses Reef is a deeper site, ranging from 16 to 40+ feet in depth. It is closer to the edge of the barrier reef which brings larger fish, sharks, sea turtles and stingrays. Visibility was great, and the current wasn’t too bad. We did see a variety of fish, but with the excitement of our shark and turtle sightings, I can’t recall what else we saw.
My 7yo decided not to go back in the water after we returned to the line in the water for a break. Captain John kept him company and took great care as he hung out at the back of the boat. I highly recommend Sail Fish Scuba to anyone even if you are an experienced snorkeller. A guided snorkel is especially fantastic for beginner-intermediate snorkellers. They have a 6 to 1 ratio, so all trips are small groups. This is the best tour operator for snorkelling the Keys with children because of attention from the guide. We were the only snorkellers, but there were also 2 divers and their guides on the boat.
My 7-year loved this experience. He was so happy to have seen a shark and sea turtles. He decided not to snorkel the second location; Captain John was happy to hang out with him on the boat while the rest of us snorkelled in relatively close proximity to the boat. Visibility was great, and the current wasn’t too bad. Because of our experience the day before, we all took anti-nausea medicine, and it seemed to work well. We didn’t feel the slightest bit queasy.
FURY ISLAND ECO ADVENTURE TOUR – departure from Key West
We booked this tour to experience snorkelling in the backcountry of the Florida Keys and its biodiversity as well as the sandbar. The trip also included kayaking in the mangroves. Unfortunately, due to the speedboat races in the area, we couldn’t visit the sandbar.
It is more expensive than all the other tours, but with the kayaking, sandbar experience and food, I was okay with that price. I did feel overcharged since we didn’t get to go to the sandbar and wish we were told that we weren’t going to the sandbar and had the option to cancel, reschedule or get a discount.
The water was shallow and calm and filled with sponge gardens where we saw many spiny lobsters, angelfish, porkfish, crabs and sponges in a variety of shapes. The boat was well equipped with a ladder off the side, a restroom, noodles and all the equipment for snorkelling.
Overall it was a good way to spend a half day and take in the sunset on the way back. The Captain and crew were wonderful and went above and beyond to make our experience a good one despite not being able to go to the sandbar.
Who: Fury – https://www.furycat.com
Where: We departed from the seaport in Key West.
Notes: If you book online you have to check it at the kiosk near the where you board the boat. The island eco tour included snack foods, sandwiches and drinks,
Snorkelling with Children: If you want to introduce your children to snorkelling in open water, this is a good tour for that. The water is calm, water and shallow. If you’re looking for a wide variety of colourfish fish, this is not that tour. It was interesting to see lobsters, starfish and the sponge gardens. Many of the marine species here like to hide so take your time passing by. I would recommend trying to hover over a spot to wait and see what might appear. There was a bit of a current which could be a challenge with beginner swimmers/snorkellers. My sons did okay with it once they got some fins on.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary snorkel trip for two from Sundance Watersports as part of my stay at Hawks Cay Resort. As always, choice of activities as well opinions are strictly my own. Some photos are screenshots from video captured with a Go Pro Hero 2