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A Guide to Snorkelling the Coral Reefs of the Florida Keys

A GUIDE TO SNORKELLING THE CORAL REEFS OF THE FLORIDA KEYS WITH KIDS
last updated: December 2017

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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.

Coffins Patch reef fish Sundance Watersports
Snorkeling at Coffins Patch with Sundance Watersports
Coral at Coffins Patch with Sundance Watersports
Snorkeling and coral at Coffins Patch with Sundance Watersports

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. 

Blue at Sundance Watersports
Blue, a catamaran with Sundance Watersports in Duck Key, Florida

On the snorkel boat with Sundance Watersports in the Florida Keys

The view off of a catamaran in the Florida Keys

Hawks Cay canal view Duck Key, Floria
Hawks Cay canal view in Duck Key, Florida.

 

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.

Spirit Snorkeling Sombrero Reef
My son entering the water at Sombrero Reef
A spur and groove Sombrero Reef
A spur and groove reef and tropical fish at Sombrero Reef in the Florida Keys

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.

Sombrero Lighthouse and snorkelling with Spirit Snorkeling
Snorkelling with Spirit Snorkeling and a view of Sombrero Lighthouse
7 mile bridge Florida Keys
Under the 7 mile bridge in the Florida Keys

 

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.

Snorkelling Looe Key reef with Looe Key Dive Centre and Resort
Snorkeling the Looe Key reef in the Florida Keys
Goliath Grouper at Looe Key reef
My son snorkelling with a Goliath Grouper at Looe Key Reef
Great Barracuda at Looe Key reef
Great Barracuda at Looe Key Reef
Goliath Grouper Looe Key reef
Goliath Grouper at Looe Key Reef
Tropical fish at Looe Key Reef
Great Barracuda and Horse-Eye Jack at Looe Key Reef
Jellyfish at Looe Key reef
Jellyfish at Looe Key Reef

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.

Look Key Dive Centre and Resort
Kokomo II at Looe Key Reef
Looe Key Dive Centre and Resort Marina
Looe Key Dive Center and Resort Marina
Canal near Looe Key Dive Centre and Resort Marina
Canal near Looe Key Dive Center and Resort

 

 

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:

Sundance Watersports

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.

Spirit Snorkeling

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.

On the way to Grecian Rocks and his 1st open water snorkel.

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.

My 7yo snorkelling Molasses Reef.  Photo courtesy Sail Fish Scuba
A sea turtle and jellyfish at Molasses Reef. Photo courtesy Sail Fish Scuba

 

 

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.

Sponge gardens in the backcountry of the Florida Keys.
spiny lobster
A spiny lobster hiding in the backcountry of the Florida Keys.
My 7yo snorkelling in the backcountry of the Florida Keys.

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

 

 

First experiences and happy memories of Hawks Cay Resort

After driving the palm tree-lined road of Hawks Cay Boulevard, past the Calm Waters Spa, the children’s Coral Cay Club and tennis courts, my 11-year old son let out a “wow, mom” as we pulled up to the circular driveway of the Hawks Cay Resort.

With a smooth check-in behind us, we drove to our villa. You know that anticipation you feel when you enter a hotel for the first time? Double it, and that’s how we felt as we opened the front door of our two-bedroom, two-story marina village villa.

I fell in love with the retro feel of the olive green painted walls (my favourite colour) and florals of our accommodations. It was a series of ‘ooohs and ahhs’ as we moved through the villa from the modern kitchen to the dining area, past the bathroom, towards the living room and onto the porch. My son excitedly raced up the stairs to check out the bedrooms.

hcroad1

Hawks Cay Resort Villa

Hawks Cay Marina Villa

Hawks Cay Marina Villa

hcstairs

Hawks Cay Marina Villa

Having driven in from the Everglades National Park that day, we just wanted to relax and enjoy the villa though we were tempted to go to the hotel and attend the live music performance by the firepit. Instead we soaked in the fresh air of a beautiful November Keys night on the porch, ordered in-room service, and settled in.

After a comfortable sleep, we awoke to a beautiful day in South Florida. I had just received an email from Hawks Cay detailing the day’s activities and noticed a kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding demo that was to start in the lagoon in 30 minutes.

Knowing my son wanted to try kayaking, we quickly got ready and off we went to the hotel. You can take a leisurely walk or drive as there is a self-parking lot nearby. There is also a tram shuttle service around the resort taking you from your villa to the main hotel or to the marina with stops at the various buildings around the property.

We arrived at the saltwater lagoon to children stand-up paddleboarding, sunbathers and a swimmer. Marc, the resort staff working the watersports rentals helped my son get started and offered some tips. He took to the water in a blue kayak and paddled all around the lagoon on his own. With pride in his smile and a sense of accomplishment from first time kayaking, he then wanted to try to paddleboarding. After a short time with the paddleboard, he decided he preferred kayaking but wanted to practice snorkeling one more time before our afternoon snorkel trip with Sundance Watersports at the Hawks Cay Marina. He put on the snorkel and mask he brought from home in Canada and discovered the lagoon had some small colorful fish.

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Hawks Cay Resort child paddle boarding

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Hawks Cay Resort child snorkel in the lagoon

It was 10:30 am, and we were both feeling hungry, so we decided to have brunch with a view at the on-site restaurant, Ocean. We had a choice of buffet or a la carte. With about forty-five minutes before we needed to leave for our snorkel excursion, we went back to the villa and relaxed on the porch. We watched the boats from the marina go by on the canal that takes you to and from the open water.

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hcfood

After checking in for our snorkel excursion, we picked up fins and boarded Blue, the beautiful snorkel-ready 65-foot catamaran. The Captain and crew explained that we were going out to the ‘stake’, a marker in the water at Coffin Patch at the nearby Florida Reef.

We couldn’t wait to get to the reef but enjoyed our ride on the open ocean and the canal, past the villas and Hawks Cay Lagoon. The clear turquoise water was almost hard to believe, and on our arrival, we watched as fish jumped out of the water behind the catamaran.

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hcpelican

With it being my son’s first open water snorkeling experience he was a little slow to get in the water, but once he did, we were the last to get back on the boat. We saw a host of colors and spotted 25-30 varieties of tropical fish. We were thrilled to see French and Queen angelfish, parrotfish, blue tang, snapper and trunkfish. He was a little nervous when he saw the great barracuda but it and the several other ones we came across kept their distance as expected. With helpful snorkeling tips and the watchful eye of the crew it was a great first snorkel experience for my son. We had a fantastic time snorkeling and can’t wait to return with the rest of my family.

After the snorkeling excursion, we changed back to our street clothes in the change room in the Dockside store and drove off to explore the surrounding Duck Key area and the nearby city of Marathon. Duck Key is at mile marker 61 and is halfway between Miami International Airport and Key West. It’s a perfect place to spend a few days if you’re traveling the length of the Florida Keys or if you’ve already been, a great place to vacation. So much to do, so little time.

My first mistake was to arrive so late in the day on our first night so we couldn’t take advantage of activities the resort had to offer the next morning. My second mistake was not staying more than two nights as there simply is not enough time to enjoy all the resort has to offer in two nights and one full day.

Lesson learned. We will be back. I know my youngest son is already looking forward to the pirate ship pool and spending time at Coral Cay club.

Thanks for the memories, Hawks Cay.

Until next time,

Andrea

 

Information: 

 

Check out this short video of our family trip to Hawks Cay and see if you can spot the flying fish. 

 

Disclaimer: I received a media rate for my stay at Hawks Cay Resort and complimentary snorkel excursion from Sundance Watersports. As always, choice of accommodations and activities as well opinions are strictly my own.

Visiting Family Friendly Vergenoegd Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, South Africa

My husband, two sons and I arrived at Vergenoegd, a wine estate at the start of the Stellenbosch wine route in the Cape Winelands on a beautiful summer day in February 2016. We followed the long gravel road off the R310, past the pond where resident geese and native wild birds relax and parked under the towering oak trees.

My 5-year-old son immediately started to explore and was excited to find acorns on the ground. “We have acorns in Canada too, mom”.

Vergenoegd Sign

Boy walking at Vergenoegd Wine Estate

Vergenoegd Welcome

We entered the outside dining area where the long table was located, to a glass of Vergenoegd bubbly and were greeted by a friendly goose. My youngest son was enamoured with Rocco, the resident goose and showed him the acorn that he found. Chef Ryan Shell then introduced him and his older brother to Rocco.

Vergenoegd wine

Son photographing acords

Showing an acorn to Rocco the goose

My son photographing Rocco at Vergenoegd

My boys introduced to Rocco by Chef Ryan at Vergenoegd Wine Estate

I instantly fell in love with the long table and the beautiful setting under the trees. I’ve always liked and enjoyed the idea of a community table and the intimate feeling it brings. Winemaker Marlize Jacobs, managing director Peter Stuart and marketing manager Nicole Arnold also joined us at the table. It was wonderful to have their company and an excellent way to learn more about the processes at Vergenoegd.

Vergenoegd long table

Vergenoegd long table setting

Before their picnic lunch, my youngest son took some time to enjoy one of his favourite activities, colouring, while his older brother played with a ball. He then joined his brother and soon there were laughs and shrieks at each miss of the ball.

Trunk of toys at Vergenoegd Wine Estate

Colouring at Vergenoegd

Son playing sports at Vergenoegd

While my husband and I were at the long table, the boys had a picnic lunch on the lawn. They had a blanket, boxed lunch and a trunk full of toys and games to choose. They had ample room to run and play. We didn’t have to try and keep them still or occupy them while trying to eat our 3-course harvest meal; instead, they were free to be kids. Just the way they like it.

Vergenoegd Picnic for kids

We could enjoy our delicious meal prepared by Chef Ryan that included freshly harvested vegetables. Though I checked in on them from time to time, they also had the watchful eyes of childminders and were taken care of as well as my husband, and I were being taken care of. Thank you Vergenoegd.

Harvest lunch at Vergenoegd

Harvest Lunch at Vergenoegd

After lunch, my husband and I went inside the Manor House for a blending experience. We could choose from wine, coffee, tea or olive oil. He chose coffee, and I picked tea. I wondered how we were going to join in the blending experiences with kids in tow, but Vergenoegd made sure to take care of those details, perfectly. A childminder sat with them and helped them while they decorated the cookies that were included in their picnic lunch.

Tea blending experience at Vergenoegd

Coffee and Tea Blending at Vergenoegd

Cookie decorating fun at Vergenoedgd

Cookie decorating at Vergenoegd Wine Estate

Cookie decorating at Vergenoegd Wine Estate

Vergenoegd is home to 1100 runner ducks that set out each morning for the vineyards where they work at keeping the snails away. As they go out in the morning and return in the afternoon, they parade past the Manor House. After our separate experiences, we all came back together on the lawn for the duck parade. What a unique experience and event to watch, not to mention how adorable it is. It’s such a great idea in helping to keep the snails away and lowers the need for pesticides.

My son and the Vergenoegd Runner Ducks

Vergenoegd Runner Ducks

Vergenoegd Runner Ducks

My son and the Vergenoegd Runner Ducks

I didn’t think visiting a winery while on a family trip to Cape Town, South Africa was possible, but I quickly learned otherwise. There was no shortage of activities for children, with treats and surprises along the way. Vergenoegd knows kids. The childminders were a welcome addition as it gave my husband & I a chance to participate in the blending experiences and time to enjoy the harvest lunch and conversation at the long table.

Our afternoon at Vergenoegd was truly enjoyable for each of us and a highlight of our time in Cape Town. We are now back home in Canada and are still talking about it. Just the other day I enjoyed some rooibos and bachu tea that I purchased after my blending experience. Thank you Vergenoegd for an enjoyable first experience at a Stellenbosch wine estate, we’ll be back.

 

Video:

Watch this short video and see the highlight of our duck parade — a duck bouncing to its own beat!

 

Note: We visited Vergenoegd Wine Estate by invitation from Destinate and Vergenoegd Wine Estate. As always, all opinions are my own.

 

 

On safari with the Olympus mirrorless camera and 75-300mm lens

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The male sub-adult lion at 300mm

In 2013, I went in search of a travel-friendly camera that uses interchangeable lenses and could eventually replace my heavy and cumbersome dSLR. I kept hearing the term mirrorless and micro 4/3 but wasn’t sure exactly what it was. After some research and a visit to a camera store, I was sold on the Olympus OM-D em-5. My initial impressions were based on the way it felt in my hands, the solid build and how light and compact it was in comparison to my Nikon camera body and lenses. One of the things I really liked about the Olympus camera system was that they had a greater selection of lenses than any other mirrorless camera system. Panasonic lenses work on the Olympus camera bodies.

I was happy with my OM-D camera body and the 12-42mm 3.5-5.6, 45mm 1.8 and the 40-150mm f4.0-5.6 lenses I had been using but then came the OM-D em-1, a serious contender for making a switch from dSLR to a mirrorless system for my photography business. I purchased it and some prime lenses – a 17mm 1.8, 45mm 1.8 and 75mm 1.8 lenses. The em-5 became my backup camera and the 75mm 1.8 quickly became my favourite lens out of the studio and the 45mm 1.8 lens in the studio.

I was impressed with what I was achieving with the Olympus system, even with ‘straight out of the camera’ images. It had been some time since I touched my Nikon camera so I made the switch from dSLR to a mirrorless system and haven’t looked back since. I also use it in the studio with my studio flash units and pocket wizard flash triggers, it works perfectly.

With news of the M. Zuiko 40-150 mm 2.8 pro lens, I was excited. I was preparing for another trip to South Africa for a project I was working on there and also planning some time for a safari. One of my favourite captures with the lens is of a leopard in the Sabi Sands private game reserve. This was a popular and much leopard known as Karula and she was on the move. She was also travelling with a companion, a leopard known as Tingana and they were mating so any chance of a shot, you had to be quick. Here’s the shot I captured of her as she looked my way for literally, a second. True story.

Karula leopard

When on safari in a private game reserve, you get fairly close to the animals. The M. Zuiko 40-150mm 2.8 pro lens is a fantastic lens for the situation and gives you an equivalent focal length of 80-300mm on a full frame camera.

When on a self-drive or guided game drive in the Kruger National Park, the animals may not be as close as you must stay on the roads whereas in a private game reserve your guide can drive off-road if you’re tracking an animal. Often times, I’ve needed a further reach in Kruger. I read about the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 ED II, a super telephoto lens that is equivalent to a focal length of a 150-600mm lens on a full-frame camera. It is much smaller and lighter than the equivalent focal length reach with a Nikon or Canon. Fortunately, I was able to get the lens on loan from Olympus and I took it with me to South Africa for some wildlife photography testing.

Here are some images using the lens.

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The Tsalala Breakaway pride of 13 lions at 109mm. The lone male at the back. Sabi Sands private game reserve. Taken in the Sabi Sands private game reserve.

 

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A close up of a lioness with the male sub-adult lion in the background, at 300mm and, cropped. Taken in the Sabi Sands private game reserve.

 

The male sub-adult lion at 300mm
The male sub-adult lion at 300mm and cropped. Taken in the Sabi Sands private game reserve.

 

I was impressed with the images of the pride of lions and even more so considering these were handheld shots and I was in a safari game viewer with 7 other passengers, not the stillest of conditions.

An African bull elephant at 208mm
An African bull elephant at 208mm. Taken in the Balule nature reserve.

 

African bull elephant at 300mm
A close up of an African bull elephant at 300mm and cropped. Taken in the Balule nature reserve.

 

A stork at 300mm
A heron at 300mm. Taken in Kruger National Park.

 

A hippo at 300mm and, cropped.
A hippo surfaces, 300mm and cropped. Taken in Kruger National Park.

 

A yellow billed hornbill at 300mm
A yellow billed hornbill at 300mm. Taken in Kruger National Park.

 

A giraffe at 300mm
A giraffe at 300mm. Taken in the Balule Nature Reserve.

Overall, I was impressed with this lens. The quality you get for the price, the reach, the size and weight make this lens one to add to the camera bag for anyone that is looking for a super telephoto lens that travels well and doesn’t break the bank.

 

Safari and travel photography gear: 

Other lenses I use and love: 

 

Note:  All Olympus camera bodies and lenses I own have been purchased by myself and have not been sponsored by Olympus. The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 ED II was temporarily on loan to me. All opinions, as always, are my own. I will only ever share reviews of products I find worthy of telling my readers about.

Pamper, don’t ride, an Asian elephant in Thailand

asian elephant

Pampering a rescued Asian elephant at Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Chiang Mai, Thailand was one of my favourite experiences in 2015. We joined them in the river and helped them stay cool by throwing buckets of water on them. It was a heartwarming experience and wonderful to watch them play freely after their ‘bath’.

ENP is a sanctuary for rescued elephants from the tourism and entertainment trades in Thailand. Every elephant has a heartbreaking story. To help, you can visit ENP as a day visitor or overnight guest or you can stay longer and volunteer.

Also, don’t ride elephants in Thailand, South Africa or anywhere. They are wild animals even if born in captivity. In order to ride an elephant in the tourism industry they need to be ‘broken’ and there is a lot of evidence that states the process is very cruel.

If you love elephants that much and want to be close to them, please consider visiting them at Elephant Nature park instead. You can walk with them, bathe them and even have your photo taken with them.

Read: If you love elephants, don’t ever ride them. Here’s why. 
Visit elephantnaturepark.org

Charge On the Go: A Nomad ChargeKey & ChargeCard Review

If you know me, you know I often talk about keeping your devices powered on the go so you can continue taking photos or using your smart phone however you need to without interruption. Whether you’re a digital nomad or just someone constantly on the go, it’s important part of using technology.

A few months ago, Nomad sent me their ChargeKey & ChargeCard products. I’ve waited to write a review so I could have some real-life experience with it first. The ChargeKey is a small lightning charge cable that fits on your key ring. The ChargeCard is thin and fits in your wallet.

Nomad ChargeKey & ChargeCard
Nomad ChargeKey & ChargeCard

 

If you’ve been in hotels or airports lately, you may have noticed that USB ports have been easier to find, charging stations are a common sight these days. Some airlines even off them. The ChargeKey has a permanent home on my key ring now and has come in quite handy a number of times already. It’s been especially useful when I’ve been working on my laptop and needed to charge my iPhone 5s or have been at a friend’s house and they have an USB charger, but not the correct cable.  It was also useful when a cable I had been using stopped working.

What I Like:

I like that both of these products are compact and lightweight which makes it very portable and quite easy to travel with, whether locally or abroad. I also like the material used for the ‘cable’ part of it. It seems flexible and feels durable. The ChargeKey is the length of a key and the ChargeCard is just like a credit card.

Concerns: 

My only real concern is the usb part of the ChargeKey. I’ll be curious to see how it holds up over the next year. If you’re like me, you toss your keys into your purse or bag and they often find their way to the bottom. I wonder if dirt/debris could get into it and affect it.

Overall, I think these products are great for the power users on the go. I carry them with me wherever I go. They’ve already been useful and though there is the potential for some damage, I think they could do a better job than some of my 3-6ft cables that get tangled in my purse.

I recently found out that Nomad is launching a new product, the NomadClip. It’s shaped like a carabiner. I use a carabiner for my keys, so I am looking forward to getting one and replacing the old one I have.

Nomad ChargeClip
NomadClip
The NomadClip will be launched in the Fall, but is available for pre-order now. Nomad has been gracious to offer my readers a 25% discount for any orders this week.
  • Visit hellonomad.com and enter the code “LIVESIMPLE”.
  • Free shipping to the US, CAN, UK, AUS and $5 flat rate anywhere else worldwide

 

Happy charging!

Although these products were given to me, the opinions expressed are my own. I only take the time to write about products I find useful.