Tag Archives: Snorkeling the Florida Keys

Floating Amid Stars: Snorkeling the Florida Keys

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Birdwatching is a globally popular hobby and continues to grow. I’m a huge fan of birds and enjoy watching them, but I love to fishwatch even more. Somehow, that hobby has never taken hold like birdwatching. I don’t get it. I mean, you have to stand there on a ground like a lump watching the aerial dynamics with birds. With fish you can actually join in and swim among them. When was the last time you got to fly with a flock of starlings or glide with an eagle?

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I love the Florida Keys because they meet so many travel wants and needs. My greatest want, the one that I daydream about and that pushes me to return repeatedly, is the water. More specifically, the fish and other wildlife that inhabit the waters off the Florida Keys. I don’t visit captive animal attractions – I prefer to watch animals in their natural environments.

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At some point, I lucked into snorkel gear (mask, fins, snorkel) at a yard sale and later upgraded to a better snorkel with a valve. The fins are small enough that I can pack them in my carry-on luggage. Over the years, my kit has expanded to rubber-soled water shoes, a point-and-shoot underwater camera, DIY defogger spray, and many ziplock bags. If you are going to snorkel more than a handful of times it is worth having your own equipment and it also means you can check out offshore spots spontaneously. Some of the best spots I’ve found have been just offshore and do not require a boat ride. While boat rides are part of the fun, they add up if you are traveling on a budget. Snorkeling is one of those things that can be as cheap or as expensive as you want to make it.

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I like to go to the Keys in summer because it is off-season, the crowds are smaller, and unless there are storms afoot the winds tend to be calmer, which means the waves are smaller and the water is clearer. I learned the hard way that going in the winter can make for terrible snorkeling.

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I feel I should note that I am a snorkeler, not a diver. My ears let me freedive about 8-10 feet and that is it. Diving is also expensive and there are restrictions about diving and flying within 24 hours. I’m quite happy bobbing along the surface, suspended between worlds.

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These are spots I checked out in July. I also read Snorkeling the Florida Keys by Brad Bertelli before we left and found it very helpful.

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Cheeca Rocks

We took the 3:00 p.m. Happy Cat Snorkel Boat out from Robbie’s in Islamorada the day we arrived. The boat took us a few miles offshore to Cheeca Rocks. It was hot and the water was very clear. We saw several sea turtles and huge schools of small silverfish. Unfortunately, this charter attracted the kind of people I want to smack the shit out of. I watched a young woman “petting” the coral. You don’t “pet” coral. When she bobbed up for air I yelled at her to stop and she claimed she didn’t know any better. EVERY SINGLE snorkel charter I have ever gone on tells you this will kill the coral. Look, don’t touch. Then someone else with extra-long dive fins started treading water near the coral heads. They did decades’ worth of damage in seconds. I get that you have fancy-ass dive gear and are proud of it, but you don’t need long fins in calm, shallow waters.

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Indian Key State Park

The next day we went back to Robbie’s and rented kayaks to go out to Indian Key. We were given a tour of the island by Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours, run by the aforementioned Brad Bertelli (that will be a post of its own shortly). Afterward, we entered the water on the northeast side of the island. The waters around the island are very shallow and we saw conch, starfish, baby sharks, parrotfish, and watched nesting ospreys from the water. It was a nice little spot.

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Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

Fort Zachary Taylor is one of my all-time favorite snorkel spots. There are rock formations just off the beach and while the action is often there, I’ve seen a school of cuttlefish in the shallows. It was crowded the afternoon we went and the winds and tide had the water rather turbid. Overall, it was lackluster this trip. You can snorkel the same place 10 times and never experience the same conditions.

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Key West Marine Park

Another offshore snorkel spot in Key West is the Key West Marine Park, located on the east side of the island. The pilings and debris make for great fishwatching, as they are ideal for juvenile fish and invertebrates, but the morning we went the tide was moving and the winds had kicked up. The water was so turbid that it was almost disorienting. I will definitely go back next time and hopefully the conditions will be better.

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Sand Key

We sailed with Captain Dennis on his boat Breezin out to Sand Key. Again, there was some wind up, so we moored on the rubble side of the key. Snorkeling can be very different depending on where you moor and the wind/water conditions, even within 100 yards. In this case, we were in an area that would be easier to swim in, but the rubble zone belied the health of the reef on the opposite side. The water was bath temperature. I watched and listened as a school of parrotfish munched loudly.

 

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Dry Tortugas National Park

By far, the best snorkeling this trip was out at Fort Jefferson. It is in my top five snorkeling spots, period. Fort Jefferson has been on our list for years, but the tickets aren’t cheap. This was finally the year. Located about 70 miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas are in the middle of nowhere, but the fort is rich in history. There are two decaying docks, which offer ideal food and shelter for the tropical fish that surround the island. You can put your head down and watch 10-15 species of fish swirling below and then look up to see nesting brown noddies at the tops of the dock pilings. The clarity of the water was amazing and it was a pleasant swim around the exterior of the fort. The height of day was blistering, but the ferry we took out to the island put out a delicious spread and made sure everyone had enough water.

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Turtles, rays, and larger fish are great, but I am just as happy seeing common nursery fish and invertebrates. If you are willing to take your time and look into crevices and among the sea grasses you’ll be rewarded. I still haven’t seen an octopus in the wild, but I’ll keep trying until I do. Swimming with huge schools of small silverfish is like floating amid the stars.

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Book Review: Snorkeling the Florida Keys

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I love planning trips. I search the internet and use a few specific apps, but nothing beats sitting down with a book to begin imagining and shaping an itinerary. I’ve read countless travel guides and Brad Bertelli’s Snorkeling the Florida Keys is my new favorite. Published by the University Press of Florida, it is the perfect union of history, nature, and logistics, complete with an enthusiastic tour guide.

The book covers Biscayne National Park, Carysfort Reef, John D. Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Molasses Reef, Pickles Reef, Alligator Reef, Indian Key, Coffins Patch Reef, Sombrero Reef, Bahia Honda State Park, Looe Key, Key West Marine Park, and Dry Tortugas National Park. I’ve snorkeled along the Keys, from Pennekamp to Sand Key Light, and this book gave me so many new places to try. I learned that I’ve snorkeled beaches that had better, hidden sports. Bertelli describes not just the reef locations and structures, but the history behind their names (many are named for shipwrecks). I came for the travel tips, but stayed for the history lessons. For example, I have known the name John Pennekamp since I was a child, but what I didn’t know was that he was personally responsible for protecting huge swaths of Florida’s coral reefs.

There were two sections in particular that endeared me:

“In reality, the reef had been known as Pickle’s Reef for a long time before the barrels ever came to rest at the bottom. In fact, Pickles Reef began to appear in the record books as early as 1828, decades before the first shots of the Civil War were ever fired. The odds must have been astronomical that a load of mortar-filled pickle barrels would sink at a reef already known as Pickles Reef!” It is that kind of geeky enthusiasm that gets me every time.

The second section has Bertelli trashing Peter Benchley and the movie Jaws. “To put the whole shark scare into perspective, statistically speaking it is a far more dangerous proposition to drive a car – for any distance – than to snorkel in Florida waters. In fact, snorkelers are much more likely to be mauled by a dog, swarmed by bees, or win the lottery than have a negative encounter with a shark.

                Instead of worrying about sharks, snorkelers would be much better off making sure they have applied a suitable sunscreen to their exposed flesh. While shark attacks are rare events in the Florida Keys, horrible sunburns are not.” He then goes on to warn people about the real bullies of the sea, the wee damselfish. I love this guy.

I plan to use this guide to check out several spots that are accessible from the shoreline, as well as one chartered trip. Whether you are new to snorkeling the Florida Keys or are an old-timer, this book should be essential reading.