Best Snorkel Sites in the Upper Keys

Things to Do — By Julie on March 19, 2010 at 3:07 pm

For award-winning writer and book author Brad Bertelli, life is about noticing the little things, especially when he’s hovering over coral heads offshore. His book, ‘Snorkeling Florida: 50 Excellent Sites’ reveals many of his favorites, yet the reefs of the Keys – the continent’s most accessible dive and snorkel destination – best represent what the water has to offer.

I had the opportunity to chat with Bertelli about his favorite snorkeling sites –  coral reefs, seagrass beds and shipwrecks – though the best spots in the Keys mean easy offshore access. Water depths are typically shallow, and water temperatures range from the 70s in winter months to the 80s in summer, practically guaranteeing a safe, enjoyable trip.

Kicking from shore, just beyond the seagrass beds, once you find structures – coral heads, rocks or outcroppings – you’ll see a variety of fish.

“Fish look for these “condos” to live, and dart in and out of,” Bertelli said.

He added that sightings increase when the tide is changing, or at low tide, and when there is low wind – usually in the early morning hours – before afternoon clouds build up and create surface chop. And, keeping a slow pace:  snorkeling is not a race, so take your time to steadily examine the reef, soaking it all in. The ease of snorkeling is what makes it so appealing for people of all ages and experience levels.

Key Largo is brimming with fine snorkeling spots, many of them in or near John Pennekamp State Park, including the north end of Molasses Reef, a beautiful and shallow strip of reef plush with schooling blue striped grunts and Florida favorites like sergeant majors, horse-eyed jacks, and Bermuda chubs.

Just off Founder’s Park on Plantation Key is a group of nicely sized coral heads between three and four feet tall. For a family with little kids cruising down the jetty is great too – look for spotting nurse sharks, rays, starfish and seahorses.

Off Islamorada’s Cheeca Lodge, Bertelli often hovers over “Cheeca Rocks,” a shallow, healthy cluster of coral heads, not heavily dived, and robustly populated.

Indian Key, accessible by boat or a 25-minute paddle by kayak, is home to small critters that crowd around lime-colored brain coral heads, like banded shrimp, damselfish and juvenile angelfish.

A banded shrimp, also referred to as a cleaner shrimp

In the Lower Keys, though Looe Key is legendary for its glorious finger reef seascape, Bertelli said his all-time favorite shore snorkel is the untouched and uncrowded beauty at Bahia Honda State Park. In shoreside waters only four feet deep, there are “babies” of a variety of species, including starfish and conch.

“Once, I saw a horse conch feeding on a queen conch here,” Bertelli said.

“What is so remarkable about snorkeling the Keys is how much you can see offshore without having to be on a boat. You can wade in off the beach, and it’s truly breathtaking.”

Tags: Bahia Honda, Florida Keys, Islamorada, Key Largo, Keys snorkeling, Lower Keys, snorkeling