Beaches / Snorkeling / Southeast Florida

Snorkeling in Florida: Where to explore from shore

A school of snapper take shelter under a cannon at Cannon Beach at Pennekamp State Park. Photo by PMC 1stPix via Flickr.

One of the great pleasures of a Florida summer is snorkeling in the the warm, calm waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Over the years, I’ve discovered a  number of right-from-the-beach snorkeling spots I love to visit in South Florida. While I like an occasional boat trip to the reef, some of my favorite snorkeling outings have been “shore dives” — places where I can touch the bottom and stand to clear my mask. This sort of snorkeling is good for kids and beginners, too.

The Florida Keys

You can have fun snorkeling in dozens of spots in the Keys — almost any dock or pier here will attract some fish around its pilings. But I’ve particularly enjoyed snorkeling in these spots:

Cannon Beach at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Most visitors to Pennekamp State Park  head out on the tour boats to snorkel the real reefs, and, truly, there’s no snorkeling off the beach that compares with that. But it’s worth your time to snorkel at Cannon Beach. The park has placed remnants of an early Spanish shipwreck about 100 feet off the beach. Fish congregate under and round the sea-life encrusted cannons and anchor. Snorkelers have seen a variety of creatures, including large barracuda and tarpon.

Indian Key Historic State Park

Florida snorkeling at Indian Key State Park

Clear water and coral reef rocks make for good snorkeling.

Visiting Indian Key is one of my favorite things to do in the Florida Keys. It’s an island, easily reached by kayak or canoe. You can rent a kayak at nearby Robbie’s Marina;here’s my complete trip report about visiting Indian Key. The island is an ancient coral reef and its shores are sharp, craggy coral rocks that make excellent homes for marine life.   To snorkel here, look for a shell-encrusted bench across the small island from the dock. That’s a good place to get in and out of the water when snorkeling.

 

Pigeon Key

Pigeon Key, a history-filled island in the middle of the Old Seven Mile Bridge, is worth visiting for its unique site and story. You probably won’t want to pay the $11 admission just to snorkel, but if you do visit the island, bring your gear along.  On a sultry summer day, we snorkeled the waters around the Pigeon Key dock.  We saw schools of colorful fish, but what we liked best was finding remnants of history in the water — stones that were obviously building materials from the era of the railroad tracks’ construction, pieces of metal encrusted with barnacles. Here’s a Florida Rambler report on visiting Pigeon Key. (“Treasures” from the water, by the way, are added to a colorful cart of found stuff on Pigeon Key rather than being removed.)

Sombrero Beach in Marathon

This beach is popular with locals and it’s also free. The beach is a white sand with palm trees and lots of amenities: changing rooms, restrooms, showers, picnic tables and grills plus a playground. This is a good place to do a little snorkeling from shore, particularly where there are rocks along the shore. These spiny rocks — once parts of a living coral reef — are magnets for fish and all kinds of sea life. The beach is two miles off the main road. To find it, turn south at MM 50 at the light (Publix Shopping Center) and follow Sombrero Beach Road for about two miles to the end. There is plenty of parking.

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and Beach, Key West

Zachary Taylor Beach is located where Gulf waters meet the Atlantic in Key West. The water here is generally clear and the bottom is rocky, which makes this a good place to snorkel and see a variety of tropical fish and live coral. (Because of those rocks, it’s smart to bring water shoes.) The state park offers shady areas to relax and the historic fort is well worth exploring. Parking is hard to find in Key West, and so it’s good to know you CAN park here.

Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast

While I live in Broward and I often bring my snorkel gear to the beach, the best spots for seeing fish and other sea life are north of here.

Red Reef Park

This City of Boca Raton park is a gem, and Boca residents know it. Non-residents pay $16 on weekdays and $18 on weekends to park here. (If you’re heading here, be sure to check conditions before deciding to pay.)  What’s special here is an extensive set of natural coral rocks right off the beach in four to six feet of water. These red rocks teem with blue tangs, parrotfish, snappers, sergeant majors and an occasional barracuda or two.  It’s among the best shore snorkeling I’ve experienced.  The park itself is a lush shady hammock, with a boardwalk to explore and picnic tables and shelters.

A note about snorkeling at Red Reef: We’ve had reports that the reef was covered by sand, but here’s what the Boca parks folks say: “Snorkeling at Red Reef Park (near lifeguard tower 9) varies from wonderful to poor depending on the beach conditions (waves, current and wind).   Sand has not covered the rocks.”

Peanut Island, Riviera Beach

Peanut Island is a man-made island in the middle of the Port of Palm Beach. Its rocky shoreline and its location directly in the mouth of the inlet make it a magnet for colorful fish and creatures, from rays to manatees to small sharks. It is well-known for having some of the best easy-access snorkeling in South Florida.

 

Phil Foster Park Snorkel Trail

Shark sculpture along snorkel trail at Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach. Michael Scott Photography,

Shark sculpture along snorkel trail at Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach. Michael Scott Photography,

People have always used snorkel masks and scuba gear to explore around the Blue Heron Bridge. The water here is crystal clear at high tide because it is located a mile from  the Lake Worth Inlet. A few years ago, the county completed a novel project at  Phil Foster Park, which is an island on the Blue Heron Bridge — a snorkeling trail. Workers built a man-made reef in 6 to 10 feet of water right off the beach. It is about 800 feet long and is located in front of a lifeguard stand.

 

John D. MacArthur Beach State Park

John D. MacArthur Beach State Park and its rocky shoreline

Rocky outcroppings at MacArthur Beach attract fish and sea life.

This spectacular property has so much going for it; it’s great to explore on foot, by boat or underwater. To reach the expansive beach, you walk or take a tram over a long boardwalk over the picturesque saltwater lagoon. At the beach, there are large rock formations visible at low tide and a worm rock reef just off-shore. These features attract a great variety of sea creatures including stringrays and sea turtles. A park ranger leads a guided tour of the reef on Saturdays from June through August at 10 a.m.

Coral Cove Park, Jupiter

This park, about a half mile north of the Jupiter Inlet, is home to extensive natural limestone rock formations right at the beach, making it ideal for snorkeling. The same geological formations at play at nearby Blowing Rocks Preserve are evident here, with similar results in attracting sea life. You can walk along the beach between Blowing Rocks and Coral Cove.  The park has 600 feet of lifeguard-watched beach, picnic areas, playgrounds and free parking.

Blowing Rocks, Jupiter

Dramatic, cliff-like rocks extend into the water and, on calm days, provide an excellent snorkeling location. There are enough sharp-edged rocks that you should think twice about snorkeling if there are waves to buffet you.  This park is owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy, which has created some appealing nature walks and a nature center across A1A on the Intracoastal side of the park. Because it is a preserve, nearby Coral Cove Park is the place to have your picnic.

Bathtub Reef Park, Hutchinson Island

An unusual “worm reef” protects an idyllic lagoon and creates a perfect home for marine life. The reef was created by sabellariid or “honeycomb” worms that cement together sand and bits of shell to form porous rocks and ledges. The reef attracts a good variety of fish and sea creatures — perfect for snorkelers, particularly young ones,  because the reef protects kids from waves.  Get there early on weekends because the parking lot fills up.   There’s a bathhouse with  showers and pavilions for picnicking.  Bathtub beach is located on South Hutchinson Island on MacArthur Boulevard, which branches south off A1A at the southernmost bridge access in Stuart. 1585 SE MacArthur Blvd., Stuart.

Dade and Broward counties

The best place to snorkel from shore in these two urban counties is anywhere there are rocky areas, which are generally created to reduce shore erosion. This video from VisitFlorida.com suggests  the rocky area around Government Cut in Miami and off the lighthouse in Cape Florida Bill Baggs State Park in Key Biscayne. Many sites recommend snorkeling off the beach at Commercial Boulevard in Lauderdale By The Sea.  The reefs here are quite a ways off shore, so this require dive flags and strong swimmers.

Important snorkeling tips: Considering a snorkeling outing? Keep in mind: Good snorkeling requires good conditions.

  • Less wind is good.
  • Recent heavy rain is bad. (It may make the water murky.)
  • Visibility is best at high tide, particularly as the tide comes in.
  • Do not step or stand on living coral or worm reefs; do not touch any marine life.
  • Don’t snorkel alone.
  • Be aware of your surroundings; don’t snorkel too close to rocks when there are waves.

If you’re interested in snorkeling trips to coral reefs, consider these two outstanding parks:

Snorkeling in Florida springs

Our favorites listed on this page are all salt-water snorkeling excursions. We also recommend snorkeling in Florida’s fresh-water springs, which have crystal-clear cold water and are full of things to see.
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25 Comments

  1. Another great snorkeling place is Crystal River area in FLorida and is where people come from all over the world come to snorkel with the manatees legally. Example of a tour would be http://www.swimwiththefloridamanatee.com/houseboattours.html

  2. Josephine Grosch says:

    Thank you for puting all information on the web. I would love introduce my 11 and 4 years olds about snorkeling. Should I watch the water ties schedule also? Please advise.

    Thank you.

  3. It depends what you’re used to. When I moved here after swimming in the chilly waters of Lake Michigan, I swam all winter in Fort Lauderdale, where the surf temperature gets down to the low 70s. Now, after years of swimming in summer when the water is in the mid to high 80s, I am too much of a wimp to swim in the winter at all. I suspect most people going out on a snorkeling trip by boat in January would appreciate a wet suit. Snorkeling from shore, which involves shorter stints in the water, might be OK without one.

  4. tom meehan says:

    I found your article very informative and interesting.
    My wife and I are considering atrip down in this area BUT it will be in January of 2015. Is the water warm enough at this time of year to do these things either with OR without a wetsuit? Any info would be appreciated.

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  7. Thank you for the information everyone. We’ve swum out from Commercial and found some nice fish and a couple of weeks ago we took our Sea Doos out and anchored them off of Ft. Lauderdale beach. I saw a couple of very large sea turtles and a ray, but they were pretty far down and there were only rocks, not really any kind of reef. It was still pretty cool. I think we’re going to try Boca Inlet at high tide next.

  8. I concur with the comments about Red Reef & the Boca Inlet. Not only is the jetty a nice spot at the inlet (but careful, even with the slightest ocean chop one can get bounced into the rocks) There’s a great man made reef offshore (100 ft?) Go to the south end of the “Guarded” area (right where the sign reads ‘end of guarded area’) and straight out from the beach – you can see it with Google Maps/Satellite view) Plenty of snorkelers and dive boats out there on the weekend – and a pretty easy swim from shore!

  9. Beth,

    Thanks for adding your note. That is so helpfulo.
    As soon as the park rangers get back to me, I plan to update my listing for Red Reef.

  10. If you’re in Boca or vicinity, I recommend the south side of the Boca Raton inlet. There’s a little county/city park – I believe it’s called South Inlet Park – on the ocean side of A1A just south of the inlet. Parking fees are nominal there. Alongside the jetty is a great place to snorkel. Best times are at or near high tide, because the fish come closer to shore. Also best when the ocean is relatively calm and the sun is shining, for optimal visibility.

  11. Hi Aimee,

    I was at Red Reef less than a week ago, and that is correct. The sand has totally covered the reef and it is virtually impossible to find. I recommend the short trip to Peanut Island, which was amazing!

  12. Bonnie, I’ve recently read several reviews that say there is no reef at Red Reef Park anymore and that it was covered up by sand during one of the previous hurricanes. Have you been there in the past couple of years? We’re looking for a good place to snorkel from the shore in the area, but don’t want to pay the $18 parking fees for nothing.

  13. Anna Maria is a good spot. Search for Spanish rocks. Not sure how much diving you have done but there is another one just south called 3rd Pier a little more advanced. If you go to Venice you can dive for shark teeth. Look that one up. Those are the only good shore dives. I have done them all up to January of this year.

  14. Does the discouraging absence of Gulf Coast snorkeling spots indicate that there really aren’t any, or simply that you aren’t as familiar? We’d love to see neat things (coral, if possible) around St Pete/Clearwater or Naples. What would you suggest?

  15. Christa,

    In December, the water may be a little chilly (well, to Floridians it is.) And you can get a bit of wind. If that’s the case, you should consider the more protected areas mentioned above — Phil Foster Park, Cannon Beach at Pennekamp State Park. None of the beaches I mention that are known for their snorkeling have accommodations right on the beach. But any Florida Keys accommodation on a beach is going to have snorkeling potential.

  16. Christa says:

    We are considering Christmas in Florida. We love to shore snorkel and would love your opinion on where would be best that time of year. Also if you can recommend decent places to stay on the beach that have good snorkeling. Thank You SO much for any help you can be.

  17. Elise,
    There are lots of places to snorkel all along the Keys. Pennekamp gets lots of attention, but many people swear by Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary in the Upper Keys. You can get snorkeling trips out to the Looe Key reef from Bahia Honda State Park. http://bahiahondapark.com/

    I like snorkeling around Indian Key Historic State Park, which is a great outing leaving from Robbie’s Marina. (And Robbie’s a lot of fun in itself.)

    My personal preference would be to stay a little further into the Keys than Key Largo. The road gets more scenic and development gets a little less intense as you head south.

    Hope this helps.

    Bonnie

  18. Bonnie, after reading your post about snorkeling in between Key Largo and Key West, (and hitting the middle keys) it has me wondering where to book my lodging. I was thinking Key Largo but now I’m thinking I need to find something else. Any good suggestions. My goal is to have access to lots of reefs–and not have to drive up and down the keys. I’m sure we will pay for a snorkel trip by boat but I would still like to have the simplicity of snorkeling from the beach shore.

  19. If you are in Delray, I’d recommend two spots that are quite close: Red Reef Park is 15 minutes away and it really is a neat place for easy snorkeling. Also, Peanut Island is an all-around cool daytrip, which includes good snorkeling. It’s about 40 minutes north of Delray.

  20. Richard Senecal says:

    We’ll be at Delrey Beach area in mid-June.
    Any suggestions for us close by ?
    After reading your tips above, I think we have to go for a day at Cannon Beach at PenneKamp.
    Thank you,

  21. Jayne, the beaches in Palm Beach and Martin counties are not known for their shelling. You’ll find a smattering of shells on all the beaches, but the reef off our coast prevents shells from rolling on to the beach in any quality or quantity.

    If you like shelling, you really want to go to the Gulf coast, where there are not reefs and where the shelling is phenomenal. Sanibel Island is famous for its shelling, but there is also good shelling at beaches from Marco Island north. (I’ve had my best shelling on the remote island state park of Cayo Costa.)

  22. It all depends how comfortable your kids are in water. The problem with the snorkeling trips by boat is that you must jump off a boat into open water and you can never put your feet down on the bottom. (You’re usually in at least 8 feet of water and the corals are so delicate that you should never stand on them.) You can wear a flotation device, but still, if you’re not a real “fish,” you might end up back on the boat after five minutes. One suggestion would be try Cannon Beach at Pennekamp State Park first and then decide whether you want to invest in a snorkeling boat trip there.

  23. Judy Brewer says:

    We are going to Florida this summer. My kids (age 5 to 13)would like to snorkel “for treasure”. (The younger ones really want to find something from a pirate ship!) They have never snorkeled before and have no gear. Is Cannon beach the best spot? Or should we go to a place that rents gear and takes you out? If so can you recommend a place?

  24. Jayne Coleman says:

    Where is the best shells in p.b. & Martin counties?

  25. knots o'bright says:

    Thank you for these detailed snorkeling spots. I can only hope to visit all of these beautiful places. Good tips and thank you so much for what I can’t get enough of, that feeling of weightlessness while floating endlessly over unspoiled sea floor. You would love the reef off of Saint Lucie Inlet Park, my favorite little get away.

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