How to Spend Your Day Snorkeling Key Largo
The hardest part about traveling? Having your plans fall through. The best part of traveling? Having your last minute plan B end up being even better than the original. When our hopes of snorkeling in a National Park in Florida were thwarted by weather, a day trip snorkeling Key Largo instead proved to be the marine adventure we were looking for.
Traveling to Fort Lauderdale and Miami, Florida, there were a few things I knew I had to experience: Cuban sandwiches in Little Havana, relaxing on the beach, hanging with gators and snorkeling in the ocean. At this point, I had never snorkeled in an ocean before, only in good-old Lake Michigan in my hometown of Chicago, which doesn’t really count. In terms of distance from where I was staying in Florida, Biscayne National Park was the best choice to accomplish this snorkeling task. The National Park is incredibly under-rated because there aren't vast hiking trails to wander or campsites to hunker down in underneath the stars. Instead, the majority of Biscayne is underwater and part of a marine sanctuary; snorkeling and scuba diving are the only ways to see it. My friend and I drove two hours outside of the city, eventually making our way through desolate swamp-land and acres and acres of palm tree nurseries to arrive at the Biscayne National Park entrance. But when we walked into the small visitor center, we were distraught to learn from the Park Ranger that all the snorkel trips for the day had been canceled due to high winds...not what you want to hear when you're only in Florida for three days and can't shift around your plans easily.
So what did we do? We headed to Key Largo for a Day of Snorkeling Key West instead
Why Key Largo Snorkeling?
Florida is obviously a state where snorkeling and scuba diving is rampant EVERYWHERE. There are literally hundreds of miles of coastline throughout just the southern tip. However, Key Largo has something special and that’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. This state park is one of the few that, like Biscayne National Park, is located completely underwater. No hiking trails here folks, just miles and miles (178 miles to be exact) of coral reef and marine sanctuary to explore via snorkeling and diving. Established in 1963, it was actually the first underwater State Park in the United States! Therefore the protected nature of the area and the wildlife and marine life within it make John Pennekamp State Park snorkeling some of the best in Florida.
Quickly learning from my friend, a marine biologist, that this area was THE PLACE to get our snorkel on, a set of glowing Yelp reviews led us to SunDiver Snorkel Tours in Key Largo. As we made the last tour of the day, we quickly realized why SunDiver was consistently rated one of the best operators for snorkeling in Key West. The entire team on our boat was professional and especially considerate to those of us who are prone to seasickness (which I learned about myself a year earlier on a ferry in California). Fun fact! Holding ice cubes to the area behind your ears will actually rid you of any queasiness you may feel on the boat (even extreme cases) in a matter of minutes. Shout-out to our SunDiver squad that taught me the solution to all my sailing woes. I was able to return to shore after our trip back feeling great!
As we took off for our adventure beginning our trip to sea, we passed gorgeous mansions and yachts on our way out of the Key Largo docks. Can we take a minute to talk about the luxury houses in Key Largo? I seriously need to get myself one of these (we all can dream right?). All of them were super bold, fun colors like coral and lime green and they were MASSIVE, each with their own private boat dock. Now that’s the life.
The Best Snorkeling in the Keys
My friend, myself and 10 other people (yay for small tour groups!), relaxed on the boat as it jetted across the water for about 40 minutes, leaving those fabulous Key Largo waterfront homes behind us. Finally, we dropped anchor and were able to hop off the boat with our snorkeling gear to explore the reef around us. Upon first entering the water, I almost landed on a Moon Jelly. Though not as harmful as a Box Jellyfish, our captain warned us that we could still get a pretty painful sting from the little guys. I carefully let it float past me before I pushed on towards the reef. It was my first time seeing a jellyfish outside of an aquarium! I knew right at that point that this excursion was going to be a blast.
Snorkeling is a crazy experience, almost as if you're a drone hovering above a full city of fish and coral, watching their every move...some serious Big Brother vibes. If you’ve never snorkeled before, I’ll warn you: fighting the waves and the current of the ocean can be a real workout (and a real test of my seasickness limits). You get exhausted quickly and you’ll get very thirsty from inadvertently swallowing salt water. Thankfully it’s super easy on all snorkel tours to pop back on the boat for a bit, catch your breath, grab some drinking water then get back in the ocean.
As I glided around the water with my snorkeling fins, I saw a whole slew of fish from Blue Tong to Rock Beauties and Barracuda swimming beneath us. However, the coolest part was definitely catching a glimpse of a Southern Stingray out of the corner of my eye. I would have loved to see a Sea Turtle but watching a ray skim along the ocean floor near me was just as memorable. It really makes you appreciate all the millions of different creatures that live in the vast oceans.
The coral species of hard and soft coral were also just as beautiful. Again, seeing coral in the wild was a new experience for me and I was seriously loving all the different colors and textures around me. We were warned very early on in our tour to be very careful around the coral since almost every species is now endangered. Although the sandbar we were exploring was shallow, we had to be diligent not to kick the coral accidentally with our fins.
Our tour gave us roughly 1.5 hours in the water which was just enough time for myself personally to see everything I could before my seasickness got the best of me and I had to return to the boat for more ice behind my ears.
Post Snorkeling Dinner in Key Largo
After a full day in the open ocean, dinner became our top priority. A great place to stop on your drive home from snorkeling in Key Largo, Florida is Gilbert's Tiki Bar. Part of the larger Gilbert's Resort, this massive outdoor bar and restaurant features thatched roofs and a boat dock if you need to park your water transportation. Known for their conch fritters (which were definitely the best part of our meal) they also have a wide menu of other seafood options and boozy cocktails known as Boobies with portions of each sold going to the American Cancer Society. This is what beachfront dining is all about and this is why a trip to to Key West, even if it’s just the Northern-most Key of Key Largo, is warranted on any Southern Florida vacation.
Although I plan to return to Biscayne National Park in the future with snorkel gear in hand, I’m more than happy that we were able to take advantage of our day. Proof that even bad situations while traveling can turn out positive. The trip was 100% worth it and it inspired me to go snorkeling again as I traveled to the Cayman Islands. If you’re ever looking for a fun excursion while in Southern Florida, snorkeling Key Largo is a must!