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The Florida Keys are home to the world’s third largest coral reef system — the Great Florida Reef Tract. The reefs are full of stunning purple sea fans, brain coral, lettuce coral, staghorn coral and parrotfish, blue tang, angelfish, yellowtail snapper and other beautiful underwater creatures. There are plenty of tour companies in Key West — the island chain’s quirky main tourism destination — that explore the coral reef, and range from larger catamaran party boats to smaller experiences and sailing vessels. When visiting the reefs, do not touch the coral and be sure to wear reef-safe sunscreen — or else it can harmful to the already threatened coral reef system.
Many tour companies also include wildlife spotting or kayaking for a full day of fun in the sun. Be aware that the most affordable tours are also often the most crowded. Here are the best snorkeling tour options in Key West.
Best Overall: Half Day Cruise with Kayaking and Snorkeling
Hop aboard a sailing vessel that holds a maximum of 21 people for a half-day trip with Danger Charters — one of the most well-established, experienced sailing companies in Key West. The 4.5-hour journey includes a relaxing sailing experience with snacks, wine, sodas and beer with morning or afternoon departures from downtown Key West. Then, visitors have an opportunity to kayak some of the mangrove-like canals to see wildlife up close before snorkeling in some of Key West’s beautiful patch reefs of the National Wildlife Refuge, which is filled with colorful fish and sponges. Guides provide an overview of kayaking and snorkeling, plus a history about the area. Viator members noted that the crew was fun and upbeat and they made the trip even more enjoyable.
Best Small Group Snorkel Eco Tour: Java Cat Sail and Snorkel
Those interested in delving deeper to learn more about the ecosystems and local flora and fauna should consider the Java Cat Sail Kayak and Snorkel Charter. The small group, six-passenger catamaran departs from the Historic Seaport in Key West and spends a relaxing hour headed out to the reef while passengers can spread out and unwind on the deck or the trampoline. From there, you’ll drop anchor and board kayaks to search the seagrass beds for hermit crabs, jellyfish, starfish, sea cumbers and other marine critters. Then, head back to the boat for a trip to a patch reef for snorkeling with over 600 different species of sea life.
Dolphins and Snorkeling Combo: Shipwreck Snorkel and Wild Dolphin Encounter
For a chance to combine dolphin spotting with a snorkeling trip, book the Shipwreck Snorkel and Wild Dolphin Encounter. The four-hour adventure includes snacks, refreshments, fresh fruit, beer and wine, with the first stop being a wild dolphin playground. Here, passengers can watch wild dolphins swimming, feeding, jumping out of the water and following alongside the boat in their natural habitat. Next, hop off the 28-passenger, sailing catamaran into the shallow waters for a chance to snorkel above a coral reef, shipwreck or sponge garden. The trip departs from the historic Key West Bight. Viator members said that the trip was well-organized and they saw many fish, dolphins, turtles and more.
Best Day Trip: Dry Tortugas National Park Day Trip
The Dry Tortugas National Park is a truly unique place that consists of the historic Ft. Jefferson, a Civil War-era fort on a small island chain that’s located 70 miles from Key West. It is only accessible by boat or seaplane and is surrounded by a beautiful reef. The Dry Tortugas Day Trip includes a ferry ride past some stunning areas, including Boca Grande Key, the Marquesas Keys and the Rebecca Shoal Channel. Once on the island, tour the fort and snorkel in the beautiful waters around Garden Key or relax on the beach. Breakfast and lunch are included in the price. Bring plenty of reef-safe sunscreen — there’s very little shade on the island.
Best Private Charter: Dart Backcountry
For a completely intimate charter away from the crowds, the Dart Backcountry Private Customized charter heads to a different part of the reef system. Instead of leaving from downtown Key West, it departs from Geiger Key — a more remote area about 10 miles from Key West. The 2017 dual console power boat holds just four guests. The customized private charter allows for snorkeling in lesser-visited patch reefs, exploring mangrove waterways lined with herons, egrets, ibis and other birds, as well as time spent on peaceful sandbars. The 3.5-hour tour is fully customizable but includes a Mediterranean platter catered by a fabulous French restaurant and a personal captain.
Best Small Group: Snorkel and Sandbar Party
In the Keys, the locals take their boats out to hidden sandbars, bring a few drinks and spend the day on the water. The Small Group Snorkel and Sandbar party is perfect for travelers who want to do just that: relax and unwind a bit, but also enjoy time snorkeling in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. With a maximum of six people, you’ll anchor at a sandbar for relaxation and adult beverages and visit the Western Sambo reef area for snorkeling. Keep an eye out for spiny lobsters, stingrays, sea turtles and plenty of tropical fish. The boat leaves from Hurricane Hole Marina, on the quieter side of Key West, about five miles from downtown.
Best Backcountry: Bugeye Backcountry Tour
Set sail on a classic, two-masted wooden schooner from the Key West Historic Seaport on the Bugeye Backcountry tour, a six-hour immersive experience. Join the crew to unfurl the sails, take a turn at the wheel or just relax and keep an eye out for dolphins and sea turtles. Next, a guide leads the way through mangrove channels in sea kayaks for an up-close experience in the backcountry. After that is snorkeling in a nearby patch reef surrounded by sponges and tropical fish. Morning trips include a continental breakfast of quiches, fresh fruits and pastries, while afternoon departures offer a buffet of deli meats, cheeses and Key West pink shrimp.