One of the most popular pastimes for Key West locals and visitors alike is exploring the amazing marine environment around the island. Key West is well-known as a great destination for enjoying the underwater sports of snorkeling, SNUBA, and SCUBA. If you are visiting Key West, I highly recommend that you take advantage of the chance to see what is happening under all that clear blue water via one or all of these fun and interesting activities.
While the very best coral reef snorkeling is found a few miles offshore from Key West proper, or at remote locations like the amazing Dry Tortugas, it is possible to have a great time underwater by snorkeling right from the shore in town. For beginners, snorkeling from shore is an ideal way to warm-up for a boat trip out to snorkel in the open water. For families, it is an easy way to let the kids have fun. And, for those who have been snorkeling offshore, loved it, and would like to get some more snorkel time in, heading out from the beach is a quick and convenient way to expand your Key West snorkeling experience. All you need are fins, mask, and snorkel – you can grab an hour or two of water time at your leisure each and every day you are in Key West if you wish.
A good option for shore-launch snorkeling is the Key West Marine Park. The Park is a protected area running along the south side of the island between the shoreward end of Duvall Street and the White Street Pier, and extending from the beach out 600 feet. The Key West Marine Park was established through collaborative efforts by the Reef Relief Foundation and the City of Key West after growing concerns over the decline of near-shore water quality and overall health of the coral and other sea life around the island prompted grass roots preservation efforts beginning in the late 1980s. The City of Key West now maintains the park, and has also undertaken many improvements to the island’s sewer and storm drain infrastructure, as well as rebuilding the White Street Pier, as part of efforts to reduce the land-based sediment run-off and build-up that had been harming the marine environment and degrading water quality and visibility.
Public beach access to the 40-acre marine park is available at South Beach and Higgs Beach. Designated swimming and snorkeling areas are protected from boat and jet ski traffic by demarcation buoys, and the water is shallow and generally calm throughout the park. Except for the fishing area around the White Street Pier, the Marine Park is also a voluntary no harvest zone, which provides protection for fish and increases the amount of marine life that snorkelers may encounter in the area.
As with any near-shore shallow water, visibility in the marine park is easily affected by wind and water conditions. Clumps of seaweed and other flotsam may also wash up along the shore. However, though the park waters may not be as pristine as those in offshore areas, when conditions are right they will offer an interesting and exciting view into a world of sea grass meadows, small hard and soft corals, sponges, and many fish species. In particular, the waters off of Higgs Beach around the White Street Pier and the old sunken pier nearby are rich with life. You can expect to encounter Butterflyfish, Damselfish, Grunts, Hogfish, Parrotfish, Porcupine Pufferfish, Wrasse, and other species. Sea Urchins, Conchs, and Starfish will be found on the bottom among the sea grass beds, and you may even sight a Sea Turtle, Nurse Shark, or Spotted Eagle Ray.
As a veteran snorkeler of both salt and fresh waters in various parts of the world, I can promise that anytime you put a mask on and get underwater, you will encounter something new and interesting. Although it may not be the most far-flung and exotic dive site, the Key West Marine Park will offer rewards to snorkelers of every experience level. Its near shore waters are not only well worth exploring, they are so easily accessible that multiple visits would be highly recommended.