Beaches / Snorkeling / Southeast Florida

Snorkeling in Florida: Where to explore from shore


Snorkeling at Pennekamp State Park Cannon Beach

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. Here are some of my favorites. (Please use the comment field at the bottom to share yours; we’re always looking to discover new places.)

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.”

Phipps Ocean Park, Palm Beach

Phipps is a municipal beach operated by the island city of Palm Beach. It’s a mile or two north of Lake Worth beach.

What makes it special are the outcroppings of limestone in the beach and near the shore. The craggy pock-marked rocks, similar to what you’ll find at Blowing Rocks Preserve, 45 minutes north on Jupiter Island, offer lots of places for fish to hide and live. This means there is good snorkeling here in very shallow water right off the beach. The smallest kids can snorkel here.

When I visited on a sun-blasted afternoon, the water was calm and as clear as it gets. I could stand on the beach and watch the sun glint off schools of silver fish swimming around the rocks. The beach has lifeguards and you can walk for miles.

The park has clean restrooms, grills, picnic tables, including two in a chickee hut with a view, tennis courts and is the location where the historic Little Red Schoolhouse, the oldest schoolhouse in South Florida, was moved.

The sole downside of Phipps Ocean Park? Parking is $5 an hour, although that means the park is never full.

Phipps Ocean Park
2201 South Ocean Blvd., Palm Beach
561-838-5400

 

Peanut Island, Riviera Beach

Clear water at beach at Peanut Island, Palm Beach, Florida

Knee deep water and complete visibility

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

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, which provides access for the Port of Palm Beach.  The bridge pilings and rocks have long attracted a large variety of sea creatures. Two 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.   The reef was constructed with 600 tons of rock and six man-made concrete reef modules. The structures, each of which weighs two tons, have ledges and small habitat spaces ideal for fish, octopus, sea horses and other creatures. This snorkeling site is well-known for the diversity of species. Squid, octopus, spotted rays, and starfish are regularly seen. Colorful angelfish and parrotfish, juvenile snapper, grunts and grouper, damsels, blennies and wrasses are all there. The park has restrooms and picnic tables, but it’s very popular, so parking can be an issue. (Go early or visit on a weekday if possible.) Also: Check the tide table. The best time to snorkel is a half hour before high tide. Between tides, the current can be strong. Phil Foster Park 900 E. Blue Heron Blvd. Riviera Beach, Florida

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:

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24 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    • 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.

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