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.

 

 

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

Not far from Peanut Island is a snorkeling site that was always popular but has now gotten even better. Phil Foster Park, a Palm Beach County park, is an island on the Blue Heron Bridge over Lake Worth/the Intracoastal Waterway. It benefits from the clear water that washes in through Lake Worth Inlet a mile away. Offshore, the Gulfstream is only four miles out.

In August 2012, the county completed a novel idea — a snorkeling trail, a manmade 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 manmade 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.

If you plan to go, the best time is a half hour before high tide. Because the park is so popular with divers, parking can be an issue.

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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13 Comments

  1. 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?

    • 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.

  2. 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.

    • 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.

  3. 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.

    • 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

  4. 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,

    • 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.

  5. 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?

    • 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.

  6. Jayne Coleman says:

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

    • 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.)

  7. 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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