Diving and Snorkeling Around Key West
Whether you choose to peer into the water wearing a mask and snorkel or pull on scuba gear and take the plunge, exploring the spectacular blue waters surrounding the Lower Keys is a must. Diving or snorkeling among the coral reefs of the Florida Keys, protected within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, opens up a window to breathtaking underwater scenery and exhilarating encounters with nature.
One of the best artificial reefs for recreational divers in the world, the USS Vandenberg sits in 145 feet of water about seven miles offshore, with most of its interesting features shallower than 100 feet deep. The former transport and tracking ship is 525 feet long and 10 stories tall. Although the site can be enjoyed by snorkelers, it’s ideal for divers, especially advanced ones.
Over time, invertebrates including barnacles and corals have attached themselves to the wreck, creating an intricate structure that serves as a home for colonies of fish and other sea creatures. Since the ship’s sinking in 2009, nearly 200 species of fish have been spotted on the wreck, including giant parrotfish, barracuda, wahoo, sharks and mutton snapper.
Fort Jefferson/Dry Tortugas National Park is located 70 miles west of Key West. The 100-square-mile park set at the end of the reef provides a unique marine environment due to its remote location. The Dry Tortugas are considered one of the area’s most pristine dive and snorkel spots. Most snorkeling is done in the designated swim areas directly off the beaches of Fort Jefferson. Here, snorkelers see hard and soft corals and many species of reef fish including spotted eagle rays, goliath grouper, parrotfish, mangrove snapper, the occasional nurse and reef shark, as well as sea turtles and conch. The Yankee Freedom, docked at 240 Margaret Street, is the only public vessel making trips out to the Dry Tortugas.
The Sambos – a collection of reefs named Eastern, Middle and Western Sambo – range in depth from 10 to 50 feet. The reefs are located four miles south of Boca Chica Channel, which is less than 10 miles from Key West. At 40 feet, divers can marvel at coral heads with abundant sea life, while snorkelers can explore the shallower sections of the reef with their elkhorn and staghorn corals and colorful tropical fish.
Recommended Dive Shops
- Southpoint Divers is located on Front Street in Old Town. Their 46-foot dive boat, M/V Phoenix, makes morning and afternoon trips to the USS Vandenberg and the Cayman Salvage Master, a 163-foot-long former minelayer and research vessel.
- Lost Reef Adventures, located at 261 Margaret Street, takes snorkelers and divers out on Dream, their custom-built dive boat. Their trips, which are for just snorkelers, just divers or a combination of the two, go to the Vandenberg, the Sambos, Joe’s Tug (in depths ranging from 45 to 65 feet), Cayman Salvage Master and Sand Key (seven miles west of Key West in depths of 35 to 75 feet and considered one of the area’s best snorkel and dive sites).
- Captain’s Corner, located at 125 Ann Street, features the 60-foot, all-aluminum dive vessel Sea Eagle. Daily trips go to the Vandenberg, the Sambos, Western Dry Rocks, the Humps and the Eye of the Needle, which features a 20-mile stretch of reef.