Key West Fishing & Diving

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 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.

Recommended Key West Dive Shop
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.

Fishing In Key West
Although the waters surrounding Key West and the Lower Keys are best-known for their deep-sea catches of sailfish, wahoo and tuna, exciting fishing takes place anywhere from the shallowest flats and backcountry waters to wrecks and reefs to the deepest blue water beyond.

Captain Mark Schmidt, who operates Sundancer Charters out of the Margaritaville Key West Resort & Marina, has been a fishing guide in Key West and the Lower Keys since 1980, so he knows the local waters well. He says the reason the waters off Key West are such a fishing hotspot is because the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico co-mingle there, bringing kingfish, sailfish and cobia migrating down from both the Gulf and Atlantic sides.

The variety of fishing grounds include offshore, reef, channel and wreck, on both the Gulf and Atlantic sides, and at depths ranging from less than 20 feet to 240 feet, which makes fishing these waters ideal for everyone, from beginners to pros. And the miles of flats, which feature plenty of interconnecting channels and basins, are ripe with a variety of fish.

On a typical day fishing offshore, past the reef’s edge, captains will slow-troll live bait for sailfish, kingfish, blackfin tuna, small barracuda and dolphin. In shallower water, they anchor off the reef and, using chum, attract those fish as well as yellowtail, mutton or mangrove snapper, cero mackerel and various species of jacks and grouper.

On The Water In Key West
To really immerse yourself in the natural tropical beauty of the Lower Keys, get out on the water. And why not? The options are numerous: Paddle a kayak through mangrove tunnels or around remote islands, stand up on a paddleboard for a workout and great views of marine life, try your hand at kiteboarding, which combines surfing and sailing, or sit astride a Jet Ski and take a tour around Key West.

Several companies around Key West accommodate adventure seekers who are eager to hit the water, get some exercise and try something new.

The clear, shallow water and sand flats around Sugarloaf Key give kayakers a window into all kinds of marine life including starfish, sharks, snappers, rays, barracudas and, on occasion, dolphins and sea turtles. Because their trips are small (maximum six people), it allows them to beach the kayaks, have a picnic lunch, take a leisurely walk and snorkel in the pristine water.

Stand-Up Paddleboarding
Located at Key West’s Hurricane Hole MarinaLazy Dog specializes in SUP, which is short for stand-up paddleboarding.

Paddleboarding is the fastest-growing watersport and, according to the folks at Lazy Dog, it’s easier than it looks. With the largest fleet of paddleboards on the island, ranging from beginner boards to those for more experienced paddlers, they’re successful at getting everyone, even first-timers, standing up and paddling. The paddleboard features a non-skid middle section where paddlers stand.

Each of Lazy Dog’s tours and rentals begins with an instructional clinic. Then riders take off, paddling between Key West and Stock Island, where the waterway is protected and wind is minimal. Shallow, clear water means all kinds of sea life are visible. The Salt Ponds in Key West are an ideal spot for paddling through long, winding mangrove tidal creeks. More adventurous paddlers can try paddleboard yoga or boot camp exercise classes held on paddleboards.

Tour The Keys by Jet Ski
A Jet Ski tour around Key West will fill your need for speed and exploration. Fury Water Adventures operates out of the Margaritaville Key West Resort & Marina, offering two Jet Ski tours.
Fury’s Ultimate Adventure is billed as the complete watersports experience. The fun begins as you leave the dock on a seven-mile trip aboard Fury’s 65-foot sailing catamaran. Snorkel on a living coral reef and explore the pristine waters by kayak, Jet Ski and parasail. The six-hour adventure includes breakfast, picnic lunch and afternoon snack.

Closer to land, Fury’s 90-minute Jet Ski tour is a 28-mile tour around the waters of Key West. The vehicles can accommodate up to three riders each. Guides take riders through by the Southernmost Point, along Mallory Square and around several remote islands. They stop at a sandbar, where riders can take a break and go for a swim.

Kiteboarding Adventures
Kiteboarding combines elements of wakeboarding, windsurfing and even sky diving, and Paul Menta at the Kitehouse has cornered this market in Key West. Although prior experience with sailing and board sports is helpful, it certainly isn’t necessary. At the Kitehouse, students are normally up on the board by the second day. Beginners start with one-on-one lessons in knee- to waist-high water, progressing to two and a half hours of kite flying time. Lessons for intermediate and advanced kiteboarders are also available.

Kiteboarding is wind-powered but, unlike windsurfing, very little wind is needed. The kite can be adjusted for different conditions like the sail on a boat, and the board acts as a rudder. Kiteboarders can tack upwind just like a sailboat, catching air as they hit waves.

Visit the Dry Tortugas
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.