1 Lower Keys, Florida:
Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, offshore of Big Pine Key, does not get much of the lime light that shines on the more famous John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park… but that just might be a good thing for visiting snorkelers. Less attention means less crowds and a more leisurely experience enjoying beautiful reefs every bit as spectacular as Key Largo’s reefs some 65 miles to the north. Looe Key is not an island like the other Keys, but actually a shallow spur and groove reef system that got its name from the HMS Looe that supposedly ran aground there in 1744. This reef system is considered such an extraordinary example that it was declared a national sanctuary in 1981, providing much of the protections that make it such a haven for marine life today.
There are a number of boats that run out of both Big Pine Key and beautiful Bahia Honda State Park. If you leave from Bahia Honda, you can also enjoy one of the Florida Keys most beautiful beaches. While it is easy to grab your gear and go finning off the beach, it doesn’t begin to compare to the living barrier reef offshore. It is 6 to 12 miles out by boat to the reef depending on departure point and I strongly recommend you check on the weather conditions the day before if you have the luxury of timing your trip. Light winds and calm seas will make for easier conditions and clearer water, while lots of sunshine on a shallow reef just seems to make it come more alive.
So what is so special about this place? Well this is part of the third longest barrier reef in the world and thanks to over 25 years of protection, the fish life parades in care free abundance above swaying purple sea fans, complex staghorn coral and boulders of brain coral. In places the coral rises close to the surface and you can actually see the multitude of individual tiny coral polyps that make up the coral reef. But there are plenty of deeper sections, where there is always a chance to spot rays, sea turtles, lazy nurse sharks and even enormous tarpon are not uncommon. The sanctuary’s reefs are a place to play “find the critter” as you drift along above a kaleidoscopic cavalcade of brilliant tropical fish darting from nook to nook. Eels hide in cracks, shrimp dance in holes, lobsters solute with spiny antennae and hungry grouper look for an easy meal. Keep an eye out on the eastern part of the reef and you might be able to make out the dozens of old ballast stones said to be from the wreck of the Looe. If you choose a longer day trip with some divers on board, there is a good chance to snorkel three different sections of reef – most people find the extra water time well worth it! This is a place where the water visibility can be amazing and if the conditions are just right, leaves a snorkeler feeling as if they are floating in space.
Tip: Do your homework and find out what style of trip and boat best suits your style of snorkeling, comfort level and schedule.
When to Go: Year round, with water temperatures varying from 85 degrees in the summer to about 73 degrees in the winter
2 Biscayne National Underwater Park, Florida:
There is a hidden gem of a national park near Miami that many visitors and residents alike never take the time to visit. The area was declared a National monument in 1968 and became Biscayne National Underwater Park in 1980. Located due east of Homestead and the everglades, the park’s 181,000 acres encompass all of the southern portion of Biscayne bay, the accompanying mangrove shoreline on the mainland and all the islands and reefs of the keys north of Key Largo (short of Key Biscayne). As about 95% of the park’s area is underwater – it is pretty obvious what the focus is in this national park! In fact most of the visitors to this beautiful area come by there own boat, but there is also a drive-in park entrance at the Convoy Point Visitor Center.
Visitors without there own boat will find canoe and kayak rentals for mangrove exploration as well as boat operators who run snorkel and dive trips two to three times a day. Snorkeling is almost always possible in the shallow protected areas of the bay near the northern keys even if the wind is a bit blustery. This is the tidal zone that functions as a nursery for mature fish seen out on the reef and offers many curiosities. But if you’re a reasonably experienced snorkeler and conditions are favorable, it is well worth going out with the dive trip to the northernmost portion of the Keys barrier reef. The crew on all the boats are extremely helpful with catering to snorkelers and rental gear is readily available.
These reefs are bathed by the warm water of the gulf stream where fans and soft coral gorgonia reach out toward the surface. Schools of yellow striped grunts are stacked fin to fin and French angelfish the size of dinner platters roll a wary eye to the funny looking humans floating above. Freedive down to peer beneath the coral heads and you may be rewarded by the sight of a live conch, cowrie , brilliant flame scallop or just a closer look at the many butterfly and parrot fish. Especially exciting is catching a glimpse of one of the many resident sea turtles in the area.
On a perfect day when the bright sunlight adds dizzying patterns of fishnet-like light refraction playing over the reef it is easy to loose all track of time. The 90 minute stay on the reef is over before you know it and it is time for the easy ride back while comparing your sightings with the others on board.
Tip: If you are an advanced snorkeler, request to go out with the divers and they will take you to the outer reef areas.
When to go: Year round, but temperatures are much cooler between November – May
Underwater Unlimited -http://www.biscayneunderwater.com/
BiscayneNationalPark@gmail.com Ph: 305.230.1100
3 Crystal River, Florida:
One of the most unique snorkel experiences in Florida is found in this quiet waterfront community on the west coast of Florida about 80 miles north of Tampa. Aside from a picturesque setting on the estuary of Kings Bay, the area provides the best place in the country to experience the gentle West Indian Manatee in its own environment. People come from around the world to savor this rare encounter with an endangered mammal that some think inspired the legend of mermaids. Manatees are present in the area year round, but they are far more prolific in the winter when passing cold fronts drive the warm blooded sirens from the chilly Gulf of Mexico to seek comfort in the warm spring-fed waters of Crystal River.
Several operators provide manatee dedicated trips on comfortable pontoon boats with expert guides. First timers might feel a little crazy gathering before dawn on the marina docks in 40* temperatures to go snorkeling, but there is method to the madness. As guides will explain, the cold weather inspires manatees to seek the very source of the warm 72* spring water where it is clear as glass. It is not unusual to have 5 to 20 manatees gathered around these spa-like springs scattered around the bay.
After a thorough explanation of “manatee etiquette” designed to ensure that the sea-cow is always in control, visitors slip into the water in buoyant wet suits to test there animal magnetism. Though there are no guarantees, it is common for a manatee to swim right up and take a close look at their human counterparts. Some people are occasionally selected for a flipper squeeze, a mask nibble or a full on manatee hug… even skeptics are won over by their charming personality, if not their whiskery good looks. This is extremely easy snorkeling with sometimes very little movement required and a good manatee encounter may last from 5 to 30 minutes.
If your boat is in the Three Sisters Spring area (a favorite manatee hangout), I highly recommend making the effort to swim upstream to the main spring basin. After about a five minute swim, you enter into a stunningly beautiful oasis of old Florida, with calm water as clear as air over a white sand bottom with grunts and jacks seeming to float in air. The cypress trees dotting the shoreline only add to the illusion of nature as it was in the old days.
The trip back to the docks is spent warming hands with mugs of cocoa and plenty of excited chatter about the playful slow motion antics of one of Florida’s iconic wildlife symbols. Just maybe there is a reason for chilly weather in Florida after all.
Tip: Move slowly and you may enjoy a manatee friend for 15 minutes or more. After you gain some experience in the area, you can also rent small boats from the marina to explore on your own.
When to go: All year. In winter there are more manatees, but in summer there are fewer crowds. When you see a cold front predicted, book early! Americanprodive.com; 800-291-3483