One of Key West’s biggest draws is the tranquil, aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean that surround the island. The astounding natural beauty found here fosters a unique and diverse marine ecosystem. In the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the Florida Straits stretch from Miami past Key West, making it the third largest barrier reef in the world. Not far from there, the legendary Gulf Stream, a cold and fast-moving current attracts enormous pelagic fish, making it a dream for anglers. To the west, the shallow sand flats of the Gulf of Mexico harbor turtle grass and mangroves, which are the nesting and feeding grounds for a critical population of juvenile fish and migratory birds. There are many ways to explore Key West’s marine life and underwater habitats, both in the water and on land. Read on for a few of the best ways to experience Key West’s abundant marine life.
Grab a Snorkel Mask
What better way to encounter Key West’s coral reef than by diving right in on a snorkeling excursion? The reef is located seven miles offshore and you can set sail with various watersports companies located around the island. Aboard a snorkeling trip, you’ll swim amidst coral canyons made of colorful varieties of brain coral, Elkhorn coral, Staghorn coral, purple sea fans and more. Be on the lookout for yellowtail snapper, damselfish, rainbow parrotfish, angelfish and a wide variety of other tropical species, in addition to loggerhead sea turtles, stingrays and even sharks.
Feed a Stingray
The Key West Aquarium, located in the heart of Mallory Square, is a great way to learn about marine life that thrives in the Key West waters. With touch tanks and daily feedings, you can get up close and personal with stingrays, sea turtles and sharks. The aquarium’s exhibits and guides offer an informative, engaging and interactive introduction to Key West’s marine life.
Lounge on a Sandbar
The only excursion in Key West that allows you to experience both the coral reef of the Atlantic Ocean and the shallow backcountry of the Gulf of Mexico is Fury Water Adventure’s Island Adventure trip. This half-day excursion will take you snorkeling at the reef, followed by kayaking through mangroves and relaxing on an idyllic sandbar beach. You’ll come away completely relaxed and with a true understanding of the diverse ecosystem that surrounds the island. Snacks and cold beer are provided.
Learn About Key West’s Delicate Ecosystem
Located on the bike ride to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, you’ll find the Florida Keys Eco Discovery Center. This immersive and hands-on science center is a collaboration between the National Marine Sanctuary and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Spanning 6,000-square-feet, its mission is to increase awareness of the need to protect and conserve South Florida’s delicate ecosystem. Here, visitors can explore Mote Marine Laboratory’s living reef exhibit featuring a 2,500 gallon reef tank, learn about the variety of marine life found throughout the ocean’s depths and tour a mock up of Aquarius, the world’s only underwater ocean laboratory.
Grab a Towel and Hit the Beach
When you’ve finished touring the Eco Discovery Center, continue your journey to Fort Zachary. There, you can spend the afternoon bird watching on nature trails winding amidst Australian pines, sunbathing on the rocky shore and snorkeling along the jetties. There’s nothing like spending a day in Key West’s natural beauty to truly appreciate it.
Look out the Windows of the Sea
For those who want to encounter Key West’s coral reef without actually diving in the water, a Glass Bottom Boat trip is an excellent alternative. Learn about the coral reef and its inhabitants as you view the underwater world of Key West through the boat’s “windows to the sea.”
Take a Journey to a Remote National Park
For a truly unique beach experience, devote an entire day to a trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson, found 70 miles west of Key West. The Yankee Freedom III ferry whisks passengers to this remote destination in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico where you’ll experience some of the most unspoiled snorkeling on the planet. You can even opt for an overnight trip with camping under the stars.
Book a Fishing Charter
The Florida Keys are a major draw for anglers, both experienced and brand new to the sport. Whether it’s flats fishing for bonefish and permit or deep-sea fishing along the Gulf Stream for mahi mahi and giant tuna, there are countless charter boat captains to choose from. Head to Charter Boat Row or give the Key West Information Center a call to connect you with a guide.
Dive Right In
SCUBA diving is an extremely immersive way to experience the coral reef. In order to do this, you’ll need to be PADI certified, which you can do while on vacation in Key West. For both certification and dive trips, seek out Captain’s Corner and their Sea Eagle dive boat. Most of their daily dive trips will have you in waters between 25 and 40 feet deep, discovering all of the thriving marine life around you.
Dolphin Watch Tours
There’s a good chance that you’ll spot a pod of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins on any offshore excursion in Key West. That’s because these marine mammals breed in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico in an area that’s become known as the Dolphin Playground. On a Dolphin Watch Tour you’re practically guaranteed to spot these graceful and playful porpoises surfing in the boat’s wake and splashing around nearby. Dolphins in the wild are always a thrilling sight!
Standup Paddleboarding & Kayaking
For a chilled out approach to experiencing Key West’s marine life, consider a standup paddleboard or kayak rental from Lazy Dog at Hurricane Hole Marina. From there, you’ll wind through mangroves in the shallow waters of the backcountry. Keep your eyes peeled for conch shells, starfish, Cassiopeia (upside down jellyfish) and maybe even a friendly manatee.