Even if you are a casual snorkeler or scuba diver, Florida has the only ocean reefs teaming with all sorts of tropical fish in the USA (with exception to those in Hawaii). These reefs are comparable to those more renowned spots in the Philippines, Thailand, and South Pacific. But, while there are many, most would agree that the Top 3 spots, those at the top of most snorkelers list, are always:
- Sombrero Reef
- Alligator Reef
- Looe Reef
While there ARE some others off the Keys, these are easily accessible by boat and all are stunning in their own way causing snorkelers to debate which is better. That is really a matter of opinion, but it really depends on the weather and sea conditions when you made the trip! All are bad if the seas are 3-4 ft. waves, raining, or windy conditions. Any one of these conditions can make your adventure into a bad experience due to poor visibility under water.
This is a protected area (as they all are) some 6-8 miles off the island of Marathon in the Keys. The depth can be 15-30 ft. or more and it sits close to where the Atlantic and Gulf waters meet. There is a lighthouse there built in 1858 and the water around it is around 6-10 ft deep. Schools of fish love gathering under this lighthouse. Coral rock formations abound the area and the water is super clear on good days. It is stunning as even those on the boat can see fish. Sharks are infrequent but barracudas are more common along with colorful tropical fish. Getting there is easy. There are many companies that take snorkelers there for $45-55 pp.
Another absolutely stunning aquamarine color water reef. Like Sombrero, it has a light beacon (1873) that fish gather under in large formations. This is about 4 miles from Islamorada, which is 30-40 minutes eastward from Marathon by road. Alligator Reef is great for less experienced snorkelers since the water is shallow in many places (around 6 ft.), however, depths can quickly descend to 60 ft. Similar types of fish are also found here that are common to Sombrero. The cheapest tour there is from Sundance at $40pp. for a 3 hr. trip from Islamorada. This barrier reef, like Sombrero, has tons of tropical fish to see and swim with. Usually, the only shark seen is a Nurse shark, which are harmless.
This reef sits off Big Pine Key, which is a few miles further east from Marathon (it sits in-between Big Pine and Islamorada). For some more experienced snorkelers and scuba divers, THIS is the #1 spot. It is about 6 miles from Big Pine and is 7-30 ft. deep. It is a lesser known reef only because not many tour boats go there but this reef's WOW factor are its much larger fish like 200lb. Grouper, Tuna, and others. It sits on the edge of where colder Atlantic water mixes with warm Gulf water. Ocean currents are much stronger here and the coral is much thicker than the other two spots. Bigger fish attract other big fish and sharks are more common to be seen. You will see more sea turtles and manta rays here also. One can get there from the best spot on the Keys, Bahia Honda State Park. They offer tours there for $30pp. Their phone is 305-872-3210.
Speaking of Bahia Honda, it is a awesome place to hang out with its beautiful beach where one can snorkel also, if just for practice. There also a take out food place there as well.
The Top 3 spots can be debated depending on the experience. But, most will agree that these ARE the best snorkeling spots (of course, there are others as well, like Cheeca Rocks) but these top three are the go to spots.
perrya (author) on May 28, 2021:
Liz Westwood from UK on May 27, 2021:
Your illustrations back up the points that you make in this helpful article.