Part of the Keys island chain that stretches southwest of Florida, the Lower Keys sit amid huge expanses of unspoiled ocean habitat. On land, the locals have fostered that classic, laid-back Florida Keys charm; beneath the surface, the surrounding untamed waters constitute some of the most exciting diving and snorkeling in the country. Connected by the Overseas Highway (U.S. Highway 1), these islands and surrounding waters appeal to RVers seeking to trade crowded interstates for clear waterways.
What makes this area so special for underwater explorers? The region encompasses large chunks of the only living coral reef habitats within the United States’ territorial waters. Since the 1980s, conservationists have mounted aggressive sustainability efforts, preserving the natural beauty of the reefs and enabling marine life to thrive and grow.
Indeed, the Lower Keys give divers and snorkelers a rare opportunity, says Denise VandenBosch, dive operations director and PADI Master Instructor at Captain Hook’s dive shop in Big Pine Key. “The shallow reef system, unlimited dive sites, short boat ride to the reef (only three miles from shore) and the diversity of the aquatic environment is the perfect combination to make divers and snorkelers feel comfortable,” explains Denise.
Ready to plan your diving or snorkeling getaway to Florida’s Lower Keys? Check out this guide to find out how to get started and the top places to kick off your underwater adventures.
There are plenty of dive shops in Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys offering lessons and tours. If you’re new to diving, you’ll have to complete an introductory course before heading to the reefs. The quick course teaches you how to use scuba equipment (regulator, fins, wetsuit and weight harness) and safety protocols to follow in the water. You’ll also do a practice dive in a pool so you can get comfortable breathing and moving around with your gear. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you’re ready to get out on the open ocean. A PADI-certified instructor will be by your side the entire time to guide you to different sections of the reef and to help you spot wildlife.
On dive day, remember to pack reef-safe sunscreen, comfortable shoes for the boat and a waterproof camera so you can document every moment.
Take the Plunge
Don’t let claustrophobia stop you from diving. “Once you’re on the bottom [of the sea], you realize there’s more space down there than there is on land,” says Denise. There’s also no need to worry about sharks, as divers rarely see predatory fish in the water. Even if you did see a shark, the bubbles from your regulator make so much noise that it would scare it away. “We are certainly not on their menu — we are big, bubbling, noisy, camera-flashing visitors to their waters and we’re of no interest to them at all,” says Denise.
Becoming a Certified Diver
Diving is an exhilarating feeling, and many people get hooked after their first experience. If this happens to you, consider becoming a certified open water diver. This lifetime certification takes four to seven days to finish and teaches you the skills you need to dive without a licensed instructor. The course consists of an online portion, confined water dives and open water dives. The minimum age to get certified is 10 years old. Denise believes this is the perfect time to introduce your kids to diving. “Most families get certified together and parents get to raise their best dive buddies,” she says.
The Snorkeling Alternative
Snorkeling, on the other hand, is a much simpler proposition. If you’re new to snorkeling, you’ll be happy to know that intensive training isn’t required. And if you’re comfortable swimming in deep water and don’t mind breathing through a tube, you’ll discover an underwater paradise in the keys. The warm, tropical waters make for a comfortable experience, but if you go on a snorkeling tour, always heed the instructions of your guide. Stay within your comfort zone and enjoy the nature that surrounds you.
Top Diving and Snorkeling Spots in Florida’s Lower Keys
1) Looe Key Marine Sanctuary
“You’ll never be disappointed with any dive you make at Looe Key,” says Denise. Resting six miles south of Big Pine Key, Looe Key is a National Marine Sanctuary that’s home to the only complete reef ecosystem in the continental United States. Spearfishing, coral collection and lobstering were banned in 1981 and have allowed the reef to flourish into one of the most spectacular dive sites in North America. Go underwater and hang out by the steep coral formations to spot angelfish, turtles, eagle rays and more. According to Denise, “all the sea critters are well aware they are protected” and won’t hesitate to swim right up to your mask. Not interested in diving? Try snorkeling instead. You’ll still get to enjoy close-up views of the reefs and wildlife from along the water’s surface.
2) Adolphus Busch Shipwreck
Adolphus Busch is a 210-foot cargo ship that was intentionally sunk seven miles from Big Pine Key in 1998. Since then, the wreck has served as a home to a diverse array of vibrant marine life. Dive under the surface to swim with swirling schools of silversides, barracudas and horse-eye jacks. There’s also a good chance of finding southern stingrays if you go all the way to the ocean floor. Before you head back to the surface, say hello to the residents in the vessel’s cargo holds. Tenants here include green moray eels and 350-pound goliath groupers (don’t let the name scare you — they’re gentle giants).
3) Bahia Honda State Park
Located on Bahia Honda Key, Bahia Honda State Park is an excellent training ground for new snorkelers because of its protected and shallow waters. Rent all necessary gear from the on-site dive shop and go for a dip at Bay Side Beach. You can find fish toward the Bahia Honda Bridge, a 5,055-foot railroad span that connects Bahia Honda with Spanish Harbor Key to the west. You’ll also find prime spots near the wall at the end of the beach. Boat trips to Looe Key also depart from the park, so sign up for one after you’ve gotten the hang of snorkeling.
4) Boca Chica Key
Located just south of Boca Chica Key, the Western Sambo Ecological Reserve is a dream come true for both divers and snorkelers. Consisting of nine square nautical miles, the area encompasses the highest habitat diversity in the Lower Keys. It also has the region’s last remaining stands of elkhorn coral, which can be found in the grassy bed areas of Western Sambo Reef. Another destination worth exploring is Cannonball Cut on the east side of the reef. This is where you’ll discover the Aquanaut tugboat wreck along with spiny lobster and massive star coral. Haystack and the Hawk Channel are excellent spots too if you’re searching for tropical fish.
5) Cudjoe Key
Cudjoe Key, located about nine miles west of Big Pine Key along the Overseas Highway, is the place to go to get off the beaten path. The secluded area is home to around 1,800 residents and promises a quiet snorkeling experience without big crowds. Rent a boat from Cudjoe Gardens Marina (or launch the boat that you’ve been towing from the ramp) and sail off the coast to snorkel with parrotfish, sergeant majors, angelfish and more than 150 species of other exotic fish. The corals on the reef are just as impressive, especially the brain, star and fire varieties.
Bonus: The Lower Keys aren’t known for shore diving, but there is one spot locals recommend. Mile Marker 35 on the Overseas Highway is a calm area protected by the wind and an excellent place for a walk-in dive if the weather isn’t good enough to go boating.
RV travelers will find lots of camping opportunities in the Florida Keys, with most parks close to the Overseas Highway. Set up camp and hit the water.