Perfect spots abound for those looking to snorkel off the Keys

A woman ascends to the surface after snorkeling on Alligator Reef.
A woman ascends to the surface after snorkeling on Alligator Reef.

If are visiting  the Florida Keys, and you aren’t a diver or don’t feel like taking a one-day “resort” scuba course, you still have an excellent opportunity to see the colorful reefs and tropical fish by snorkeling in the warm waters of the Keys.

The Keys abound with snorkeling opportunities from shore, dedicated snorkeling boats, and dive boats.

Although snorkeling from shore can give you an appetizer, a boat ride will give you a chance to take in the main course of what snorkeling has to offer in the Keys.

Popular snorkeling destinations near Key Largo include the Christ of the Abyss statue, Dry Rocks, White Banks, Sea Gardens, and Molasses Reef.

The Christ of the Abyss, statue (also known as Christ of the Deep) is the most famous and visited snorkel site in the Keys. Cast from a mold created by Italian sculptor Guido Galletti, it was originally made for Egidi Cressi, the dive equipment manufacturer, and later donated to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in 1966.

The park, which was the first underwater park in the United States, is named after conservationist John D. Pennekamp, a past managing editor of the Miami Herald. Pennekamp”s leadership was instrumental in the creation of both the underwater park and the Everglades National Park.

The 8 1/2 foot, 4,000 pound bronze sculpture, which depicts Jesus Christ with outstretched arms and hands, stands in 25 feet of water among nearby spur and groove coral formations, sponges, an encrusted hard bottom, and sand. Large spotted eagle rays and southern stingrays are often sighted in the sandy perimeter of the statue.

Molasses Reef is considered another “must” snorkeling spot for visitors to the Upper Keys.

Because of the cleansing effect caused by the currents of the nearby gulfstream, visibility usually is excellent at Molasses Reef. The clear water in the shallow areas is filled with elkhorn and brain corals, sea fans and numerous tropical fish.

The Middle Keys offer some of the best snorkeling locations in the Florida Keys. Favorite spots include Hen & Chickens, Secret Garden, Davis Reef and Alligator Reef.

Hen & chickens is one of the more unique reefs in the Keys. Its location draws fish associated with the ocean and the bay side of the Keys. It has an abundance of healthy hard and soft coral, sponges, plumes, and colorful sea fans slowly swaying back and forth. Watching this undulating forest of purple is alone worth the snorkel trip.

It is perfect for families who want to take the kids out for a day of snorkeling to introduce them to marine life. Several dive operators schedule trips to this small group of patch reefs, which from above looks like a hen surrounded by her chicks.

Another patch reef, which many consider one of the healthiest in the Keys, is Secret Garden. If you are lucky you might see a turtle or even a few nurse sharks swimming through the mounds and crevices of coral.

One of my favorites dive spots, which is also great for snorkeling, is the shallow portion of Davis Reef. Located an easy boat ride from Tavernier, it has all manner of marine life, soft and hard coral and a ledge populated with what looks like an overstocked aquarium of colorful grunt, parrot fish, tang and fun to watch box fish.

Toward the south end of the ledge, past a big brain coral, is small statue of Buddha sitting in about 20 feet of water. The original bronze statue, placed on Thanksgiving Day 1989, was stolen and later replaced by what appears to be a concrete replica.

Be careful if you decide to dive down and rub the tummy of the statue because the new Buddha has grown fire coal and a brown and white damsel fish that lives there might nip your fingers.

Another great snorkeling area off the middle Keys is Alligator Reef. It consists of a horseshoe shaped 25 feet deep gully, a patch system ranging from 8 to 25 feet and a spur and grove system that slopes from 45 feet to 90 feet deep. The patch and gully are the best spots for snorkeling.

There have been 517 species of fish recorded on Alligator Reef. According to “A List of Fishes of Alligator Reef, Florida with Comments on the Nature of the Fish Fauna” Alligator Reef fish fauna “is now the richest known of any single location in the new world.” (See: http://www.goldendolphin.com/WASdisk/fishlist/fishlist.htm .)

There are some things to know and practice before you hop into the ocean, especially if you never have been in it before.

Make sure you have a mask that fits your face to help prevent leaks.

Practice adjusting the strap. You can accidently break the strap if you pull it too hard while the mask is on your head. Mask straps have a frustrating way of getting entangled in your hair. Consider investing in one of the wide cloth or neoprene straps that are easier to adjust and less inclined to get tangled.

There are two types of snorkels — one that is self-purging to get rid of the water that comes in from the top and another that requires you to “blast out” the water with a puff of air.

This is “blast” technique is much easier than lifting your head out of the water, removing the mouth piece, draining the water, and replacing the mouth piece while kicking to keep your head above water.

The same holds true for getting water out of your mask. Instead of lifting your head out of the water and draining the mask, try putting the palm of your hand on the top part of the mask and blowing a through your nose. That is how scuba divers clear their masks while under water.

There are commercial products available that help keep your mask from fogging up. Spit works well in a pinch.

Use fins that fit. Most snorkel fins go onto your bare feet. There are others, mostly used by divers, which fit over a neoprene booty.

Using fins can be a bit tricky at first. Use long kicks from your hip so the flat portion of blade pushes against the water. Bicycle style kicking jabs the tip of the blade into the water using up a lot of wasted effort without much forward propulsion.

You might find that your snorkel experience is more pleasant in the winter months if you wear a full length 3 mm wet suit.

Jumping into the ocean for the first time can be a bit intimidating, especially off a snorkel boat loaded with other snorkelers. It is a very good idea to practice snorkeling in a pool or very calm shallow water until you feel relaxed and comfortable. Some dive stores have snorkeling classes.

Before you book a snorkeling trip, check weather conditions. Strong winds, and the waves and reduced water clarity they cause, make for a very unpleasant and potentially seasick day of snorkeling.

If you never have been on a moving ocean before, consider taking a non-prescription anti-seasick medication. Consult with your doctor or pharmacist and inquire about the “patch” if you have a history of motion sickness. It is recommended that you take the medication before your day of snorkeling to determine how it affects you. Some medications can make you sleepy.

Please remember that even the lightest touch with hands, fins or snorkel equipment can damage sensitive coral polyps, the small living animals that make up the hard and soft corals at the reef. It’s illegal to harvest coral in Florida.

Maybe a swim in the ocean isn’t for you. You can glimpse the undersea world in style and air conditioned comfort in one of the Key’s glass bottom boat tours.

The  narrated tours give passengers views of some of the more requested spots in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and provide them with a chance to  see colorful reef fish, turtles, eels and maybe even a nurse shark or two – without ever getting their feet or hair wet.

To see more on snorkeling in the Keys, including Key West and the Dry Tortugas, see http://www.tropicalsnorkeling.com/best-keys-snorkeling.html , http://www.tropicalsnorkeling.com/snorkeling-dry-tortugas.html   or http://www.fla-keys.com/diving/

Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 29 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier four years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers .