The Florida Keys island chain stretches for 120 miles from Florida’s southern tip, marking the only living coral barrier reef in the United States. The reef’s abundant marine life, from tiny damselfish to moray eels, attracts snorkelers from all over the world. Commercial dive operators transport snorkelers from shore to reef aboard motorboats and provide the necessary gear for safe and exciting snorkeling. Expect to see schools of colorful fish, huge formations of coral rock and delicate forests of lacy sea fans, knobby staghorn coral and spherical brain coral just five miles off the Keys’ beaches.
Gather Your Equipment
Before embarking on your snorkeling in the Florida Keys adventure, gather your necessary equipment. You’ll need a mask and snorkel, flippers and an underwater camera if you want to take pictures. Of course you’ll also need a swimsuit, towel and waterproof sunscreen.
Reserve Your Trip
After you’ve gotten your gear together, reserve your snorkeling trip with a local dive operator. You can find recommendations for specific snorkeling areas and reliable dive companies from the Florida Keys tourism office. Arrive about 15 minutes prior to your boarding time at the pier.
Apply Waterproof Sunscreen
Change into your swimsuit before boarding the motorboat. Most craft are small and don’t offer changing areas. Don’t forget your towel and waterproof sunscreen. The reflection of the sun onto the water’s surface magnifies its potential for causing severe sunburns, so apply sunscreen liberally to your back, arms and legs, which face the sun while you snorkel.
Adjust Your Mask and Snorkel
Put on the mask and snorkel, either your own or those supplied by the dive operator, who will distribute them. The mask should fit snugly but not too tightly on your face, and the snorkel should angle backwards when you place it in your mouth (it will be vertical when you look downwards).
Put on Your Snorkeling Vest
Get into your snorkeling vest, an inflatable pullover that identifies you in the water and keeps you buoyant. For greater buoyancy, inflate the vest fully. To float naturally in the water, don’t inflate it at all.
Ease into the Water
Walk to the jumping-off point on the boat and put on your flippers. Ease yourself into the water. After putting your face in the water, try to breathe normally through the snorkel; this may take a minute to get used to, as your instincts will tell you to hold your breath while underwater. Tread water as you become accustomed to breathing through the snorkel.
Follow Your Guide
Follow the dive guide (who may carry a buoy to identify himself or herself) in the water and swim to the reef. Stay within the designated area for snorkelers.
Ready … Set … Snorkel!
Float at the surface and gaze at the fish, corals, shells and terrain of the reef. Snap a few photos with your camera, but don’t touch the corals or harass the fish. Leave the reef exactly as you found it. Upon hearing the bell or alarm, return to the boat for the trip back to shore.
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Here’s a tip: the federally designated Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects all of the Keys and offshore reefs, from Biscayne Bay near Miami to the Dry Tortugas National Park, 70 miles west of Key West. Before your trip, check out their website for helpful information to make your snorkeling adventure even more enjoyable.
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