Key West may be known as a party destination, but one of the best ways to meet some of the most colorful inhabitants is by getting under the water. Home to the third largest coral reef in the world and, arguably, the best diving in the United States, Key West is a destination for both experienced divers and those folks who are just dipping their fins in the water for the first time.
For beginning snorkelers or those who want to stay near the surface of the waves, there are plenty of opportunities to observe the various aquatic denizens that live near Key West. If you’re looking for a laid-back snorkeling experience, consider renting a mask, fins and snorkel from one of the many shops and head out to one of Key West’s public beaches for snorkeling right off shore. Higgs Beach offers opportunity near the pier; Fort Zachary Taylor State Park also has excellent snorkeling right from the beach.
Other excellent snorkeling spots can be found off the shore. Located a bit further afield, but worth the excursion, is the Dry Tortugas National Park
. The National Park, made up of seven small islands, is situated in the middle of the coral reef and offers some of the best snorkeling in Key West. Many tour companies offer snorkeling excursions for either half or full day that focus on reef viewing or even exploring shipwrecks. If you’re looking for the opportunity to get up close and personal with Key West’s most friendly residents, dolphins, check out a tour that includes a dolphin encounter with the snorkel excursion.
Certified SCUBA divers will delight in the underwater offerings near Key West. Due to the history of the islands, Key West is a popular site for wreck diving. While the pirate ships have long since disintegrated under the water, many decommissioned military vessels and other structures have been deliberately sunk to provide new habitats for coral, fish and other wildlife.
Joe’s Tug, a steel harbor tugboat sunk in 1989, was originally destined for Miami but ended up a few miles from Key West due to suspicious circumstances (depending on the storyteller, either a rum-swigging fisherman or a local pirate put it in its current resting place). The Cayman Salvage Master, which played a role in transporting Cuban refugees in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is one of Key West’s most popular dive spots. This steel-hulled buoy tender rests in about 90 feet of water, providing a haven for goliath grouper, bar jacks and silversides.
The most recent addition to Key West’s wreck diving line-up is the Vandenberg. Once a missile-tracking ship utilized for monitoring space launches off of Cape Canaveral and Soviet missile launches during the Cold War, the Vandenberg was sunk on May 27, 2009 in about 150 feet of water. At the time of its sinking, it was the second largest vessel in the world ever purposely sunk to become an artificial reef and is now home to numerous forms of sea life, such as goliath grouper and barracuda.