For award-winning writer Brad Bertelli, life is about noticing the little things — especially when he’s hovering over coral heads offshore. His book, “Snorkeling Florida: 50 Excellent Sites,” reveals many of his favorites, and the reefs of the Florida Keys (renowned as North America’s most accessible dive and snorkel destination) best represent what the water has to offer.
Brad’s favorite snorkeling sites include coral reefs, seagrass beds and shipwrecks. Luckily for aquatic enthusiasts, the Keys provide easy offshore access to each underwater environment. Water depths are typically shallow, and water temperatures range from the 70s in winter months to the 80s in summer — practically guaranteeing a safe and enjoyable trip.
If you’re a snorkeler, kicking from shore just beyond the seagrass beds will bring you to structures such as coral heads, rocks or outcroppings where you can see a variety of fish.
“Fish look for these ’condos‘ to live and dart in and out of,” Brad said.
Sightings increase, he advised, when the tide is changing or at low tide, and when there’s low wind — usually in the early morning hours before afternoon clouds build up and create surface chop.
Keeping a slow pace is important as well. Snorkeling is not a race, so take your time to examine the reef, soaking it all in. The ease of snorkeling is what makes it so appealing for people of all ages and experience levels.
Key Largo is brimming with fine snorkeling spots — many of them in or near John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. They include the north end of Molasses Reef, a beautiful and shallow strip of reef lush with schooling blue striped grunts and Florida favorites like sergeant majors, horse-eyed jacks and Bermuda chubs.
Just off Founders Park on Plantation Key is a group of coral heads between three and four feet tall. For a family with little kids, cruising down the jetty is great for spotting nurse sharks, rays, starfish and seahorses.
Off Islamorada’s Cheeca Lodge, Brad often hovers over “Cheeca Rocks,” a shallow, healthy cluster of robustly populated coral heads that aren’t heavily dived.
Indian Key, accessible by boat or a 25-minute paddle by kayak, is home to small critters like banded shrimp, damselfish and juvenile angelfish that crowd around lime-colored brain coral heads.
In the Lower Keys, though Looe Key is legendary for its glorious finger reef seascape, Brad said his all-time favorite shore snorkel is the untouched and uncrowded beauty at Bahia Honda State Park. In shoreside waters only four feet deep, you can spot “babies” from a variety of species including starfish and conch.
“What is so remarkable about snorkeling the Keys is how much you can see offshore without having to be on a boat,” stated Brad. “You can wade in off the beach and it’s truly breathtaking.”