Key West: Snorkel and Dive Paradise
How popular is Key West snorkeling? Conchs and visitors spend upwards of $150 million a year at reef-related businesses, supporting thousands of local jobs.
Surrounded by warm, shallow tropical waters on all sides, it’s no surprise that the Florida Keys are a magnet for divers and snorkelers year-round.
Both local Keys residents and tourists enjoy snorkeling above the thousands of coral outcroppings that make up the Florida Reef system. In fact, if you want to dive a dynamic, living barrier reef, the Florida Keys are your only option in North America. According to the United States Geological Survey, the Florida Reef Tract offers over three dozen species of stony corals. And these corals—which are colorfully beautiful in their own right—provide homes for over 500 tropical fish species, plus fascinating invertebrates such as sea urchins, crabs and shrimp. With so much to see, it’s no wonder that people travel from halfway around the world to snorkel Key West.
But the Florida barrier reef isn’t the only thing that draws divers to southern Florida. Before a string of lighthouses was finished in the 1880s, the reefs around Key West wrecked thousands of ships, making reef and wreck diving another popular Key West attraction. No diving trip to the Florida Keys is complete without a reef and wreck dive on the USNS Vandenberg. This former troop transport ship was brought to the waters off Key West and intentionally sunk to create an artificial reef for divers and marine life alike. When the 500-foot Vandenberg was sunk in 2009, it became the second largest artificial reef anywhere in the world.
Divers can observe all the marine creatures that now live on the Vandenberg, as well as make their way around the ship, which rises to within 40 feet of the surface of the water. Key West diving fanatics have created an artificial reef that many reef and wreck divers consider to be the best in the world. The site is good for novice divers to go down to levels of 40 feet, or for experienced divers who may dive down as far as 140 feet. All Vandenberg dives are escorted for the safety of the diver.
It didn’t stop with the Vandenberg. The Artificial Reef of the Keys (ARK), took 10 years to develop, starting with the mission that created the Vandenberg artificial reef in 2009. Scientists hope will be a long-term project involving a vast array of similar artificial reefs, and what a lot of divers expect to be one of the most fascinating and challenging diving opportunities anywhere.
There’s a Key West snorkel or dive trip that’s perfect for you, no matter your level of experience, or how deep you’d like to dive. Dive tour operators offer a variety of different snorkel and SCUBA diving excursions. Many are all about the diving, but other trips combine snorkeling with glass bottom boat trips, dolphin watching, sunset cruises or other watersports adventures. If you’re a snorkeler or a diver, you owe it to yourself to plan a diving trip to Key West, Florida.
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