There are many reasons to go to the beach—to bask in the sun, watch shore birds skitter along the surf, get sporty with jet skis, surf boards, or parasails, make sand castles with your kids, or mosey along the local boardwalk. We Floridians are lucky to have fabulous options all over the state for engaging in our favorite beach activities.
And how about the best spots for snorkeling? We’ve got that covered, too.
The key is knowing where to find clear water, without much muck to stir up. It’s also good to steer clear of major boat traffic and fast watercraft like jet skis or water skis. And it’s important not to get caught up in strong currents or tides.
In Central and Southwest Florida, our two favorite snorkeling sites are on the Gulf Coast.
Egmont Key is a small, 440 acre island that lies at the mouth of Tampa Bay, just southwest of Fort DeSoto Park. It was designated a wildlife refuge in 1974, and the south half of the island is closed to people. Instead it serves as a nesting ground for native sea turtles and seabirds, including osprey, brown pelicans, white ibis, black skimmers, and American oystercatchers. There are neither running water nor concessions on the island, and pets are not permitted, because of the sensitive nature of the ecosystem.
The interior of Egmont Key has cultural significance, as well. It served as a camp for captured Seminoles at the end of the Third Seminole War, and as the Spanish-American War brewed, historic Fort Dade was built in 1898 to protect the Bay. There’s also a working lighthouse that has operated since 1858 to protect vessels entering Tampa Bay.
The island is accessible by private boat or a 30-minute public ferry that leaves twice- and sometimes three-times daily from Fort De Soto’s Bay Pier. It’s not uncommon to see swimming dolphins, sea turtles, and sometimes even manatees on the ferry ride to and from the island.
Snorkelers are treated to views of the aquatic wildlife that inhabits the sunken fort and other historic structures just off the island. There is also a large sand dollar bed right outside of a fertile seagrass area that is home to fish, mollusks, and also hunting seabirds.
Some of the best snorkeling on the Gulf Coast can be found here, at a shallow limestone outcropping just at the south end of Crescent Beach on Siesta Key, directly outside Sarasota. The rocks extend 100 yards north and south, and the shallow water and unusually calm seas make for easy snorkeling, even for kids.
The aquatic wildlife varies here. Sometimes you’ll see small and medium brightly-colored tropical fish, large snook, crabs and other crustaceans, red sponges, and shellfish adhering to the rock. Snorkelers are also treated to dolphin and manatee sightings, depending on the season.
The trick here is parking. There are precious few public parking spots on the island. Your best bet is trying to park at beach access No. 12, between Captain Curt’s Crab & Oyster Bar and the Siesta Breakers. Vacationers have it easier, because they are able to park at the condo buildings near Crescent and Turtle Beaches.
For the rest of us—plan to arrive early!