For those who undertake a trip across the famed Overseas Highway through Florida’s Keys, snorkeling in Key West is often at the top of the list of things to do when they arrive – and why would it not be, as the Great Florida Reef is the third largest coral reef, and is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States. However, sadly – a victim of it’s own fame and tourism success (almost a million tourists arrived to Key West by cruise ship alone in 2016) – Key West snorkeling, along with other reef based activities, have caused significant damage to the once extensive coral reefs in Florida as have the slowly increasing water temperatures in Key West and world-wide. Thousand’s of tourists daily are jam packed onto tours for reef snorkeling Key West where they are taken to the nearest reef, dumped in the water without supervision in crazy numbers and cause extensive damage to the brittle coral and sea-life.
It’s a prime example of unsustainable tourism perpetrated by tourists who probably don’t know any better, and tour operators who are only concerned with their bottom line. Luckily however on a recent trip to Key West I was able to find an eco-tour operator, Namaste Eco Excursions, who knew the secret to finding the best snorkeling in the keys, who was more concerned with conservation and education than profit, and practiced a sustainable tourism model that was even awarded Blue Star status by the NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Read on to learn more about the state of the Key West coral reefs, to explore your options for finding the best key west snorkeling tours and to discover how choosing an eco-friendly Key West snorkeling trip can improve your experience while also helping to save the fragile coral reefs of Key West.
The Great Florida Reef lies a few miles off the Florida Keys, is around 4 miles (6-7 kilometers) wide and extends for over 170 miles (270 kilometers). The reef system actually compromising of over 6,000 individual reef systems, protected through a confusing number of state and national parks though the coral reefs around Key West fall under the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The coral reefs began to form only 5-7,000 years ago towards the end of the last glacial period and today around 1,300 species of marine animals, plants and coral call these reefs home.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects not only coral reefs, but hard bottom, sea grass meadows (important for manatee in Florida), mangroves and sand flats, but while strict protections are in place it is managed largely at a state level and lacks adequate funding for the necessary policing of its vast 2,900 square nautical miles. In saying this – the secret ‘non-touristy’ coral reefs off Key West were some of the best I have ever snorkeled or dived around the world, and were in much better condition than I had expected, largely due to many private individuals who take small actions every day to protect and enhance the reef. This is why it is important for anybody looking to snorkel Key West to be informed of good snorkeling etiquette, the potential hazards (to both yourself and the reef) and to make an informed decision – not just based on the cheapest price – as to which Key West snorkeling tour operator you will choose, as your money and actions can help and support the reef, or sadly be given to operators who could not give two pufferfish!
Over a quarter of all ocean life lives in coral reefs – themselves a relatively small percentage of the ocean – making their survival critical to ocean eco-systems and our own existence on the planet. Sadly however, coral reefs are extremely fragile and sensitive to pollution, overfishing, ocean warming due to climate change and ocean acidification and are being destroyed at an increasingly rapid rate globally. While I could write a entire thesis and not cover the effects of all these on coral reefs – and Captain Jeff, a self-confessed ‘Reef Geek’ with Namaste Eco Excursions does actually do a fantastic job summarizing these on the ride out to his secret reef spots – the basics are that coral bleaching is increasing globally as a result of the sudden warming of water beyond which corals can reasonably handle, causing them to lose their nutrients and turn white while over-fishing itself decimates reef fish populations in many parts of the world.
Specifically within the Key West coral reef there has been a decimation of Elkhorn and Staghorn coral (giant, branch like corals), with an estimated less than 1% of the original population remaining since the 1980’s. Other corals have proven more resilient but year-on-year loss of total living corals are still recorded across the reef system, as well as significant coral bleaching events becoming more frequent with rises with sea level temperatures. As these effects are often at a regional or global level it is difficult to say what an individual traveller can do to help guard against them, besides limiting carbon emissions, lobbying state representatives and wearing coral-reef friendly sunscreen, but the human impacts locally on the Key West coral reef systems are something you have the power to minimize and change.
It is estimated that across the coral reefs in Florida there are 30 million person-days of recreational use of the reefs, including scuba diving, fishing and snorkeling. A tremendous strain on the reef resources (along with a 1000% increase in recreational boats over the last 50 years) that – while important to the local economy in sales and jobs – must be carefully managed in order to ensure the coral reefs of Florida have the best chances of survival into the future. I strongly believe that sustainable business practices and sound eco-tourism principals – along with significant investment in reef research and re-generation programs – are the best way forward for the Key West Reef and many of the reefs around the world (just look at the great management of camping at the more remote Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida for an excellent example) . For a traveller this can be as simple as looking for small-group excursions that limit the amount of people on any one site, following a no-take, no-touch policy on all marine life including corals and plants, checking for use of sustainable fuels and perhaps opting to visit a man-made reef system or other areas if you are only looking for a dip in the water and a day in the sun!
Before exploring the Key West snorkeling tour options it is worth noting that practically all snorkeling in the Florida Keys is by boat as – due to the Florida coral reef’s location offshore – there is practically no shore or beach access for snorkeling, except for Pennekamp and Bahia Honda parks in the Middle Keys which are very poor sites with little to see. This means free snorkeling just is not possible and to see healthy, colourful reefs and the best snorkeling in the Keys you will need to go on a snorkeling trip which come in three types: lowest price cattle cruises, high priced private excursions or medium range eco-operators.
Obviously, based on everything we now know – the lowest price cattle cruises should be avoided at all cost (the types with high advertising budgets that pay big commissions so you will find recommended everywhere) if you want to experience beautiful reefs without 40-50 other people all splashing around, scaring marine life and generally just going on a booze cruise hoping to find Nemo. With strict time-limits, hardly a guide to be found and generally no information on what you will see, these are more suited to sunset cruises around the island with no water entry if this is your cup of tea! And trust me – there is no chance you will be seeing the best places to snorkel in Key West at all! Private charter’s can be right for some people as you can convince you captain sometimes to take you to the ‘locals only’ spots without the crowds, but can be very pricey if not in a large group and you are getting more of a cruise option than a reef tour with knowledgeable experts – perfect for some situations but not for those who really want to learn about the Key West coral reefs and find weird and interesting creatures.
The final option – and of course the best best in my opinion – is to go with a eco-tourism provider who follows sustainable business practices. This way you can be ensured a great experience on the reef, a passionate guide and crew (since they are not in it for the money – or they would convert to a cattle cruise!), a unique experience and if you choose correctly, you can opt for an operator who donates a percentage of the proceeds to a coral protection charity. Not the cheapest option but by paying a little extra you ensure a great experience with a tour operator that cares! It was for these reason’s, and more, that I opted for – and whole heartedly recommend – Namaste Eco Excursions, a eco-tourism operator based out of the Perry Hotel Marina and endorsed by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s Blue Star education and conservation program.
After researching all my options I decided to go with – and to now recommend – Namasté Eco-Excursions, a small-group, family operated operator who specializes in ecological underwater adventures. Captain Jeff – aka ‘reef geek’, just oozes passion for marine life and the coral reefs of Key West, the kind of guy that once you get him started he just wont stop… And that is a great thing as not only did we get to see plenty of rare and bizarre wildlife thanks to his ‘luck’, we also learnt plenty about coral reef ecology and reef etiquette and as a life-long diver I am a bit embarrassed to say I didn’t know over half of what he told me!
Of course if you don’t believe me or the other stellar reviews online you can rest assured that Namaste Eco Excursions is 100% Blue Star certified. This means that any certified operator is focused on low-impact tourism through reef conduct, education and conservation related activities such as fish counts and reef clean-ups and has the support of NOAA and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Not an easy task to become certified by any means, but when it comes to sustainable tourism, you will soon see that Namaste doesn’t just pay lip-service through green-washing but are the real deal. Their boat – a New England lobster boat built to handle any conditions – uses bio-diesel to power it’s engine, does not require external power thanks to on-board solar panels and has on-board tanks to hold any toilet waste. You are also provided with a free water bottle to prevent plastic consumption that you can keep after the trip and all water provided on the trip is purified from the mainland – not small plastic bottles that go straight to land-fills or the ocean as I see with most operators!
Of course – being sustainable is one thing, but you also need to run a great tour, and there is no doubt in my mind that Captain Jeff runs one of the best snorkeling tours in the Florida Keys. Namaste Eco Excursions guarantee a small group size (8 maximum), provides all fins, masks and snorkels and delicious snacks including fresh fruit, cheese and crackers – perfect for after a long swim. There are no wetsuits provided, but with the high water temperature of Key West year round, you will not need them! You also get a ridiculously experienced guide , Jeff himself in most cases, who has been doing this for almost 15 years and now has an innate ability to predict where turtles, sharks and other cool fish are due to weather conditions. He likes to downplay this as luck, but it becomes clear very quickly he knows exactly what he is doing, and he knows all the best places to snorkel in Key West! Captain Jeff and his crew are not only extremely passionate and knowledgeable but seem to be heavily involved in the local community so ask any questions you want about Key West and he will have a story or a side project he is working on!
With both morning and evening trips based on guests requirements, and redundancy itineraries based on local weather conditions you can be sure every trip out with Namaste Eco Excursions will be fun, safe and memorable. Not only will you enjoy a day in the sun surrounded by turquoise waters, but you will normally get two snorkeling tours – each at a different location – on your trip, generally for as much time as you can handle. With a staff ratio of 3 to 1, if you’re not a confident swimmer there will be someone around to assist at all times – no prior snorkeling experience is needed, so don’t but put off by that! I cannot recommend Namaste Eco Excursions highly enough, one of my favourite tours of all time and easily one of the most passionate eco-tourism guides I have ever worked with. Look them up for the best snorkeling in Key West and you too will soon foster strong and deeper connection and appreciation of the deep blue sea!