Admit it. When driving through the Keys, you just want to pull over and take a plunge into the rich blue waters that surround the 113-mile-long chain of coral and limestone islands and 42 bridges. Resist the urge, and instead get wet by booking a snorkeling trip to one of the Keys' many offshore reefs.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Key Largo
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the nation's first undersea park, created in 1963 to protect part of the only living coral reef in the continental United States. "It's rare that you can drive to an island and, with a brief boat trip, see a coral reef," says Elena Muratori, a John Pennekamp park services specialist. There are daily snorkeling tours to reefs located between three and eight miles offshore. The 2.5-hour tours include 90 minutes of snorkeling in one of the inner reefs, which range from 5 to 15 feet deep.
Indian Key Historic State Park, Islamorada
Rent a kayak at the Kayak Shack; store your mask, snorkel, water, and lunch inside; and paddle 20 minutes to reach Indian Key State Park. This island park includes a ghost town, the remnants of an 1830s "wrecking community" whose residents made a living salvaging cargo from shipwrecks. The waters along the edge of the island's pitted limestone substrate offer protection for juvenile reef fish. "Snorkeling at Indian Key provides a reeflike experience," says park manager Mike Guarino. "Look for coral colonies scattered in the shallow water, interspersed with sea grass and hardbottom habitats."
Namaste Eco-Tours, Western Sambo Ecological Reserve, Key West
For Jeffrey Bowman and his wife, Trish Pleasant, co-owners of Namaste Sailing/Keys Eco-Tours, introducing visitors to the Western Sambo Ecological Reserve in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary offers the opportunity to share the wonders and the science of a coral reef. "We explain the symbiotic relationship of coral polyps and algae, share interesting facts about coral and its place in world ecology, and explain how lucky we are to have this eco-reserve only 45 minutes from our marina," says Bowman, who specializes in custom charters that include underwater instruction and photography. "Western Sambo is unique in that it possesses a higher level of habitat protection, including fishing and anchoring bans. As a result, the coral ecology is much more abundant than [that of] most other reef areas in the marine sanctuary."
What to Bring: The most important thing to bring is an ability to swim, naturally, plus a mask and snorkel (and perhaps flippers); if you don't have that gear, call the location before your trip to see if you can rent it. And remember to take water to hydrate and sunscreen to protect you from sunburns.
Practical Tip: For those who are disabled, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park offers the wheelchair-friendly snorkeling vessel Encounter. Park policy is that to snorkel, the disabled must be able to get in and out of the water on their own or with the help of companions.
Fun Activity: Become a Reef Explorer. Ask a Keys dive or snorkel shop for a copy of the complimentary Reef Explorer Guide, which covers the area from Key Largo to Key West, or download it online. Then collect a stamp from operators with whom you booked reef charters in each of the Keys' five regions. Get five stamps to receive an access code to personalize and print a Florida Keys Reef Explorer poster.