How to Choose the Best Key West Snorkel Charter
The Florida Keys azure waters provide a vast playground for sea creatures and humans alike. The best means for us humans to get out on the water is with the help of a watercraft such as a boat. A Snorkel Charter is on the Top 10 Things to Do in Key West. The primary focus of a snorkel charter is to get you somewhere where you can don a mask, fins and then snorkel, swim and free dive yourself silly in the warm, salty waters while enjoying the scenery below the surface.
This informative Key West Snorkeling Guide offers a few things to consider when selecting your snorkeling adventure charter trip. Whether you search for your charter on Google, use TripAdvisor.com or get a referral from a friend, selecting the trip that’s right for you and your group can be daunting or at least confusing. Snorkel charters offer as little as a two-hour snorkel trips to nearby waters while other offer overnight trips to snorkeling getaways as far off as the Dry Tortugas. Having a general idea of the desired experiences in the water and aboard boat can help you to make the right charter boat decision. Early on in your planning, see if it is wise for you to pre-booking a snorkeling trip. Commercial boats are rarely full and it’s likely that you could walk up a half-hour before departure to take a trip However, the smaller private or all day charters tend to book early on. Many parties make their reservations prior to arriving for their vacation. If you are visiting Key West during our peak season or during a holiday, spring break or during a major Key West event, you may want to opt for advance reservations to guarantee your spot on the boat of your choice and to possibly get a pre-book discount. Lastly, we strongly advise you to review the cancelation policy of the charters you are looking at securing. There is a vast array of policies on cancellations, refunds and reschedules and there are no regulations set. Most charter businesses are honorable and fairly lenient but again, read the fine print.
What underwater ecosystem do you want to snorkel in?
a. The Coral Reef - The 3rd largest living coral reef in the world is located just off our shores and it’s the only one in North America. It is a biological wonder and for many, it’s a "Not to be Missed” Key West experience. Depths vary from >2’ to about 30’. The reef is home to many species of colorful coral, a variety of tropical fish including parrotfish, blue tangs, angelfish and sergeant majors. The list goes on and on. Some of the bigger fish you can see at the reef is the ever-present great barracuda, nurse sharks, Moray eel's and an occasional spotted ray. Pods of dolphins and sea turtles are often found near or at the reef. Sea turtle species you may see include the Hawksbill, Loggerhead and if your lucky, the rare Leatherback.
The weather will play a factor for a reef trip. If the weather has been clear and calm, then conditions at the reef are usually good. If there has been much wind or heavy rains, try to allow settling time for particles at the reef. Your visibility will be greatly enhanced. Usually the various captains on the morning trips will have seen the conditions at the reef and will share with that information with others giving some later charters clarity as to what areas should be visited or avoided. If you want to try to take underwater photos, try to be in the water at the time the sun is at it's highest peak of the day. The reef lighting is usually best mid-day. Visibility is typically good but if winds are present it can be a rough ride out and the bigger waves don’t make for the best start for novice snorkelers. For those more comfortable in the water, it is a snorkeler’s dream trip. Try to get a Daily Reef Report. These reports tell a lot and advise you of possible challenges. One last note, experience has taught us that during certain seasons each year, moon jellyfish can be as thick as can be and a rash guard or dive skin with gloves becomes your favorite underwater gear – all good info to know before you go.
b. The Back Country – Our local ocean’s nursery, called the back country, offers calmer waters and shallow depths averaging >1’ – 15’. Here you’ll be in nearer the mangroves and snorkeling charters often stop at either the sponge gardens or near a grouping of coral heads. Hopefully your guide can identify the various coral species such as brain, star, scroll, staghorn, flower and the stinging corals (Yes, we said stinging). If you find the sponge garden interesting, see if you can spot the barrel sponge, giant tube sponge and the vase sponge. These living sponges are beneficial natural filters that are constantly cleaning our waters and helping to keep our eco-system in balance. There are plenty of fish around, just not as concentrated as what you would see at the reef. You’ll usually meet up with an abundance of fingerlings (baby fish) in any of these areas as well as needlefish, snapper, hogfish, grunts and an occasion ray and young nurse shark. Sea fans, sea rods and sea flumes reign king and create their own underwater forest for all the sea creatures. Search around and you’ll likely see and a variety of crustaceans including hermit crabs, spiny lobster and our famous marine mollusk, the queen conch. Visibility can vary greatly from location to location depending on currents and weather conditions. To get a good perspective of this eco system, take your time and look at what appears to be insignificant. Sometimes the little things are the big things in the back county.
Where will your charter be going?
It helps to understand that several of the larger commercial charters stick to their routine and target the same snorkel locations every day. They may vary their destinations when wind and weather force them to otherwise they stay the course. Many of the smaller or more private charters vary their destinations greatly and several will customize trips for their guests. That’s a good thing! It is a big Reef and the Backcountry is even bigger. Both are filled with shallows and wrecks but not all locations are created (or remain) equal. Typically, the more remote locations see far less people and boat traffic and are more pristine and full of life because of it. Don’t be afraid to ask specifics as to where the trip will be taking you. Most can’t commit to a precise location because weather may effect the trip, but overall, most of the private charter captains have their list of favorite locations. Again, just ask. You can be very disappointed when you get dumped at an old lifeless reef or a grassy sea bed with just sea urchins and sea biscuits to play with.
Do you want to look, but no touch or do you want to hunt & gather?
We need to make sure you understand that the all the living coral and most of their inhabitants at the reef are protected. It is every guides obligation to ensure your safety as well as preserve the natural beauty that brought you here. The Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary is expansive and there is much of our waters that are No Take Zones. However, there are a ton of tasty fish around too and Monroe County has a fairly long lobster season. Decide whether you want to just “look and not touch” or if you want to enjoy those critters a bit longer – like at your dinner table. Successful lobster harvesting and spearfishing can be had with just a mask & fins. With a little advance planning and making the right choice in your snorkel charter, you can fill up your catch bag and smile all the way to the dinner table. Should you want this type of activity it will be important to verify with your charter that its allowed and you will likely need to secure a saltwater fishing license and possibly a lobster permit in advance of your charter. Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) maintains a strong presence in Key West and it is the wise captain and crew that keeps on the right side of the law by ensuring your licensed properly and knows where the legal take zones are.
How long would you like to be in the water versus on the watercraft?
This can sometimes make or break your day. The advertisement said it’s was a 4-hour snorkel trip but you only got 45 minutes is the water. The rest of the time, you were sailing, motoring or even worse, sitting on the boat as it bobbed around in the water as you awaited your turn to get in the water. Big bummer unless your just along for a ride. Again, ask the questions if it’s not readily discussed.
Does your interest lie in ecotourism or do you want to hunt & gather?
There are lots of pretty fish around and lobsters everywhere. Are you planning to look and not touch or do you want to enjoy those critters a bit longer – like at your dinner table. This is important to know because much of our local waters are steeped in fishing restrictions. Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) has a strong presence in Key West and it is the wise captain and crew that keeps on the right side of the law by knowing where you can do what.
PICK THE BOAT THAT IS RIGHT FOR YOU
Are you best paired with a Private or Commercial charter?
Both are available and sometimes it is challenging to know which is which. Below, we give you some of the basics to help you understand.
a. Commercial charters do serve a purpose for many tourists. If you have a super large group or on a tight budget this is definitely is a viable option for you. They are known as the “cattle boats” of Key West. These super charters can deliver anywhere from 30 to 120 guests per watercraft out to a destination(s) for a snorkeling experience. The commercial charters are a machine with a full ensemble of marketers, reservationist, concierges, crew, a few captains and at least one accountant to add up all the daily dough. Think of it as the assembly line of snorkeling trips. Consistency is the key word for their young, enthusiastic and often learning crew members and they normally plot the same course trip after trip. Unfortunately, many of the snorkel areas that they visit typically show signs of stress from the heavy use. It may be better than not getting out at all and will give you a glimpse of what our sea life is like.
b. Private charters are often owner-operated, carry much fewer people and because charters are their livelihood, are often more adaptable. Private charters tend to make their way towards the “off the beaten” path. If your interested in a more intimate group with one-on-one guidance, individualized service, a private charter is up your creek. Destinations are more diverse and several have package deals that offer combinations of snorkeling, snacks and beverages just like the commercial charters.
Powerboat or Motor sail boat?
The days of ships powered by sails alone is all but gone and quite honestly, not practical for a day charter. Even if a charter advertises itself as a sailboat, all charter vessels in Key West are equipped with motors, even the sailboats. Powerboats differ than sailboats in that they don’t have sails and usually have a large or possible multiple engines that can get you where you want to be fairly quickly if the captain is so inclined. Sailing is traditional, usually quieter, beautiful to look at and much of the time - a slower ride.
Monohulls or Catamaran? The majority of watercraft in Key West, whether power or sail, are either a monohull or a catamaran (trimarans are so few and far between that we are passing on including them in this discussion).
a. Monohulls are distinguishable with the ever popular and timeless V-shaped hull. Keep in mind when selecting a sailing monohull charter, the longer, lighter vessels will sail better and have a more comfortable motion that a short, wide craft. Sailing monohulls tend to heel while underway and rock side to side when anchored or moored. Depending on your sensitivity, can lead to motion sickness. (don’t worry, we’ll present you with several options to help prevent that awful “commotion on the ocean” effect). You’ll likely access the cabin and facilities through a step down or ladder. Power monohulls usually have a fairly wide transom (back end) and have a speed advantage. Large cabins are common and most have amenities all on the same level. They are more often used for fishing charters here in Key West.
b. Catamarans or often referred to as Cats, are less common in the states but have had a huge chartering upsurge in the Caribbean islands. Their hulls form a W. They are usually wider than a monohull, much broader decks and provide a more stable platform. The interior is usually the same level as the deck and they do not heel. People faced with physical challenges often find cats to be more user friendly for them. Today, there are a few catamarans operating snorkeling charters in the Key West area. The range goes from the very basic equipped commercial cattle boats and a few that are custom live aboard cruisers. The cruisers offer additional amenities not often available elsewhere such as bow trampolines, sugar scoops (easy access walk downs to water) and larger houseboat like interiors complete with galleys, multiple heads and sleeping cabins. These “cats” often use these amenities for guests during multiple day excursions. When anchored, rocking is minimized in normal conditions. However, heavy seas produce a hobby horse effect that can also lead to motion sickness.
Be it sails or power, monohull or catamaran there is always a trade off along the way. So what else should be considered? The comfort, speed and cost as it relates to your specific expectation of the charter should all be factored into your final decision. Do your due diligence to verify trips, prices and policies. We recommend calling any charter prior to booking their trips just to make sure that you and your group are a fine match for the charter your selecting.