Updated: May 21, 2015
Florida Keys Coral Reef Snorkel Tour - Pennekamp State ParkOur Visit to Pennekamp State Park - Key Largo, Florida
When it comes to a Key West vacation, you need to make plans to spend plenty of time in and around the water -- that's what the Keys are all about! Florida is home to the only living coral reef in the continental USA. But unlike in Hawaii, where you can just swim off the beach and see coral and tropical fish, in Florida, the reef is located a few miles off shore. As we traveled through the Keys, we were a little surprised to find that there really were not many good beaches for swimming or snorkeling -- be sure to stop at the good spots that exist. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is one of those spots, and it is the best place to go in the Florida Keys to visit the reef (more than 1 million visitors per year pass through..). The park is located at the northern end of the Keys, at Key Largo, close to the Florida mainland. Established in 1963, the park stretches 25 miles along the Keys and extends 3 miles out into the Atlantic -- it was the first undersea park in the US. In this guide we'll look at what the park offers and provide information on all their tours and activities.
Facts About Pennekamp Coral Reef Park - Map, HoursGetting there: In terms of Florida Keys lingo, Pennekamp is at mile marker 102.5 on the Overseas Highway (US 1). Like all Florida state parks, you have to pay an admission fee when you drive in - $3.50 for one person, $6 for two people in a car. As you enter the park, after coming down the main road, you'll see the boat ramp and harbor area ahead. Veer off towards the left for parking for day use activities. John Pennekamp State Park is open daily from 8AM until sunset. You'll see 2 main buildings here -- the visitor center and concession building, which are open daily until 5PM. There is also a bathroom/shower facility.
The visitor center WILL again house a large saltwater aquarium -- when we were there, it was under construction and repair. There was, however, a continuously running movie that highlights the myriad of sea life that thrives around the reef. Take 10 or 15 minutes to sit and watch this good program -- you'll learn alot about the sealife here, and see things you probably won't see even if you spend hours diving here. The concession building is where you check-in or sign-up for all the tours. They also have a gift shop, sell all kinds of supplies, and have a small food service area. They rent fins ($2), masks ($2), and keepsake snorkels ($5 - you keep it) if you are going on a snorkel tour -- you can also bring your own gear to save money. To go see the reef, you either need your own boat or you go on a tour. You can find all kinds of fishing and diving and snorkel charters out of Key Largo (Sundiver Snorkel Tours, Captain Slate's, Horizon Divers, It's a Dive, Keys Diver Snorkeling, Quicksilver Catamarans, to name a few..) but Pennekamp Park offers several concession services right within the park (details on snorkel tours and glass bottom boat tours below). It takes about 25-30 minutes by boat to get out to the reef.
The park brochures and websites say you can swim at the main park beach, Cannon Beach. When we were there in Mar. 2009, the beach and water were full of seaweed -- there wasn't a soul in the water. So depending on the time of year and water conditions, I wouldn't plan on doing a lot of beach relaxing or swimming at the park. The official state website is PennekampPark.com
Activities and Tours and Pennekamp Reef Park - Diving, Boating, CampingPennekamp Coral Reef State Park offers a lot of activities. They recommend reservations for most activities. For the snorkel tours, at least, you don't have to pay anything at the time of reservation, so we called in advance and took a chance booking a snorkel tour, not knowing how the weather would be that day. You cannot book anything online as of 2009 - you must phone to reserve your tour.
- Glass Bottom Boat Tours - this is a popular activity for people who don't want to get into the water but who still want to see the reef; tours depart at 9:15AM, 12:15PM, and 3PM; cost is $24 for adults, $17 for kids 12 and under -- duration 2.5 hours; The Spirit of Pennekamp is 65 feet long and normally ventures about 6 miles offshore to Molasses Reef, where the water is 10-30 feet deep; reservations recommended (305) 451-6300
- Snorkel Tours - these tours visit inner reef locations (about 3 miles off shore), depending on weather and water conditions; tours last 2.5 hours, with about 1.5 hours of in-water snorkel time, the rest is spent on the boat back and forth to the reef location; cost is $30 for adults, $25 for under 18; tours depart at 9AM, noon, and 3PM -- (305)-451-6300 for reservations
- Scuba Dive Tours - PADI certified, 2-tank, 2 location dives, $60 per person (gear extra -- $29); 9:30AM and 1:30PM; (305) 451-6322
- Boating - you can rent powerboats for 4 hours ($160-$210) or full day ($259-$359) -- these are 20' to 23' open fisherman boats with bimini top and dive platform;
- Fishing - you'll need a Florida saltwater fishing license to fish here, and fishing is only in designated areas
- Camping - there are 47 sites for RVs or tent camping, with full facility hook-ups; half the sites are reserved in advance while half are first-come, first-serve; clean bathrooms and shower facilities are also available; sites are approx. $32 per night; for camping reservations call 1-800-326-3521
- Canoeing/Kayaking - 8:00 am until 3:45 pm, pedal boats are $19 per hour, canoes and kayaks are $12 per hour, and double kayaks are $17 per hour; explore the mangrove creeks and trails
Pennekamp State Park Snorkel Tour - Florida KeysWe were spending a week going from Miami to Key West and then back again, so our plan was to spend half a day at Pennekamp doing some snorkeling, then stay in Key Largo overnight for an early morning dolphin swim the next morning. We drove down to Key Largo from the Miami area in the morning. We had heard that the noon snorkel tours were the best, so that is what we signed up for. We got to the park around 10:30 and got checked-in and paid for our snorkel tour -- we were traveling with our own snorkel gear, so no equipment rental was needed. We checked out the movie at the visitor center, then got a sandwich at the lunch counter in the concession building. We had read some reviews of people getting seasick on these tours, so we took a Dramamine just in case, but it turns out we didn't really need it.
Around 11:30 everyone headed over to the boat docks to board the snorkel boat. There is bench seating on-board the boat, but to keep the center aisle open, you have to sit with your legs on the inside of the bench against these storage bins -- kind of cramped, but not terrible. The boat takes you out through a channel (this is the slowest part of the trip) and then through open water for about 15-20 minutes until you reach the reef. The seas were pretty calm that day, and there were no problems with seasickness for anyone on the boat. When we reached the reef, there were 2 other boats already anchored nearby (top picture at right), so we joined them. The captain told us where to swim and not swim, told us what time we would be leaving, and told us to listen for the signal horn when we would have to return. After that, we were on our own. The water right by the boat was probably 15 feet deep, but as we swam towards the reef and all the fan coral, the average depth was more like 4-8 feet, with many areas so shallow you could barely float over them for fear of scraping your stomach against the coral -- not a good idea.
We saw a nurse shark, which basically looks like a giant catfish, resting calmly on the bottom. We saw lots of barracudas. We saw many other tropical fish, but to be honest, the real star of the show here was the coral formations themselves. I think the Disney designers for the old submarine ride must have got their inspiration here at the Keys -- lots of bright colors and shapes, waving back and forth with the currents. One thing to note -- the keys to good snorkel conditions are clear water, overhead sunshine, and, of course, lots of fish. The variable you can't control here is the sun -- without sun, the colors are all washed out, things don't look as bright or clear, and the whole experience gets knocked down a few levels. So consider that when planning a trip -- if it's drizzling or overcast, you may want to choose another day for your snorkeling outing.
We spend pretty much the whole 90 minutes in the water. It was late March, and the water was OK in terms of temperature. A wetsuit would have been nice (they rent those as well), but not necessary. If you are the type that gets cold after 15 minutes in the water, consider spending extra for the wetsuit so you can enjoy your visit. We had an underwater camera, so we spent a lot of time snorkeling around and taking pictures. Some people returned to the boat after just 30-40 minutes -- that's up to you, snorkel as little or as much as you want to. The boat trip back was the same as the trip out, uneventful and 20-25 minutes in length. (NOTE: even though the picture of the boat at left says "Bahia Honda" on it, this was the boat we went out on at Pennekamp.. honest!)
On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd rate the fish we saw about 6.5 (we've seen a lot more in Hawaii) while the coral scenery rates a 8.5, with just spectacular colors. Overall, after reviewing our week of activities in the Florida Keys, our snorkel adventure at Pennekamp stands out as one of the best. We snorkeled again at Key West, but it was nowhere near as good. And as we mentioned, there really aren't any places along the shore where you can just get out and snorkel and see anything as you travel down the Keys. So you have to take the opportunity when you get it -- and if you are passing through Key Largo, definitely put aside time to get out to this spectacular Florida reef.