water activities in key west

Water Activities in Key West

Written by Boatsetter Team
November 23, 2021

Key West is a dream vacation destination that many consider a Mecca for living a Florida lifestyle. This breathtakingly beautiful location was famous for writers like Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway to live and visit. The best thing about Key West is that there are many opportunities to experience life on the water by spending time at the beach or exploring the many unique islands and wildlife.

Where can I Boat Around Key West?

Boaters love heading out into the waters surrounding Key West and exploring all the unique islands found in nearby waters. Several marinas throughout Key West offer places to dock your boat, get some lunch, go shopping, and explore the many historical sites. Additionally, several islands throughout the area, including the Dry Tortugas National Park.

What islands and locations can be visited by boat in Key West?

bahia honda state park

The Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most popular locations for those boating in the Key West area to visit. This location is a remarkable national treasure, nestled about 70 miles west of Key West. Just prepare yourself before going because no food, water, or fuel is available in the park. 

Visiting this national park includes having access to cultural artifacts telling the story of human exploration. Additionally, on the westernmost edge of the island is the world’s third-largest coral reef system.


Other islands and places that can be visited when boating in Key West include:

  • Bahia Honda State Park
  • John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park
  • Boca Grande Key
  • Boca Chica Sandbar
  • Sand Key Reef
  • Western Dry Rocks
  • Cottrell Key

What is there to do in Key West on the water?

Key West offers those looking to enjoy many water activities plenty of things to experience and do. Key West’s popular water activities include boating, jet skiing, fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, and paddleboarding. Other fun activities on the water include parasailing and dolphin and wildlife watching. Dont have a boat? Browse out extensive list of Key West boat rentals

What type of wildlife can be seen in the waters of Key West?

Key West has many unique species and subspecies of many animals. Always be on the lookout for wildlife. It is not uncommon to spot native animals and other critters.

loggerhead sea turtle

 Common wildlife and insects in Key West include:

  • Loggerhead sea turtles.
  • Key deer (a deer with unusually short legs).
  • Lower-keys marsh rabbits.
  • Butterflies.

Other animals you may see in the water include a blue tang, yellowtail snapper, rainbow parrotfish, mahi-mahi, spiny lobsters, Atlantic bottle nose dolphins, and pelagic fish. Critters you may encounter on land include the Torch key raccoon, mangrove buckeye, roosters, and iguanas. In the air, you might be able to spot pelicans, cormorants, herons, cranes, green parrots, pink ibis, seagulls, and flamingos.

What are the best places to go snorkeling in Key West?

In addition to boating, snorkeling is a popular water activity in Key West. The Dry Tortugas National Park offers shallow waters with unique snorkeling spots that will surround you with fascinating marine life. For example, Cottrell Key has a small patch of reef home to soft sponge coral, stingrays, Goliath grouper, and vibrant tropical fish. Other popular places to go snorkeling when visiting Key West include Sand Key, Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, Eastern Dry Rocks, Western Dry Rocks, Higgs Beach, and Rock Key.

Do I have to watch out for reefs?

coral reef key west

All boaters in Key West must be mindful of coral reefs and minimize the impact on these habitats. Tips to help you reduce your impact on the coral reefs include:

  • Do not stand or rest on coral
  • Secure all equipment so it does not come in contact with coral
  • Maintain buoyancy
  • Keep your distance
  • Leave marine life alone
  • Do not take any animals or coral as a souvenir
  • Look, but do not touch
  • Do not leave any trash behind and pick up any trash you see

When is the best time to go boating in Key West?

The climate in Key West is beautiful all year long; however, due to harsh northern climates, peak tourism in this area can cause heavy crowds and long lines. Those who want to explore the Florida Keys with very few people will visit between March and May. The remainder of the year, the area is visited by tourists, snowbirds, and summer vacationers. 

Additionally, during these few months, prices for some things in Key West do drop a little for the off-season. Plus, the weather is not too hot or chill during this time of year, with temperatures hovering around 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

In addition to the crowds from summer vacationers, June through November are prime times for hurricanes. Prices do drop during these months, but there is always a risk of evacuating or not enjoying the water due to rough seas.

What are Key West boating rules and regulations?

Preparing to go boating in Key West is crucial to enjoying your time-out on the water. All boaters must follow the rules and regulations for their safety, the safety of other boaters, and for the coral reefs and wildlife. Here are some of the rules and regulations when boating in Key West:

  • Fishing: If fishing on a charter cruise, you may not need a fishing license; however, if you are on your boat or a boat rental, you may need to have an appropriate fishing license.
  • Coral Reefs: It is prohibited to collect corals without permits. No anchoring of vessels on living coral that is 40 feet deep. Follow all speed limits and obey wake zone laws. Removing or damaging markets, scientific equipment, trap buoys, boundary buoys, and mooring buoys is prohibited.
  • Wildlife Encounters: Do not touch or feed dolphins. Keep eyes open when swimming for sharks and stay away from them. Do not touch birds, even if they approach you.

Are boating permits required in Key West?

Not all areas of Key West require boating permits. The main one that does is Dry Tortugas National Park. Any private boat recreating or stopping in the Dry Tortugas National Park must get a permit at the Garden Key dock house. Those just simply driving through the park area do not need a permit. Boating permits are required for all recreational vessels, including boats, commercial fishing vessels, dinghies, paddle-boards, kayaks, and any vessel operating under a Commercial Use Authorization. Those needing recreational permits must appear in person through a self-registration system at the dock house.

Do you need a license to operate a boat in Key West?

You would need a license to operate a boat on your own in Key West if you were born after 1988. You can go online to obtain a boat license for the state of Florida. 

There is no better way to explore the Florida Keys than with a boat rental! Rent a captained boat in Key West to avoid having to worry about certificates; just enjoy your on the water activities while your captain controls the vessel


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