A woman wearing a snorkel mask treading in open water

Snorkeling in Biscayne National Park | A Complete Guide

The best way to see Biscayne, which is 95% underwater, is by hopping on a snorkeling tour. Our complete guide will help you explore mangrove forests, coral reef, and even a shipwreck.

Updated March 2024

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There's an overlooked destination hiding beneath the clear waters off the Miami coast. It's the only coral reef system in the continental US. Home to hundreds of different species of birds, fish, and other marine life.

Speeding across the shallow turquoise waters by sail or motor, you might be tempted to think there isn't much to see in Biscayne National Park.

But 95% of its 173,000 acres is below the surface. Centuries old shipwrecks, and a whole ecosystem of marine life.

Coral creates a habitat for a huge diversity of fish. Sea turtles, manatees, and bottlenose dolphins are all regular tenants of the park's waters.

That makes snorkeling an essential way to properly see Biscayne. Over multiple trips we've been able to experience a large amount of the park. We've put together this guide to help you plan your own visit. We're covering the best places to snorkel, when to go, and everything you'll need to bring.

Planning your Snorkeling Trip to Biscayne

Types of Tours Offered

The Biscayne National Park Institute is an official partner of the National Park System. Formed under the non-profit Florida National Parks Association, it serves to provide experiences to visitors that are both immersive and educational.

This is who we've chosen to snorkel with on both of our visits to Biscayne. Not only do they offer the best experiences, most leaving directly from the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, their proceeds also go back into supporting the park itself, so we know our money is helping to protect this place for the future.

A sailboat is moored in a harbor of turquoise waterA logo on the side of a boat that says "Keep Biscayne Beautiful"

Two other vendors authorized to operate in the park are Ace Diving and Diver's Paradise. They cater specifically to scuba divers, but also offer snorkeling trips.

Prices are fairly comparable across all three vendors for a half day on and in the water.

For simplicity's sake we're going to cover the specific tours offered by Biscayne National Park Institute, since that's where we believe you get the best bang for your buck and we have personal experience with them.

Guided snorkel experience

This is a half day tour that leaves from the visitor center in Homestead both in the morning and early afternoon.

You'll take a powerboat across Biscayne Bay to the captain's destination of choice, depending on that day's conditions. Group sizes are up to 16 people and they do offer private trips.

We'll get into the actual snorkeling locations a bit later, but this experience could take you out to the coral reef, the mangroves on the bayside, or even some of the shipwreck sites.

All of the tour guides at BNPI are a wealth of information on the park's wildlife and history. You can expect to return with a head full of new facts about the area and what you've seen.

Note the minimum age for this tour is 8 years old and it's recommended that you are a good swimmer. You do not however need to be an experienced snorkeler and first timers shouldn't be discouraged from going out.

Sail, paddle, and snorkel

For a well rounded adventure we can highly recommend trying out the sail, paddle, and snorkel experience.

Your guide will take you across the bay in a sailboat and will likely encourage your participation along the way. As long as you're comfortable with it, you might be put to work helping hoist the sails, mooring the boat to a dock, or even sitting at the helm and steering.

It's a slower journey across the water, making for a six hour day, but you'll also have plenty of time to relax and soak up the sun.

On arrival at one of the islands, possibly Boca Chita Key, Elliott Key, or Adams Key, you'll have opportunity to walk around and eat the picnic lunch you've brought along. Then, hop in a double kayak and paddle along the shoreline or mangroves. Your guide will lead you out to the best snorkeling spot for the day and give you time in the water.

A man and woman work on putting up a sail on the deck of a boatLooking up at a sailboat's mast with the sail catching wind

Snorkel and island visit

This is the one snorkel experience that departs from Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove, a historic neighborhood in Miami, rather than from the visitor center.

Coconut Grove is about 30 minutes away from Miami International, so this could be a great option if you're visiting the city and are either short on time or don't have a vehicle. For perspective, the Dante Fascell Visitor Center is almost a one hour drive from the airport.

On the six hour tour you'll get to experience two different snorkel locations. On the way you'll pass by Stiltsville, which is a group of over-the-water shacks with a colorful history. Lastly, you'll make a stop on one of the park's islands.

Snorkel and paddle eco-adventure

Another great way to get in both a paddle and a snorkel. This tour puts you on a stand up paddleboard rather than a kayak. Your guide will lead you and a small group of no more than five others through the mangroves.

If you're comparing this trip to the sail, paddle, and snorkel experience, note that there's a possibility you'll be taken out into the open ocean for snorkeling around the coral reef. The sailing trip remains inside the bay. Otherwise, the tours are very similar and which one you choose really depends on how interested you are in the sailing portion.

A powerboat loaded with paddleboards cruises across the water

Where to Snorkel

There are some fantastic places to see in Biscayne's waters. However, which locations you end up exploring will depend on daily weather conditions and is ultimately the captain's decision.

If you have a specific place you'd like to visit, your best option is to contact BNPI directly and inquire about the likelihood. Consider booking a private tour for a more tailored experience.

Below are the main snorkeling highlights within Biscayne National Park.

Oceanside Coral Reef

If you plan your visit during the calmer summer months you'll have a better opportunity of getting out of Biscayne Bay and into the open ocean. There, you can snorkel among the patch coral reefs, which are small, isolated outcroppings of reef.

Among these reefs are brain coral, colorful sea fans, and an endangered species called Elkhorn coral, which is considered to be one of the most important for reef-building. These habitats of course invite thousands of fish and other wildlife.

A purple coral reaching up with dozens of thin branches
Photo credit: Erick Morales Oyola

Shipwrecks

Biscayne may lie almost entirely underwater, but that doesn't mean it can't have trails, like all the other national parks.

There are six shipwrecks along the Maritime Heritage Trail, three of them being ideal for snorkeling because of their shallow depth. Fish love to take shelter among the wreckage, making them especially interesting.

Mandalay Shipwreck | A luxurious schooner that ran aground in the early hours of New Years Day, 1966. Within no time at all the ship was picked apart by scavengers, who made off with the vessel's instruments, as well as its wealthy passengers' cameras, watches and purses.

Arratoon Apcar | This iron steam ship ran aground on Fowey Rocks in 1878, narrowly missing the lighthouse that was under construction at the time. Remains of the hull and beams, covered in coral, can still be seen in about ten to twenty feet of water.

Unknown vessel | Large ballast stones on the ocean floor mark the site of a 19th century wooden sailing vessel, but not much else is known about the wreckage.

Snorkelers swim above the remains of a shipwreck in Biscayne National Park
Photo credit: Brett Seymour / NPS

Fowey Rocks Lighthouse

This structure, known as the "Eye of Miami" was originally built in the 1870s, but is still maintained by the US Coast Guard. The lighthouse itself is closed to visitors, but there's great snorkeling to be found around its base. It was the most recent addition to Biscayne's Maritime Heritage Trail.

Mangroves

Because coral reefs are such a popular destination for snorkeling, it can feel disappointing to not make it out of the bay, but the mangrove forests are bustling with aquatic life. In fact, they're called the 'nurseries' of young fish.

The stretches of undisturbed mangrove forest in Biscayne sometimes have a maze-like appearance. It was here, while paddling, and then gently floating on the currents while snorkeling, that we saw the most wildlife on our first visit.

A kayak moving through the shallow water of a mangrove forest with vegetation on either side

When to Go

The best time to visit Biscayne National Park is from December to April. Winter weather is both comfortable and mild, with water temperatures averaging around 73F (23C).

If you're used to colder temperatures like us the water can actually feel refreshing and, once you're in it for a few minutes, you'll probably be just fine. Native Floridians on the other hand seem to think it's a bit too chilly for swimming. If it's a little cold for your taste you can always rent a wetsuit.

Spring is a great time to visit, with the average water temp reaching 78F (26C). This time of year however comes with larger crowds. Fortunately, all of BNPI's tours are smaller in size, so as long as you plan ahead and book online there's no need to worry.

Most experienced visitors to Florida will recommend you avoid the summer months. The reason being very hot and humid days with the highest chance of rain. The mosquitoes this time of year can also be unbearable.

Though hurricane season typically stretches from June through November, the highest chances are actually from August to October. You can certainly still plan a trip during this time, just be aware that you could have to change your plans.

What to Bring

Your snorkel gear. Fins are required inside the park, so don't forget them. If you don't have you own you can rent a full set for $16 or fins for $6. BNPI will provide an inflatable vest as part of your tour.

Reef safe sport sunscreen.

A hat and sunglasses.

Some UV blocking lightweight clothes. If you're going on a winter day consider a windbreaker to block the chilly air on the boat.

Bug spray.

Swimsuit.

A travel towel.

A banner ad for a sale at REI

Lunch or snacks. For the full day tours you'll want to pack your own picnic lunch. There will be a cooler on board where you can store food.

Your boat will have a jug of cold water to keep you hydrated, so be sure to bring a reusable water bottle.

A waterproof phone case.

Dry bags to protect your stuff.

Your camera and a GoPro for capturing photo and video under the water.

Water shoes or sandals.

Want to see Biscayne? Pin this blog post for later!

A woman wearing a snorkel mask in the water with text overlay that says 'Snorkeling Biscayne National Park A Complete Guide'

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