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Snorkelers explore the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO

Lower Keys snorkeling spots to see the sea in new ways. 

A diver plays a fish-shaped saxophone in the Lower Keys.

Undersea Sax: Playing at the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival.

Who says phenomenal snorkeling can only be found in distant destinations like the Maldives or Thailand? Vibrant coral reefs, abundant marine life and turquoise water are much closer than you think. In fact, they’re all in America — in Big Pine Key and Florida’s Lower Keys, to be exact.

National and state agencies, as well as Residents of Big Pine Key and the Florida Lower Keys, place a high value on these coral reefs and have put in a substantial amount of resources to preserve and protect them. Case in point: In July, the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival features musicians playing music under the surface to raise money for the cause. Because of these efforts, the Lower Keys offer some of the best snorkeling on the continent. Come see for yourself! Dive into these five unbeatable snorkeling spots the next time you’re cruising through the Florida Keys.

1) Looe Key Marine Sanctuary

The Looe Key Marine Sanctuary is the continental United States’ only coral reef and the third-largest barrier reef in the world. It’s located eight nautical miles from Bahia Honda State Park and the easiest way to reach it is by joining a tour. Your guide will snorkel with you and lead you to the reef’s most stunning areas. Prepare to be mesmerized by coral formations of every shape and color. You’ll also get to swim alongside tropical fish like sergeant majors, goliath grouper, angelfish and much more.

A man and woman swim behind a fish amid a reef.

A couple discovers a fish near a reef. Photo: Florida Keys.

2) Bahia Honda State Park

Never snorkeled before? Bahia Honda State Park is a great place to learn the ins and outs of this underwater activity. Head to the seagrass beds just off of Bay Side Beach to view creatures like starfish, queen conch, lobster and small fish. The beach also looks like it came straight out of a postcard so relax on its plush white sand and admire the crystal-clear water before or after you go.

3) Cudjoe Key

You most likely won’t find another snorkeler insight here. Located 9.6 miles west of Big Pine Key and home to less than two thousand locals, Cudjoe Key is pretty secluded, which means more space for you to play in. Go for a dip to view over 150 species of marine animals such as moray eel, parrotfish, barracuda and yellowtail. There’s plenty of brain, fire and elkhorn corals too so make sure you bring the GoPro along.

A snorkeler skims across the surface of clear waters off Florida.

Snorkeling off Bahia Honda State Park. Photo: Florida Keys.

4) Coupon Bight Aquatic Preserve

Tucked away in the south of Big Pine Key, Coupon Bight is one of the Lower Key’s best-kept secrets. It’s easy to lose track of time here, especially in the patch coral reefs. This protected area encompasses 4,600 Acres of seagrass meadows, hardbottom communities, mangrove wetlands and coral patch reefs. Snorkelers will discover an array of sponges, soft corals, hard corals and algae. Strap a mask on and dive in to encounter everything from manatees and stingrays to seahorses and angelfish. If you’re new at snorkeling, you may feel more comfortable swimming in the nearby basin. The water is calm and shallow but still has a variety of tropical fish and coral on display.

A spectacular aerial shot of the clear waters on either side of Florida's Overseas Highway.

The Florida Keys’ Overseas Highway as it bisects the Atlantic Ocean, left, and the Gulf of Mexico on the right in the Lower Keys near Big Pine Key. Photo: Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau

5) Newfound Harbor and Little Palm Island

The water is very shallow in this expanse of patch reefs that cover about a half-square-mile. Novice snorkelers will appreciate the many opportunities to explore ledges and nooks that bustle with sea life. This also is a great area to introduced small children to snorkeling. Show them the various marine life amid the shallow patch reefs.

Interested in learning more about reef conservation after your underwater adventures? Swing by the Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research in Summerland Key to find out what dangers the reefs are facing and what you can do to save them. Check out the volunteering opportunities throughout the keys to help maintain this vibrant environment. Add an element of altruism to your snorkeling vacation.