Exploring the Florida Keys by Boat
By JoAnn Chang
The turquoise water goes as far as the eye can see, broken only by the occasional island. It feels like you could be in the Bahamas or another Caribbean paradise. But the chain of bridges connecting those islands is the reminder that you’re still tethered to the mainland.
The Florida Keys are indeed a tropical delight. While those bridges make it more accessible, if you stick to exploring by car, you are missing out on some of the best sights in the area. The best way to explore the Keys is from the water.
History of the Keys
The Overseas Highway that connects the Keys ends in Key West. In the 19th century, Key West was the biggest city in Florida. Wreckers salvaging the many ships that found their end on the reefs built the city. In those days, the only way to access the Keys was by boat. Henry Flagler extended his East Coast Railway through to Key West in the early 1900s.
When a hurricane destroyed the railway in 1935, they converted the railway into vehicle traffic, becoming the Overseas Highway. This allowed broad access to this tropical wonder and allowed it to grow into the tourist mecca that it is today.
Water: Lifeblood of the Keys
The water surrounding the islands continues to be the lifeblood of the Keys.
It’s so important ecologically that most of the area falls within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Areas not falling within this protected area fall into other protected zones.
These sanctuaries help protect the only coral barrier reef in the continental United States. Over 6,000 animal species call this area home, making these waters a huge draw for diving, snorkeling, and sport fishing. Find a place to stay in the Keys here Motels in My Area.
The tropical vibe might give you visions of warm sandy beaches. The coral reef that created the Keys makes the shores rocky and very few beaches are available for recreation. Trucked-in sand is often used to create beaches to meet tourist demand.
Finding the Right Option
The best way to truly enjoy the water of the keys is by boat. You can take a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard to explore the many mangroves surrounding the coastline, but those options largely will keep you tied close to shore.
You can join a charter trip from several locations along the Keys or explore by private boat. Charters are a great fit for a brief excursion with a tightly controlled itinerary. For a quick visit, this could be your best choice.
If you have more time available to explore, the best way to access the wonders of the Keys is by private boat.
Bringing Your Own Boat
The simplest solution if you own your own boat may be to take it with you. For the Barnes family, it’s a lifelong tradition.
“We’ve been going every summer since I was about 8 years old. My parents always had a boat, and we would go down every summer. When we got a boat we continued that tradition,” shared Shelley Barnes.
The most popular small boats cruising the Keys can easily be driven on a trailer with you. But that can come with challenges.
“There’s only one road going into the Keys. When that gets backed up, especially on a holiday weekend, it can cause delays,” said Barnes. “The ramps can also get crowded, which can create headaches going that route.”
Sailing your boat down is also a popular choice. The Barnes family lives in the Tampa Bay area, so making the trek down to the Keys is manageable. Her husband and son take the boat down by water while she and her daughter make the drive, so they have a car to use as well. “Depending on traffic, we arrive close to the same time.”
Renting A Boat
Renting a private boat is a perfect option if you don’t own a boat or the logistics of transportation prevent you from bringing your own. There are boat rental companies scattered all along the Keys where you can rent a boat monthly, weekly, or even for a single day.
Jenna Pullaro rented a boat recently for her extended family to visit the Dry Tortugas.
“The ferry was fully booked, and we missed the seaplane booking window by four days. Plus, with eight of us, we would need multiple flights to get there. The only other way to get there was by renting a boat.”
“It worked out better because we didn’t have such a time limit. And we could get there faster than the ferry. The best was the flexibility it offered. Everyone got to do what they wanted.”
Where to Keep Your Boat
Having access to a private boat during your stay requires some added concerns. One of the most important is having a place to moor your boat.
Boating is so popular in the Keys that you can easily find options. Many rental homes on the water include dock space for a boat during your stay. If you prefer a resort atmosphere, options are abundant.
Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key and Oceans Edge Resort & Marina in Key West offers all the trappings of a full resort with a marina to moor your boat during your stay. You can find many similar resorts all along the Keys.
Managing the Cost of Fuel
You’ll also need to factor in other costs. Fuel is a big consideration. The Barnes family has worked to make that more manageable.
“Fueling up at marina’s can easily be $6 to $7 a gallon. There are fuel trucks that come in from Miami and can deliver fuel to your house. There’s a minimum, but it easily saves $2 to $3 dollars a gallon, which can really add up.”
Be Weather Wise
Before heading out, be sure you are familiar with the weather and marine conditions you may encounter. “You need to know the water. Either have someone familiar with the area or have the right navigation tools.
“The water is so clear, it’s difficult to tell how deep it is without the right tools,” shared Barnes.
“You must watch the storms. They creep in fast, and they can be bad. You don’t want to get stuck in it. We have better weather forecasting tools on our boat than at our house. We can’t rely on the news when we’re out on the water.”
Where to Explore
Once fully equipped and prepared for your time on the water, there are a wide variety of places to explore and things to do by boat. Some top recommendations include:
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
The first underwater park in the United States is a wonderland for snorkelers and divers. Visitors can explore the disappearing coral reefs of the Florida Keys. The park is also the home of the Christ of the Abyss statue, an 8.5’ bronze sculpture.
Alligator Reef Lighthouse
Alligator Reef Sanctuary Preservation area is found 3.5 miles southeast of Upper Matecumbe Key.
The light warns large boats off the reef hazard and is a beacon for those looking to swim and snorkel with tropical fish, sea turtles, and sharks. Be very careful anchoring and use mooring buoys when available.
Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park
Accessible only by boat, this state park protects endangered species and includes the historic home of William J. Matheson. Be sure to avoid anchoring in the seagrass beds to protect this fragile ecosystem.
Sombrero Key Sanctuary Preservation is 3.5 miles south of Boot Key. This is another light of the “lighthouse brigade” to help large boats from wrecking on the nearby reefs.
Spur and groove reef formations boast stands of elkhorn and boulder corals. The area is perfect for spotting a variety of fish, sharks, and other marine animals. The deeper water makes this ideal for diving excursions.
Dry Tortugas National Park
If you thought the Keys ended at Key West, you would be wrong! The road may end there, but the true tip of the Keys is the Dry Tortugas, home of Fort Jefferson and one of the least visited National Parks. Only accessible by ferry, seaplane, or private boat, the park boasts some of the best snorkeling in the Keys. Those with a private boat can visit smaller surrounding keys and other areas inaccessible any other way.
All along the Keys, you can also find sandbars for private lounging. These often provide a much better beach experience than the rocky areas on the mainland.
“Finding a sandbar on our way back from the Dry Tortugas was really a highlight of our trip. Relaxing in the sun with no other land around you. It was wild! It was a pleasant surprise”, shared Pullaro.
Offshore fishing is hugely popular in the Keys, and your private boat can open the door to some of the best catches of your life. Making friends with a few locals before you head out fishing could score you details to area fishing hot spots.
“It changes every year. Some years mahi mahi are hitting at 500-600 feet deep, other years it may be further out, affected by currents or water temperature. Usually, we hit the bait shops first to learn what bait they’re hitting on and what depths to look for. Charter captains can be helpful, too.” Barnes shared.
Enjoying Your Catch
Several restaurants dotting the shores offer docks to tie up on for grabbing lunch and a cool drink. Many of the coastal restaurants will also offer to cook your catch for you to enjoy, giving new meaning to “catch of the day”.
The Florida Keys are filled with wonders, making it a worthy addition to anyone’s travel bucket list. When making your plans, be sure to look off the beaten path and get out on the water to get the true Keys experience.
Boat Rental Options in the Florida Keys
Marathon Boat Rental, Inc.
12240 Overseas Highway, Marathon, FL 33050
(305) 432-7042 ● marathonboatrental.com
Daily and weekly rentals available ● $750-$1500 range for weekly rentals.
11833 Overseas Highway, Marathon, FL 33050
(305) 923-4930 ● keyzboats.com
Daily, weekly & monthly rentals available ● $1,653-$2,133 range for weekly rentals
Backcountry Boat Rentals
17015 Overseas Highway, Sugarloaf Key, FL 33042
(720) 480-0057 ● backcountryboatrentals.biz
Daily Rentals available ● $275-$475 range for daily rentals
Fun in the Sun Rentals & Boat Charters
6000 Peninsular Avenue, Key West, FL 33040
(305) 587-3499 ● funinthesunkeywest.com
Daily, weekly & monthly rentals available ● $395-795 range for daily rentals
JoAnn Chang is a freelance writer based in the state of Florida with a strong appreciation for Florida’s natural beauty. You can follow her journey at joann-chang.com.