Boating in Key West – The Ultimate Guide

Boating in Key West – The Ultimate Guide

Boating in Key West will leave you awe-struck

Florida is a paradise for boaters, and Key West is their sanctuary. It has multiple options for sailing, water sports, and boating options. Once you start boating in Key West FL, you will explore so much of marine life, such as mangroves, coral reefs, sea turtles, tropical fishes, and much more. It’s easy to see why hundreds of people turn up at Key West every year and rent boats and yachts for cruise tours.

The first step to enjoying Key West boating is selecting the right boat for you and your group. From venturing off on your own to renting the suitable vessel, you have to keep various things in mind. But don’t worry; this guide has everything that you need to make a full day boating experience one to remember for a lifetime.

What makes boating fun in Key West

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From partying on Duval Street to shopping in Mallory Square, Key West has many things to offer. But apart from the vibrant city life, there’s a diverse and vast ecosystem that attracts thousands of visitors to Key West. And the best way to explore these areas is to take a boat rental or guided tour and set course.

Boating opens doors for tourists to see Key West Florida from a different perspective altogether. In addition to the magnificent marine life and beautiful beaches, you can also see many historical landmarks, such as The Historic Seaport, Mallory Square, or The Southernmost Point. If you don’t like to explore architecture or know about the place’s history, you can head over to the captivating mangrove forests or take a sunset cruise on your boat. Key West is home to United State’s only living coral barrier reef.

Apart from the fantastic marine life, the diverse environment in Key West allows visitors to see a plethora of wildlife. From Florida mangroves to coral reef homes, the unparalleled diversity of sea life will leave you stunned for days. And not to forget the animals and birds that you see in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. It is home to some threatened and endangered plants and animals, such as key deer, sharks, iguanas, spiny lobsters, dolphins, tropical fish, sea turtles, cormorants, kingfishers, pelicans, flamingos, cranes, herons, ibis, green parrots, seagulls, osprey, and bald eagles.

Best time to go boating in Key West FL

lunch cruise
Guided boat tours from Key West Boat Trips

With 6000 reefs and 800 islands to explore, you will not only need a good boat; you will also require time. If you want an uninterrupted tour of The Keys, make sure you come between March and May. This is the off-season. The winter crowds slowly disappear by February end, leaving Key West at its beautiful best. The hotel and charter rentals go down. And it’s not just about the crowd thinning out and rates going down; the weather between March and May is remarkable. It isn’t too hot or too chilly, making it perfect for hanging out in the soft white sand. The approximate temperature hovers around 77 degrees with a light breeze throughout the day.

Now that you know the best time to visit The Florida Keys, you should also keep in mind when not to visit Key West. June to November is the time for hurricanes. You should only come here during this time if you want to gamble with your life. Sure, hotel rates and boat rentals drop lower than the period between March and May, but for what it’s worth, you won’t enjoy boating in the Florida Keys. Hurricanes mostly take place from mid-August to the first week of October.

Places in the Florida Keys to visit with your boat

Once you decide which time you want to visit, you should hop on your boat and sail away. But before that, shortlist some of the best places where you can take your boat. First, decide whether you want to hire private charters or go on guided boat trips. Here are some of the must-visit places if you take a guided boat tour:

1. Bahia Honda State Park

The 7 Mile Bridge of Bahia Honda at twilight.
The 7 Mile Bridge of Bahia Honda at twilight.

The Bahia Honda State Park is only 35 miles from Key West. It is famous for its beautiful beaches, scenic views, and snorkeling. This state park is an ideal boater’s destination because of its accessibility to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. You can also visit the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary from here. It has diverse marine life and incredible reefs to make your visit worthwhile.

2. John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park

Beautiful Coral Reef
Beautiful Coral Reef

John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park holds the record for starting United State’s first undersea park. It covers nearly 178 nautical square miles of mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs. The John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park also made its way to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 because it was the only state park to come forward to save United State’s only living coral reef. You can move 100 miles from Key West to Key Largo to enjoy snorkeling in the aquamarine water.

3. Dry Tortugas National Park

Beautiful beach landscapes of the Dry Tortuga’s national park in Key west FL.
Beautiful beach landscapes of the Dry Tortuga’s national park in Key west FL.

Dry Tortugas is a cluster of seven islands that mainly consist of sand and coral reefs. A day trip to the west of Dry Tortugas National Park will enable you to see sunken gold abandoned by pirates, colorful marine life, and famous birds.

Less-explored places in Key West

On the other hand, if you are a pro boater and want to ride without any guide, here are some of the less-explored places that you should visit:

1. Boca Grande Key

Remains of an old pier in Boca Grande, Fl.
Remains of an old pier in Boca Grande, Fl.

The Boca Grande Key is only 14 miles from Key West and is located within the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. It is one of the most peaceful places for sunbathing and snorkeling. Both tourists and locals who know how to operate a boat pay a visit to the Boca Grande Key when in Key West.

2. Boca Chica Sandbar

This is the perfect place for a day trip. You need to head down south from Key West to reach the Boca Chica Sandbar. Your kids can play around on the beach while you relax under the sun.

3. Sand Key Reef

The Sand Key Reef is famous for snorkeling, diving, and swimming. It is only 7 miles south of Key West. You can tie your boat to one of the buoys and jump into the water to see the diverse flora and fauna underwater.

4. Western Dry Rocks

The Western Dry Rocks contains shallow coral reefs in shallow water. All you need to do is go knee-deep into the water wearing life jackets and find your way to these coral reefs.

5. Cottrell Key

This gorgeous mangrove island is approximately 9 miles from the Florida Keys and within the vicinity of the National Wildlife Refuge. Snorkeling here will allow you to see sea sponges, stingrays, corals, parrotfish, sharks, and sea turtles.

Key West boat rules and requirements

Preparation is crucial when you plan a boat trip to Key West. Although the rules and regulations are easy to follow, you should know them in the first place. Key West has specific rules for your safety and fishing, coral reefs, and wildlife encounters.

1. Fishing in Key West


Key West is the “World’s Fishing Capital.” You don’t need a fishing license if you rent a Key West fishing charter. The companies may ask a few basic boating and fishing questions that you should answer easily. But if you want to go fishing on a boat rental, you may need to take an appropriate fishing license.

Key West hosts various fishing tournaments, such as Lower Keys Dolphin Tournament, The Key West Marlin Tournament, and Screamin’ Reels Tournament. You can participate in these tournaments, provided you have a fishing license. There are a few restrictions on fishing specific species of fishes. Your boat captain will tell you what fishes you can catch according to your fishing license.

2. Coral reefs in Key West

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary contains North America’s biggest natural coral reef system. It is also the world’s third-largest natural coral reef. In fact, it is the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef containing more than 50 species of corals and 150 species of fishes. You can see why it’s so essential to protect the reefs. Therefore, you must follow the boating rules below when you take your boat near the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary:

  • Collecting a few specifies of corals is strictly prohibited.
  • You may need special permits if you want to collect corals.
  • You cannot anchor your vessel on a living coral that’s just 40 feet deep.
  • You should follow the speed limit and wake zone laws to stay out of trouble.
  • Removing or damaging markers, scientific equipment, trap buoys, boundary buoys, and mooring buoys may land you in jail.

3. Wildlife encounters in Key West

Here are some of the rules that you should keep in mind when you encounter underwater wildlife:

  • You may find many friendly dolphins while boating, but you shouldn’t touch or feed them.
  • Make sure you keep your eyes open when you go swimming or snorkeling to stay away from sharks.
  • Don’t touch birds even if they come and sit by your side. You may kill them unknowingly.

Now that you have the ultimate boating guide for Key West, start planning your vacation soon. It will be a trip of a lifetime.

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