Are there sharks in Key West? Absolutely. What’s more, most of the species that reside in the warm waters of the Keys are generally harmless to humans. That means that if you see sharks in Key West, they probably aren’t going to hurt you.
Key West is a small island surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The combination of deep and shallow waters houses the world’s third-largest barrier reef. As you might expect, those waters are teeming with marine life.
Read on to learn more about the best places to spot Key West sharks during your visit.
What Shark Species Live In The Waters Surrounding The Florida Keys?
The mere mention of sharks is enough to strike fear in the hearts of many vacationers. The shark is, after all, the apex predator of the sea. However, as we pointed out, the sharks in Key West are generally non-aggressive.
In point of fact, there has never been a fatal shark attack reported in Key West. There has only been one documented incident since the 1800s, which should tell you all you need to know. Of all the calamities that could befall you in Key West waters, shark attacks are among the least likely.
Here’s a list of the shark species you’re most likely to encounter in Key West:
- Nurse sharks – These are nocturnal bottom-feeders who prefer to hang out beneath coral ledges, which characterizes them as reef sharks.
- Lemon sharks – Yellowish in color, the lemon shark usually stays close to the surface, where it feeds on smaller prey.
- Sandbar sharks – Characterized by a large first dorsal fin, the sandbar shark is usually found in estuaries and muddy flats.
- Blacktip sharks – The snout, tip of the dorsal fin, and tip of the upper caudal fin are typically black in color, giving the blacktip shark its name. These sharks are known for being quick swimmers.
That’s not to say that there are no aggressive sharks in the waters off the Florida Keys. Potentially dangerous shark species like the mako shark have been spotted in the region as well. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the various types of reef sharks and other predators that might be lurking about.
When you book one of our private boat tours, you’ll have a better chance of seeing sharks up close. Hop on a sandbar cruise and learn all about the local sea life from our expert guides while enjoying the spectacular scenery.
When’s The Best Time Of Year To Spot Key West Sharks?
If seeing sharks is a priority on your Florida Keys vacation, we would recommend booking the trip between the months of May and October. During this time, the Gulf waters are warmer, which means the sharks will be more active. This activity makes them easier for visitors to spot.
Interestingly enough, this is also the best time of year to visit the Florida Keys if you’re worried about shark bites. Although the most common shark in Florida waters is the lemon shark and the docile nurse shark is a common sight on Key West dives, the shark species that do pose a threat to humans – tiger sharks and the notorious great hammerhead shark, to name a couple – are spotted more often during the winter months.
9 Best Locations For Spotting Sharks Around Key West
If seeing sharks ranks high on your Key West must-do list, we’ve got you covered. Let’s take a virtual tour through the waters of the Florida Keys so you’ll know what to expect when you arrive.
1) Key West Aquarium
Let’s start with the most obvious location: The famed Key West Aquarium. You don’t have to get on a boat in order to see these creatures – the facility houses several shark species, which you can safely observe from a distance.
As a bonus, you’ll get to learn all about their feeding and other habits from the knowledgeable staff. By the time you leave, you’ll be able to identify certain shark species based on their head shape alone.
2) Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
This site is a National Historic Monument that predates the Civil War. As such, it’s a must for history buffs and nature enthusiasts alike.
Snorkeling and scuba diving are popular activities here, not least because they offer the opportunity to view Key West’s native marine life. There’s snorkeling gear available for rent, and the shallow waters make it an excellent spot for beginners.
Be aware that bull sharks, though more commonly found in deeper water, have been spotted here in the past. On a related note, there have also been a few shark attacks reported from this area, though thankfully, none were fatal.
3) Looe Key
Nestled into the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Looe Key is a protected coral reef that offers amazing snorkeling and diving opportunities for beginners and experts alike.
While making your way through the warm emerald waters, you may encounter some of the native sharks, as well as Goliath groupers and several smaller fish species.
4) SNUBA Key West
Have you always wanted to scuba dive, but didn’t feel comfortable enough in the water to do it? SNUBA Key West offers the ideal opportunity to see sharks and other marine life up close but without all that cumbersome gear.
The word “snuba” is a mash-up of “snorkel” and “scuba” (which is itself an acronym that stands for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus”). It’s a form of surface-air supplied diving that allows you to go farther beneath the surface than you would with a regular snorkel, but not quite as deep as you could dive if you were carrying your own tank.
This is the only “snuba” company in Key West, so space may be limited during your visit. If you’re a certified diver, you’re in luck – they offer scuba diving and snorkeling tours in addition to the SNUBA tours.
5) Cottrell Key
Cottrell Key can be found 9 miles northwest of Key West on the Gulf side. Since it’s only accessible by boat, you’ll have to plan ahead, but the destination is well worth the journey.
Named after a 19th-century lightship captain, the key is home to a gigantic coral reef that sits below relatively calm waters. The spot is great for families with children who want to try snorkeling for the first time.
While you’re paddling around, keep an eye out for nurse sharks, which are common in the area. Reef sharks and lemon sharks can often be spotted, too. The hammerhead shark is less ubiquitous, but you might catch a glimpse of one of those, too.
6) Bahia Honda State Park
Although this park is located on another of the Florida Keys, it’s a short day trip that’s worth making for snorkeling enthusiasts. The reef is teeming with fish, barracuda, eels, stingrays, and of course, the docile nurse shark.
Other sharks have been spotted in the area as well, including the bull shark, which is one of the most aggressive shark species out there. If you think you see a bull shark, stay as far away from it as possible and head for shore as quickly as you can.
7) Higgs Beach
This is quite a popular destination for vacationers who don’t have access to a boat. Since many sharks that are aggressive towards humans – including mako sharks and tiger sharks – prefer the open ocean, Higgs Beach is a relatively safe alternative.
Nurse sharks are a common sight in the waters off Higgs Beach, providing some neat photo opportunities. Just because the animals are considered docile doesn’t mean they won’t attack if provoked, however, so be sure to admire them from a safe distance.
8) Sand Key Lighthouse Reef
Seven miles south of Key West, you’ll encounter the Sand Key Lighthouse, one of the most famed snorkeling spots in the entire US. Because the remote location is protected by law, there’s no fishing or spearfishing allowed, making it a sanctuary for marine life.
Expect to see schools of tropical fish, sea stars, dolphins, and sea turtles on your adventure here. Bull sharks are known to frequent these waters as well. You might even see a hammerhead shark, recognizable by its distinctive head shape.
9) Dry Tortugas National Park
Even if you have no interest in shark-watching, we recommend taking the trip to the Dry Tortugas for the historical aspects alone. Fort Jefferson National Park is an awe-inspiring site, and the fact that it sits atop a thriving coral reef is just the icing on the cake.
The nurse shark is the most prevalent shark species in the waters of the Dry Tortugas. Sea turtles and colorful reef fish abound, and the coral itself will make you glad you invested in a waterproof case for your camera.
Setting Sail For Key West
Now that you know all the prime spots for shark viewing, you’re ready to strike off on your adventure! By the time you’re homeward bound, you’ll be able to tell a nurse shark from a mako shark at first glance.
Don’t forget to book a sunset cruise, lunch cruise, or good old-fashioned sandbar-hopping ride aboard one of our private vessels. Whether you choose to explore the vibrant underwater world while snorkeling or simply observe from the comfort of our boat, you’ll have the opportunity to witness the awe-inspiring beauty of sharks in their natural habitat.
Additionally, you’ll wind up with a plethora of amazing photographs and memories that will last a lifetime! Book one of our tours and get ready to dive into an unforgettable experience that will leave you in awe!