You all know I’m a National Parks fan, so when I found myself with a free afternoon in the Miami area, I headed straight for Biscayne National Park in Florida’s southeast corner. This park is somewhat unique in that it’s fairly large yet occupies relatively little land. Most of the park can’t even be accessed without a boat, so in order to really enjoy it you have to get out on the water. I joined a Biscayne National Park snorkeling tour for a chance to hop a ride out to one of its many reefs and see some fish. I had an absolute blast and would highly recommend it.
The Biscayne National Park Institute is the licensed tour provider for the park and operates several different types of water excursions. If you don’t have a boat (like me) or know how to sail one (also like me) or have friends/family around who have a boat (again like me) they’re your only real option for getting out and exploring Biscayne National Park other than its visitor center. They offer various snorkeling, diving, and boat tours, all departing from the Dante Fascell Visitor Center in Homestead, Florida.
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I opted to join their Snorkel Experience tour that took us out to a coral reef, but there are also shipwreck snorkeling tours available if that’s more your thing. The snorkel tour I picked departs twice daily – once in the morning and once in the afternoon – and lasts around 3.5 hours. I’d highly recommend making reservations in advance since the boat is limited to 20 passengers, though I was able to snag a same-day reservation just an hour and a half before departure. There were only two slots left at the time I booked. Biscayne National Park snorkeling is known as some of the best in the United States, so it’s well worth booking yourself a tour if you won’t have access to a boat yourself.
The reef snorkeling tour cost me $64 and included a snorkeling flotation device. I paid a few more dollars to rent their snorkel equipment and got flippers, a mask, and snorkel. I could’ve also borrowed a wetsuit, but I opted not to because it was hot and sunny that day. Gear is distributed before the tour starts, so be sure to get there a few minutes early to get your snorkels and check in.
My Biscayne National Park snorkeling tour
Once we met up, we started with a very short ranger talk that gave us a little information about the park’s history and the wildlife you can find in the water and on land there. We also got some info on how the park is trying to preserve its reefs. After that, we walked down to the dock and boarded our boat.
The boat is open air with benches around the edges for seating. There is no bathroom on board, so take care of that onshore before boarding. The tour operator also recommends not bringing anything on board that can’t get wet. I popped my phone in a waterproof pouch for the trip and sure enough, the one bit of spray I caught while we were heading out to the reef would’ve soaked my phone if I hadn’t protected it. There’s also nowhere dry to put bags and the bottom of the boat and benches got pretty wet when people were getting in and out of the water, so even a bag isn’t necessarily a safe place for it.
The ride out to the reef took about 45 minutes and on our bright, sunny afternoon, the water looked gorgeous as we headed out from shore. Our captain told us to look out for dolphins, but we didn’t spot any on our trip. During the slower speed (aka less windy/noisy) portions of our trip, one of the crew members told us a bit about the reef we were going to and how to snorkel. (Snorkeling experience isn’t required, but it definitely helped me.)
Our destination that day was Anniversary Key, which got its name from the fact that park rangers went out to snorkel it to assess it for damage and recovery on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Andrew in the ’90s. Andrew was a major storm that did massive damage to the area, including the park infrastructure, so the rangers were pleasantly surprised to see how the reef had recovered in just a year.
Once we made it out to the reef, the crew tied our boat up and told us to hit the water. You entered by climbing up on the inflatable sides, taking a seat for a minute to adjust your mask and snorkel, and then sliding off into the water. It was only a couple of feet, so nothing scary, and the water was deep enough that there was no worry about damaging the reef below. Once in the water, you popped your fins on and were good to go. My captain was even nice enough to snap a few pictures of me with my GoPro and then toss it to me in the water (don’t worry, it floats).
The tour is recommended for confident swimmers, but we had a mix of people in that category, less-confident swimmers, a couple of kids, and someone who couldn’t swim at all. Your tour ticket includes a snorkeling flotation device that you wear around your neck and strap around your body. You can inflate it as much or as little as you want, but you do have to wear it. I started out with a little air in mine, but quickly found out that even that little amount kept me from diving below the surface, so I deflated mine. The first time I tried to dive, it felt like The Claw from Toy Story grabbing me and pulling me back up. If you want some extra help, you can also grab a pool noodle on the boat. One of our guides was also a trained rescue swimmer, so I felt very safe in the water even though I was swimming around on my own.
We had about an hour in the water to explore the reef. There was a decent wind blowing that day, so our captain suggested that we try to swim perpendicular to it or into the wind at first so that we didn’t have to fight it as much to get back to the boat. That was great advice because while it wasn’t hard to swim into it, it was definitely noticeable when I wanted to stop and look at something.
If you need a break from swimming, you can always return to the boat for a few minutes. I ran into another snorkeler while surfacing from a dive and caught a mouthful of saltwater (yuck) and I couldn’t get rid of the taste so I headed back to the boat to chug some water from my water bottle.
When our time was up, we were called back to the boat and we dried off to prepare for the ride back to shore. We were back at the dock by 4:45 and had a few minutes to explore the Biscayne National Park Visitor Center before it closed at 5.
I also went for a walk along the jetty looking for manatees, but sadly didn’t spot any. It was interesting to take a walk out to the end and look at the tall buildings of downtown Miami in the distance. In such a quiet, peaceful area, it’s hard to imagine a big city being within view.
Click on images in the gallery for full-size photos! I had too many gorgeous ones to space throughout the post normally.
Tips for booking your Biscayne National Park snorkeling tour
- During busy tourist times, you’ll want to book in advance because the tours do fill up. During slower times or weekdays, you may be able to get a last-minute reservation. If you want to book the same reef tour I took, click here.
- If your tour is canceled due to inclement weather, you’ll receive a full refund.
- My experience with Florida weather is that you tend to get more storms in the afternoon than the morning, so if you’re concerned about weather, you may want to try booking the morning snorkeling tour.
- The exact location of your snorkeling experience can vary based on weather and water conditions. Your captain will make the decision for where to go on the day of the tour. There are lots of snorkeling spots in Biscayne National Park, so there are lots of options for them to choose from.
- I got sporadic cell service in the park and its visitor center, but I wouldn’t consider it reliable. Be sure to look up directions before arriving. I wouldn’t count on being able to order a rideshare service for your trip home, so plan accordingly.
- You’re allowed to bring food on the boat with you, and there was even a cooler on board that we could use to put any items we wanted to keep cold in.
- There is a water cooler on board, but bringing your own reusable water bottle is encouraged.
- Be sure to change into your bathing suit on shore (there are bathrooms at the visitor center). There is nowhere on the boat to change in private.
- There are also no bathrooms on board the boat, so you’ll probably want to visit the bathroom before heading out on the tour.
- The tour company recommends arriving 30 minutes before your tour starts so you have time to check in at the shop upstairs and get geared up.
How to get to Biscayne National Park
Biscayne National Park is in Florida’s southern tip, in between Miami and the Florida Keys. When using Google Maps, typing in the park’s name or the Dante Fascell Visitor Center will both get you where you need to go. If you’re coming from Miami, expect to spend a little under an hour in the car under good traffic conditions. You’ll want to take FL 874 South to the Ronald Reagan Turnpike and continue on that to exit 6 for SW 137th Ave and take that south to SW 328th St. This will take you all the way to the park entrance, which will be on your left.
If you’re coming to Biscayne National Park from the Florida Keys, take US 1 north into Florida City and head east on Palm Drive. You’ll take a slight turn to the north around the speedway and then turn east on SW 328th St. Follow that to the park entrance, which will be on your left.
Of course, if you have a boat, you can just sail into it from any direction.
What to bring for your Biscayne National Park snorkeling adventure
- Bathing suit – This one’s a no-brainer. Target has been my go-to bathing suit spot for years and I love the mix and match options they sell every season.
- Towel – Towels are not provided as part of your tour, so bring your own. I brought this microfiber one I’ve taken on several trips because space was limited in my carry-on. It never seems like it’s going to dry me off, but it always does.
- Flip flops or water shoes – Everything on the boat gets wet, so wear shoes that can handle the water.
- Dry bag – As I mentioned before, everything on the boat gets wet, so I’d bring a waterproof bag to store your necessities in and your dry clothes.
- Waterproof phone case – I’ve taken this one kayaking and on the snorkel trip and expect to get a lot more use from it. It’s a cheap buy on Amazon, and provides a lot of value for your money.
- Water bottle – I never travel without a water bottle that I can refill. This definitely came in handy because swimming is a workout and you’ll almost certainly get a taste of saltwater.
- Reef safe sunscreen – Regular sunscreen can actually damage the beautiful reefs that you’re out there to see, so bring some reef safe sunscreen with you. I used Coppertone Kids in a travel size and it wasn’t even any pricer than the normal kind. Look for products using zinc oxide or titanium oxide and check products for kids and people with sensitive skin.
Optional items that can enhance your snorkeling experience:
- Wet suit – It can help if the weather is chillier. You can also rent one from the gear shop on site.
- Personal snorkeling gear – You can bring your own and save a few bucks by not renting. One family on our trip had the full facemask kind like these. They’re pretty cool because the snorkels also seal underwater, making it easier to dive.
- Rash guard – If you want to minimize the amount of sunscreen you need, you can wear a rash guard swim shirt that covers lots of exposed skin.
- GoPro camera – I’ve had my GoPro for a couple years now, but snorkeling in Biscayne National Park was the first time I really felt like I got the full benefit of it. Except for the couple shots I snapped on the boat with my phone, every picture in this post was taken with the GoPro. I love the rapid shoot mode that snaps pictures at one-second intervals and ended up with nearly 1000 photo and video files to sort through.
- Light jacket or sweatshirt – The boat ride portion of the snorkeling trip gets windy and on cooler days might be chilly. It was in the 80s the day I went so I was plenty warm, but bringing a light jacket with you can help on cooler days.
Check out these other great things to do in Florida:
- Paddle Around Glowing Jellyfish While Bioluminescence Kayaking in Florida
- Everything You Need to Know to Visit Kennedy Space Center
- Swimming with Manatees in Florida
- Go Wildlife Spotting on an Everglades Tram Tour
- The Grown-Up’s Guide to Disney World for Adults
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