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A tropical fish swims through the coral bed.

3 Easy Ways to Get Up Close with Coral in Key Largo, Florida

If there’s one thing Key Largo, Florida is known for, it’s beautiful coral reefs that are easily accessible and strikingly beautiful.

Google “top things to do in Key Largo,” and you’ll be served up a whole slew of results indicating how the waters of this northernmost key offer easy access to some of the nation’s finest coral reef. And an important tract of that lives in John Pennekamp Coral State Park, situated just about three to five miles offshore from Key Largo. Designated as the country’s first undersea park in 1963, this impressive 70-nautical-square-mile water world is rife with brain coral, mountainous star coral, and stands of elkhorn and staghorn that teem with colorful marine life. Want to get a closer view? We’ve got the ways to wander this wonderful reef – no scuba diving certification required.


Reefhouse Resort & Marina’s On-Site Coral Nursery

A Mote Marine Laboratory scientist gives a tour at the Reefhouse-based nursery.

If you want your up-close coral experience to come with a science lesson, look no further than Reefhouse Resort & Marina. Because here, located just behind the resort’s conference center, sits an open-air facility holding 20 approximately 10-by-3-foot fiberglass tanks all containing bits of different species of coral. No, these aren’t touch tanks like you’d see at an aquarium. Rather, this is a satellite nursery for Mote Marine Laboratory, a leading global marine research institution. And these little disease-resistant and heat-tolerant corals – all in different stages of growth – are an important part of their coral restoration project that is bringing the dead or damaged coral of Florida’s Coral Reef back to life.

Why coral? Why here? You can hear all about it when you sign up for one of their free weekly tours online (soon to be offered three times a week). Led by a Mote staff member, the 45-minute to hour-long tours walk through the facility, giving glimpses of the Mote-pioneering micro-fragmentation process and how it allows coral to grow 40 to 50 times faster than it usually would (it takes roughly four to six months of culturing before these fragments are ready to outplant to the reefs around the Upper Keys). Want to play the role of scientist yourself? The nursery also offers a paid private tour experience, called Slice of Paradise, where a Mote scientist teaches and allows visitors to fragment coral and mount it on ceramic pedestals themselves. It’s about as hands-on with coral as you can get.


Key Largo Princess Glass-Bottom Boat Tours

A son and father peer through the glass bottom of a boat.

What could be better than a cruise aboard a 75-foot luxury yacht? When that yacht also comes decked out with a totally transparent glass bottom in the main salon, allowing you a unique glimpse of the ocean floor, anywhere between 10 to 70 feet down – a view that is usually only reserved for divers. Meet The Key Largo Princess, offering two-hour daily cruises to view Molasses Reef – located just east of John Pennekamp Coral State Park – through 280 square feet of glass. And what a site it is: This classic outer reef is famous for its clear water, massive colorful coral (yes, your typical elkhorn, staghorn, star and brain corals, but also soft varieties like sea fans and gorgonians), and a splendid display of sea life that inhabit its nooks.

An added perk on this particular tour? After drinking in your fill of the deep-sea scene – which includes brightly adorned tropical fish and coral crabs to nurse sharks and Green Moray eels – retreat to the sun deck for another type of drink thanks to a bar that serves frozen cocktails for adults and slushies for the kids.


Sundiver Snorkel Tours

A man snorkels a shallow reef off the coast of Key Largo.

If you’ve never snorkeled before, Sundiver Snorkel Tours has a history – dating back to 1983 – of catering to first-timers with beginner-friendly excursions to reefs that reside in waters averaging around six to eight feet deep. In fact, they only offer snorkel tours (no scuba) to insure full and personal attention to all participants, making it ideal for families with young children.

As for their most popular tours, their two-hour sunset reef tour whisks swimmers aboard their 46-foot custom boat to an area known as White Banks. With a close-to-shore location (no more than five miles offshore), this large snorkeling site is perhaps one of the calmest reef sites (meaning little wind and currents) and consists of not one but two shallow reef patches linked by a sandy channel. Expect to see both hard and soft corals, frequented by plenty of neon-colored tropical fish (sergeant major, yellow goatfish, angelfish) as well as maybe a massive grouper or two.

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