My husband and I took our kids to South Florida for a quick four day vacation. My kids (6 and 8) completed a one week snorkeling camp earlier in the summer. They love snorkeling and were so excited to try it out in the ocean. Our main goal for this vacation was to snorkel as much as possible. I added a list of highlights and more in depth details about snorkeling with kids in each location.
Day 1 – Bill Baggs State Park
- Check the park website for lighthouse tour times.
- Stick close to the park ranger so you can be one of the first 15 into the lighthouse or you will have to wait.
- There was a lot of seaweed on the beach which may have caused the bad smell in the air.
The first day of our vacation was the drive from our home in Central Florida to our hotel in Key Largo. We planned a stop at Bill Baggs State Park to tour the Cape Florida lighthouse and snorkel.
A park ranger told us about the history of the lighthouse and then we were invited to climb the stairs to the top of the lighthouse. Only 15 people were allowed in the lighthouse at a time. We were eighteenth or so in line so we had to wait for some of the original 15 to come down. All 4 of us started up the stairs of the lighthouse but my son and I ended up not going to the top. My husband and daughter said the view from the top was spectacular. They saw that the beach next to the lighthouse was full of seaweed. That explained the bad smell in the air.
My son found a large coconut on the ground and the park ranger said that he could take it home. That news made him the happiest kid on the planet! My son couldn’t stand the seaweed smell so we opted to continue on to our hotel instead of snorkeling.
Day 2 – John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park (Key Largo)
- Make an advance reservation for snorkeling online or on the phone. Reservations don’t require a credit card or pre-pay.
- There is a $5 off coupon per person for the 9 am snorkeling tour online.
- Bring your own snorkeling gear or rent from the concession.
- Don’t miss the aquarium in the Visitor’s Center.
- There are a lot of small fish near the rocks on the right side of Canon Beach.
- Young kids may enjoy snorkeling at Canon Beach more than going out to the reef.
We spent a full day at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Check in for our 9 am snorkeling tour was at 8 am. There were 1 to 2 feet seas at the snorkeling site and the tour representative advised that only strong swimmers go on the tour. We decided to go and purchased dry snorkels for the kids. The boat took us to the Grecian Rocks reef. I paired up with my daughter and my husband paired up with my son. After we were in the water, my daughter told me she was scared being in the ocean because of sharks. Did I mention that it was Shark Week on the Discovery Channel? I did my best to comfort her and we continued on. The snorkeling at the Grecian Rocks was the best I have ever experienced. The fish were plentiful and so close that we could touch them. We saw large conch shells, lobster and an eel. At one point, my daughter and I were surrounded by a school of 20 giant rainbow parrot fish feeding all around us. Some people on our boat reported seeing a green sea turtle.
After snorkeling, we went to the Visitor’s Center to see the saltwater aquarium. The aquarium had a lot of the same fish that we had just seen on our snorkeling trip. We ordered lunch from the concession and ate it outside under the shade of trees next to the water. My son was distracted by a green iguana that was trying to clean up after people left their tables.
After lunch we went snorkeling at Canon Beach within the park. It was extremely rocky and there was a sharp drop off in the water. My husband explored the depths while the kids and I snorkeled along the shallow rocks and grasses on the right side of the swimming area. My kids were happy to see so many small fish.
Day 3 – Turtle Hospital (Marathon Key) and Bahia Honda State Park (Big Pine Key)
Turtle Hospital Highlights
- Be sure to make an advance reservation. Reservations don’t require a credit card or pre-pay. People without a reservation were turned away because our tour was full.
- The tour lasts about 90 minutes.
- You can feed the permanent resident sea turtles at the end of the tour.
Turtle Hospital In Depth
Our first stop was the Turtle Hospital for their 10 am educational tour. Be sure to make reservations in advance. People without reservations were turned away because our tour was full. Our guide gave us an informational talk with slides about the different kind of sea turtles and the challenges that they face in the wild. She showed us the map of where the 55 current residents were in the hospital.
Next we went to outside tanks where we saw sea turtles who were recovering from boat strikes, shark bites and the fibropapilloma virus. We were able to stand right next to the tanks and see the turtles up close. Our last stop on the tour was the salt water pool where all the permanent residents live. The permanent residents cannot survive in the wild so they live permanently at the Turtle Hospital. Our guide talked about each sea turtle and then everyone on the tour fed the turtles “turtle chow.” The turtle chow looked like pellets that you would get at the zoo to feed birds or fish. This awesome tour took about 90 minutes. We grabbed a quick lunch and then headed to Bahia Honda State Park.
Make reservations for the Loee Key snorkel trip through Bahia Honda State Park. The boat also leaves from within the state park. We originally planned for all of us to go out to the reef but the night before the excursion, I found online that seeing sharks and giant grouper were common at Loee Key. We thought the kids might be scared if they saw a shark so we decided that only my husband would go out to the reef. He saw reef sharks, a 6 foot barracuda and an abundance of the same fish that we saw at the Grecian Rocks the day before. The seas were rough and a lot of people got sick on the boat.
Bahia Honda Highlights
- There is a beach on the bay side and one of the ocean side.
- The ocean side beach was full of seaweed and there was a strong current in the water.
- The bay side beach had no noticeable water current. There was an abundance of small fish near the rocks on the right side of the beach.
- If you have young children I would suggest snorkeling off the beach on the bay side.
- The Nature Center is air conditioned if you need a break from the heat.
Bahia Honda In Depth
While my husband was at Loee Key, the kids and I enjoyed the snorkeling at Bahia Honda State Park. We snorkeled on the bay side of Bahia Honda near the rocks on the right side of the beach. There was no current there and we saw an abundance of fish and crabs.
When it was time to apply sunscreen again, we walked over to the Nature Center. We were pleasantly surprised to find it air conditioned. The movie “A Turtle’s Tale” was on inside so we sat for a few minutes to watch it and cool off. Next, we tried snorkeling off the beach on the ocean side of Bahia Honda. There was a ton of seaweed and the water current was really strong. The water depth was shallow so I just walked along while guiding the kids by the arm on either side of me. They saw a puffer fish and conch shells. If you have young kids, I would suggest staying on the bay side of Bahia Honda to snorkel. You will see more fish and there is no current.
Day 4 – Phil Foster Park (Riviera Beach)
- Allow extra time for parking. There aren’t a lot of parking spaces.
- Go within two hours of high tide for crystal clear water. Water is murky around low tide.
- There is a strong current in some portions of the water so keep an eye on those little ones.
- There is a small bathroom at the park.
- Bring your fins if you plan on snorkeling.
On Day 4, we headed towards home. We stopped at Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach on the way home. The park is located underneath a bridge. The parking was horrendous. I drove around the small parking lot for about 20 minutes before finding a spot. We only intended to stay for an hour but ended up staying for 4 hours because we were having so much fun. We got into the water about an hour after low tide and the water was murky. As high tide approached, the water became crystal clear. We were surrounded by fish just steps from the beach. We saw conch shells, starfish, pipe fish, sea cucumbers and hermit crabs.
There is a man-made snorkeling trail a little beyond the life guarded area but even with fins, the current was too strong for us to swim to it. If you have young kids, you need to beware of the water current. The current got stronger as the tide started to rise. There were areas of the water that weren’t affected by the current so we mostly snorkeled there. If you decide to go to Phil Foster Park, allow extra time to find parking and go within 2 hours before or after high tide so the water is clear.
Want to explore more of Florida with kids? Checkout what we did with my kids for Spring Break in Tampa.
We enjoyed our vacation snorkeling with kids in the Florida Keys and South Florida. We were in the sun for several hours each day but I am happy to say that none of us got sunburned. 🙂 You should be able to find all the information you need on the web sites but let me know if you have any questions in the comments.