There are many great snorkeling spots around the world: the Virgin Islands, Maldives, Australia, Fort Lauderdale…wait, what?
Okay, okay — while not exactly on a par with Maldives, Fort Lauderdale is an often-overlooked location to snorkel with a bevy of ocean life, including eels, sea turtles, and even sharks. And it’s a heck of a lot more convenient for most people than flying to the Indian Ocean.
A series of reefs stretch north and south off the eastern coast of Florida, protecting the beach and buildings from erosion, offering a habitat for marine life, and providing consistent game for anglers. The Florida Reef Tract, which hugs the state’s Atlantic coast from the Dry Tortugas near Key West to the St. Lucie inlet in Central Florida, is the third-largest barrier reef ecosystem in the world, spanning nearly 360 linear miles. Just about 24 miles of that reef system are in Broward County, where three lines of barrier reefs run parallel to the shore. The closest is about 300 yards out and is a maximum of 20 or 30 feet deep, making it the best option for snorkeling.
Anglin’s Fishing Pier
Just past the sherbet-hued umbrellas on the boardwalk in Lauderdale by the Sea is Anglin’s Fishing Pier. It offers easy access to the water for exploring the aptly named Anglin’s Pier Reef. Just steer clear of the pier, which is actively used by anglers.
But you can expect to see the same fish they’re there to catch: cobia, mackerel, snapper, and snook. Swim south of the pier to explore the artificial reef known as the Shipwreck Snorkel Trail, a site built by the Marine Archaeological Council complete with an anchor, five concrete cannons, and a ballast pile.
The SS Copenhagen is a 19th-century British steamship that struck a reef less than a mile offshore in May 1900. The crew survived but could not rescue the vessel, which was used by US Navy pilots for target practice during World War II. The wreck was designated by the State of Florida as an underwater archaeological preserve in 1994 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
Now home to large schools of baitfish, the SS Copenhagen is popular with scuba divers and receives an average of 10,000 visitors annually. To help identify parts of the ship while submerged, pick up a copy of a waterproof shipwreck map at Lauderdale by the Sea at the Town Hall.
A 15-minute boat ride from shore, this spot off the coast of Pompano Beach was named for the nurse sharks that call it home. You’ll usually find members of the docile species hanging out on the ocean floor under rocky ledges. Nurse sharks are nocturnal, so don’t worry if they’re not moving much, and definitely don’t interact with them. If you’re seeking a more adrenaline-fueled shark experience, the waters off Jupiter — an hour’s drive north — are where you should head to snorkel with bull and tiger sharks.
Fort Lauderdale is known as the “Venice of America,” and if you’d like to gawk at the mega-mansions on Millionaire’s Row en route to a snorkeling spot, opt for a boat tour from Port Everglades. Once you reach Twin Ledges, jump into the warm water to swim with pufferfish, angelfish, and the elusive rainbow parrotfish. The eastern ledge is deeper, so stick close to the west for the best views.
Vista Park is another Fort Lauderdale spot where you can swim to the site from the beach. With not much in the way of vendors, and there’s a small parking fee, Vista Park is rarely crowded, making it popular with locals. The beach is narrow, so it’s only a short walk from your parking spot to the water’s edge. Swim about 1,000 feet out from shore and you’ll reach the reef.
Wahoo Bay is a human-built conservation project that got the green light in February of 2022. The facility will be a marine park in the shallow, protected waters of the Pompano Beach Inlet. Upon completion, Wahoo Bay will be a place to educate children about oceans and reef life. It will also be a testing ground for the SEAHIVE Shoreline Protection System, a concrete-and-mangrove structure designed to combat the rising sea levels.
Tips for snorkeling in Fort Lauderdale
- Early morning is the best time to snorkel: Underwater visibility is best at high tide, and many creatures hide in rocky crevices or retreat into deeper waters once the tourist crowds start splashing. Just after sunrise is your best chance for spotting significant marine life, like stingrays, eels, and sea turtles.
- Do the “stingray shuffle:” When entering the water from the beach, Floridians do the “stingray shuffle” to avoid stingray stings. Shuffle your feet along the ocean floor rather than picking your feet up to take normal steps. The vibrations will alert any nearby stingrays to your presence and they’ll peacefully swim away.
- Look below you: Keep your eye on the ocean floor, to catch a glimpse of the diverse marine life that might camouflage well with the natural environment, including flounders, spotted scorpionfish, and stingrays.
- Lobster season is from late July to March: If catching your own lobster interests you, visit during the spiny lobster sport season in late July or the regular lobster season from early August until early March. You’ll need to apply for a Florida saltwater fishing license with a lobster permit.
- Refrain from touching coral: Coral may look pretty, but it takes hundreds of years to grow and can be extremely sharp, or even poisonous. Don’t touch it. If the current is rough, avoid snorkeling in shallow areas where you could accidentally collide with the reef. And leave shells where you find them; they could be homes for crabs or eventually become the sand that protects the coast from erosion.
- Don’t tamper with turtles or eggs: From March through June, female leatherback, loggerhead, and green sea turtles make their way onto the beach at night to lay eggs in the sand. Six to eight weeks later, hatchlings journey to the water’s edge. No matter how cute they are, it’s illegal to touch or tamper with the turtles or eggs.
- Wear reef-friendly sunscreen: Especially on the back of your body, which will be exposed to sunlight. Don’t forget the back of your arms and legs.
- Never snorkel alone: And if you plan to snorkel from a boat or past buoys marking a shallow swim area, you must bring a dive flag.