Take a Swim in the Wild Side of the Keys

We woke up with the roosters.  After cups of coffee, bowls of General Mills’ finest, and the first burst of Vitamin D of the day, we were ready.  It was a ten minute drive, from the Hyatt Residence Club- Windward Pointe in Key West, to the Perry Hotel on Stock Island.  I waited in the lobby, subduing butterflies.  

Captain Gary, owner of Dolphin Safari Charters, greeted us with a friendly accent that he developed growing up in Zimbabwe.  The four of us, my boyfriend, his parents, and I, followed our captain to a red and white powerboat, in pristine condition, with YEBO stenciled on the side.  Shoes off. One foot. Then the other. We stepped into the boat, hosed off our feet, and sat in the stern. We moved at a Key West pace at first in the no wake zones, then sped off through the channel.  Our wind ravaged hair in need of reprieve got its wish when we slowed down again towards our destination- the dolphin playground.   

About four miles northwest of Key West, this area is known as the dolphin playground because spectators are almost guaranteed to see dolphins.  The depth of the water is about ten feet, and the sandy ocean floor provides the perfect conditions for dolphins to do their four favorite things- eat, sleep, mate, and play.  Locals also say that certain pods of dolphins have been known to stay in the dolphin playground for long periods of time, rather than migrate to other areas. It sounds like the vibe in Margaritaville is just right for humans and animals alike.

At first, two dorsal fins crested above calm clear water.  Our camera phones captured the moment until they disappeared.  We waited while Captain Gary radioed other boats to see if they had any luck spotting more dolphins.  We were about to leave, when magic happened. A pod of at least a dozen dolphins swam our direction, including a baby that enjoyed making eye contact with us at the bow of the boat.  Our captain even recognized one of the dolphins by its dorsal fin.  It was an experience I won’t forget.

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As if the day couldn’t get any better, Captain Gary took us snorkeling next in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge.  He anchored the boat, and we donned our flippers and snorkel gear.  Embracing our martian look, we jumped in the warm water. Above the water is beautiful, but underneath is surreal.  Parrotfish fluttered and barracudas bulleted past us.  A puffer fish took one look at us and swam back to safety.  Captain Gary found a sea urchin that we carefully held, then put back right where he found it.  The trip culminated with the captain showing us an octopus perfectly camouflaged and hiding under an arch of coral.

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We munched on fruit and crackers on the ride back to the Perry Hotel, finding it difficult to wipe the smiles off our faces as we soaked in the sunshine.  

Book your excursion with Captain Gary on the Dolphin Safari Charters website.  

Prices:

Adults $89.00 + tax each

Children under 10 $69.00 + tax each

(6 people max per boat)

Private Charters: $475.00 + tax

Summer Hours:

8:30 AM to 12:00 PM (We went at this time.)

12:30 PM to 4:00 PM

5:00 PM to Sunset

Check the website for winter hours.

Another Excursion I Recommend

Danger Charters (Full Day Excursion)

Highlights:

  • Snorkel in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge
  • Lunch, drinks (alcoholic and nonalcoholic), and snacks
  • Relax on a sandbar in crystal clear water
  • Kayak around a mangrove island
  • 6.5 hours on the water

This excursion was also unbelievable.  We rode on a 65 foot schooner modeled after a Skipjack.  At the beginning of our journey, the captain and crew introduced themselves, then had each of the passengers say our names and where we were from.  The crew remembered ALL OF OUR NAMES the entire trip. It was impressive. On our way to the Key West National Wildlife Refuge again, one of the crew members gave us an informative (and humorous) talk about the history of the keys and the wildlife refuge.  It passed the time and gave us more of an appreciation for what we were about to see. The refuge was brimming with even more wildlife this time.  Stingrays the size of pickup truck tires hid in the sand and moved past us like magic carpets. Not one, but two nurse sharks swam left to right under us, and I saw my first grouper (not on a dinner plate).  

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After snorkeling, the crew provided lunch on the boat, that included an ample array of different ingredients to make our own sandwiches, along with cold salads and drinks.  Then, the crew anchored the boat at a sandbar about three to four feet deep. We relaxed for a bit, until at least ten kayaks were retrieved from the belly of the boat.  

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Danger Charters Schooner photo courtesy of Jon Maguire

We kayaked around a mangrove island, learning about the birds that inhabit it. A pair of kayakers and our guide from the crew even spotted a black tip reef shark. The wind picked up while we were heading back to the schooner, which made paddling back in the waves difficult, but a worthwhile experience.  

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Kayaking around the mangrove island photo courtesy of Jon Maguire

We enjoyed salty snacks and cookies on the ride back to shore.

Prices:

Adults: $120.00 each

Children: $95.00 each

Toddlers: FREE

Summer Hours:

10:00 AM to 4:30 PM 

Check the website for winter hours.

Best Snorkeling Without the Excursion

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

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If you are interested in snorkeling without a boat ride, Fort Zachary Taylor State Park is a terrific spot.  There are several fish that swim near the rocks in the water, relatively close to shore. It is a beautiful beach and park, shaded by trees in some areas.  However, be forewarned that the shore has a significant amount of sun bleached rocks you must walk across before reaching the water.  To combat this small roadblock, I saw several people wearing flip flops and taking them off once they reached the water, or wearing water shoes or flippers into the water.

Fort Taylor was built between 1845-1866, and is open from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM daily with narrated tours at 11:00 AM daily.

State Park Entrance Fee:

One person $4.50

Two people $7.00

Each additional person $0.50

*If you ride your bike or walk into the park $2.50 each

State Park Hours:

8:00 AM to Sunset (daily)

Address: 

601 Howard England Way, Key West, FL 33040

Have you been snorkeling or scuba diving before?  What is the coolest marine animal you’ve seen?  Where is the best place you’ve been to snorkel or scuba?

 

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