We get a lot of questions about specific tours we enjoy in the Florida Keys and where to see the best wildlife. Thankfully we have lots of experience in the Keys and have awesome recommendations! One thing we always like to say when we get asked about specific experiences is that we are sure to write about the ones we love and think are worthwhile. If we’ve done a tour and didn’t love it, we let the operator know directly. These wildlife tours in the Florida Keys are the ones we really enjoy and confidently recommend.
Since we visit the islands often, as we do more and move wildlife tours in the Florida Keys, we’ll add them to this running list. And also, if you have a favorite guide or tour you like to go back to when you’re in the Keys, please leave a comment or send us a note. We’re happy to share others’ recommendations too!
Recommended Wildlife Tours in the Florida Keys
Not many of us get to look for wildlife in the Florida Keys from our own boats, and not many of us know the waterways well enough to safely navigate the many channels and sandbars. And that’s why we feel like it’s a good use of our time and money to go out into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean with a guided tour. Because we visit the Keys so often, we’ve gotten to go out with LOTS of tour operators from Key Largo to the Conch Republic of Key West.
Note: we haven’t been out with every single guide or tour company, so cannot speak to each individual service, but of the ones we’ve done, we can confidently recommend the follow tours due to their care, conservation-minded operations, and the general fun we’ve had while watching for wildlife in the Florida Keys.
Key Largo: Horizon Divers – Reefs and Wrecks
Everyone has a different skill level and comfort with being in the ocean. Going out on a dive boat is a completely different experience than snorkeling from the beach. There are countless shipwrecks and quite a few large reefs off the shore, and they’re one of the best places to see wildlife in the Florida Keys. We loved our experience with Horizon Divers on Key Largo.
If you’re not a PADI certified diver, you can go out on a dive boat, but really the focus of these types of trips is to get divers to interesting places that are a bit deeper than a snorkel will visit. If you’re a free diver, there are lots of wonderful sights to see underwater, and the wildlife is amazing, but for a surface snorkeler, it’s not the best option.
Horizon Divers is a great group and they care greatly about the ocean, and I think that makes all the difference when you’re looking for somebody to explore with. And when you’re done with your trip, stop by Skipper’s Dockside on Key Largo for my favorite slice of key lime pie in the Keys.
Note: while Horizon Divers and other dive companies focus on diving, if you want to book out a whole boat for your group, that’s an option too and then they can tailor the destination and experience to who’s onboard.
Marathon: Starfish Catamaran – Sombrero Reef
Being in the middle of the Florida Keys, Marathon is a great town to be based from for all sorts of adventures. We were quite impressed with out high speed catamaran tour on the Starfish from Marathon to the Sombrero Reef National Marine Sanctuary and Lighthouse. This tour is very different from many that you’ll find up in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park or down out of Key West. This boat and tour are much more adventurous than we initially expected and it was fantastic.
Onboard the Starfish cat, it’s all about safety, conservation and the special experience of getting to visit one of the healthiest coral reefs I’ve ever seen. Unless it’s a very calm day, the high speed commute out to the Sombrero Reef is pretty extreme. We’ve done zodiac boat tours in Vancouver BC and the Big Island of Hawaii and I’ve not experience this sort of splashing and waves over the front as on the Starfish, but we were very safe and just enjoying it the whole time.
Once at the reef, you have ample time for multiple trips below the surface. Coral reef areas, canyons and banks make this a stellar place for snorkeling or free diving. This is a great last-minute tour to book as it’s in, what I think, is an obscure place to catch a snorkeling tour and it’s a good sized boat. I would happily do this tour again!
Key West Eco Tours – Kayaking and Catamaran Sailing in the KW National Wildlife Refuge
Going out with Key West Eco Tours is a pretty special experience, and their Kayaking and Sailing tour on the Java Cat into the Key West National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best tours I’ve ever done in any destination. We love kayaking in the Florida Keys, so getting to sail to a kayaking destination that highlights some of the most unusual creatures and elements that make the Keys so special was really cool.
We’ve done one other similar tour, which was remote kayaking in Everglades National Park in the 10,000 Islands area, but it was very different than the Florida Keys wildlife experience on this tour. Here, you’ll experience the Lakes area of the Key West NWR, including mangrove islands, sponge gardens and sandbars. It’s beautiful and so perfectly Florida Keys. Wildlife on this tour ranged from awesome birds to sharks, grouper, colorful fish and more…
There are a few different wildlife tour options with Key West Eco Tours. If you’re not able to commit to the half day sailing / kayaking combo, you can also do guided paddling through the mangroves on the eastern side of Key West. With this sort of tour, expect to learn a lot about the wildlife and ecosystem, to get up close with the mangrove tunnels and their occupants. This is one of my favorite types of wildlife tours in the Keys or anywhere else around Florida (we did a great one like this in Tarpon Bay too).
Key West: Honest Eco Tours for Dolphins
We’ve been on two of Honest Eco Tours’ boats: the Blue Q and the Squid. Both are great boats with wonderful crews. The Squid is a really unique boat as it’s fully solar powered and has a shallow draft, so it’s a quiet experience into both deep and shallow waters. We went out on the Squid during a cold snap and they provided wetsuits for our snorkeling, which was great.
I think an adventure on the Squid with Honest Eco is a great option if you’re doing the Florida Keys with kids. I like it for the family because of the higher up views for seeing wildlife and how much shaded area there is.
The Blu Q is a beautiful catamaran with both shaded and open net areas over the water. This is a great boat for a family snorkeling trip and the crew has the same care for nature as what you’ll experience on the Squid. We’ve also done a sunset sailing on the Blu Q, which was a blast.
Key West: Island to Island Charters for Exploring the Sandbars
I know this is a much more custom experience than many families plan, but if you weigh out the cost of a family of four on a quality snorkel tour and then add some time, personalization and flexibility, the value of going out with a local, eco-conscious captain is amazing. Island to Island Charters and Captain Ally do a phenomenal job of taking guides to some of the most beautiful backwaters of the Lower Keys.
Why I think a small charter boat like Island to Island is a great option for wildlife tours in the Florida Keys is because when you add up the cost of your group for a nice, well done tour, the total cost is nearly the same as booking a charter. With a charter like this, you can really have dedicated time to the sights and activities that are best for your family or travel group. You’re into birds? Great! You want to explore the mangrove passages and look for nurse sharks? Great. Want to chill and watch the rays swim by? Perfect.
We loved every minute visiting sandbars and exploring mangrove channels looking for some of the coolest wildlife in the Florida Keys. We saw rays, sharks, fish, birds, dolphins and more. This is the sort of family memory I treasure!
Dry Tortugas National Park via the Yankee Freedom III
While the adventure to Dry Tortugas National Park from Key West is not as “guided” of a tour as our other recommendations, it’s a really remarkable experience and the wildlife opportunities are fantastic. It all starts with getting on a large catamaran out of Key West and heading almost 70 miles out to the Dry Tortugas, a National Park that’s both historic and a huge wildlife sanctuary.
On the way out to the Dry Tortugas on the Yankee Freedom III you can watch for dolphins, rays jumping out of the water, and awesome birds. Once at Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson you’ll see how the wild is just everywhere. You can snorkel all around the fort wall (follow restricted area signs) or watch the wildlife from atop the fort. It’s kind of amazing to look down into the moat and see turtles below or, I’ve not seen it but I have heard, the crocodile that sometimes shows up on Garden Key.
Also a part of Dry Tortugas National Park, Bush Key is completely protected for birds and is a wonderful place to observe frigate birds, terns, and so many more species. You cannot go onto the island, but you can walk the conch-covered beach to the edge of Bush Key and just be wowed by the water and wildlife. I know, it’s not a tour like you’re expecting, but it’s amazing.
Night Kayak Key West
This is one of the most unique wildlife tours in the Florida Keys. Kayaking is great. The nighttime is great. Nocturnal animals are amazing. Put it all together and you have this really fun and unusual experience. When it comes to seeing a different side of the Florida Keys, getting on the water at night is one of the best ways.
Doing a night kayak in Key West can be great for nearly anyone, including young kids. The kayaks they use are very easy to navigate with and they have clear bottoms to them. Under the kayaks are LED lights for seeing underwater, and that, my friends, is what makes this tour so special.
We saw so much wildlife with the water being lit up from under the boats. Nurse sharks, barracudas, sea stars, sea hares and so much more made each stretch of the paddle so different and interesting. What we really enjoyed was how active our guide was, getting in the water to actually guide the wildlife to us. It was really cool.
Favorite Wildlife to See in the Florida Keys
It’s not difficult to spot wildlife in the Florida Keys the moment you arrive. From the manatees in the marinas of Key Largo to sea turtles swimming below the Overseas Highway, it’s everywhere. Yes, you definitely get to be much closer to the wildlife when you’re on a tour that can get you to some of the most natural, protected areas, but you can see it everywhere.
Here are our favorite species of wildlife to watch for in the Florida Keys. We’ve also noted the places we most often seen each type of animal, but remember that the very nature of wildlife is being wild, so anything can be anywhere anytime.
- Bottlenose Dolphins – sometimes you just see the dolphins when you look out into the expanse of the sea and sometimes you need to be on a boat. There are different sorts of wildlife tours in the Florida Keys that focus on dolphins, so check those out (mainly in Key West) if that’s what you’re looking for.
- West Indian manatee – you don’t often see manatees on tours in the Keys, but you can see them in the marinas and at the most random moments when you’re out in the quite backwaters.
- Lionfish – an invasive species to the Florida Keys, the lionfish is actually really cool to see in person. They’re beautiful, but keep your distance because their spines have venom and you don’t want that sort of pain. We’ve seen lionfish mostly in the sponge gardens of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge.
- Sea Turtle – there are several species of sea turtle that call the Florida Keys home. We mostly see hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, but there are a lot of loggerheads too. The best places to see turtles from the land are on the parts of the Overseas Highway with walking paths, including the stretch of the old highway to Pigeon Key.
- Nurse Shark – my favorite type of share to see, nurse sharks are mellow and like to hang out in the shallows, either in the mangrove passages or in the grassy flats of the calmer areas of the Keys. We’ve seen nurse sharks all around Kew West and off the Atlantic side off of Marathon.
- tarpon – the guaranteed spots to see tarpon in the Florida Keys are at Robbie’s of Islamorada or in the Historic Seaport. Tarpon can be pretty big and they’re pretty much always hungry, so they’re always active near the surface.
I hope you’re excited to plan a wildlife tour in the Florida Keys. There are so many wonderful ones and there’s so much wildlife to see. We’ll keep updating this article as we go out with more tour companies in the Keys.
If you have any questions or have additional ideas or favorite wildlife tours in the Florida Keys, please leave a comment or send us a note. We’re happy to share more and help others plan travels.