Navigating the Florida Keys by Boat

Published June 7th, 2021 by Bernardo

What You’ll Learn

As you read this beginner’s guide to boat navigation in South Florida, you’ll learn:

  • Local boaters always have the best information, so don’t be hesitant to ask experts about their favorite spots.
  • Choose the right vessel and boating equipment to ensure you’re prepared for all of your adventures.
  • Boating in the Florida Keys is one of the best ways to explore this area, so just get out there and have fun!

About the Florida Keys

The Florida Keys is a stretch of magnificent archipelagos (also known as island groups or island chains) that are unique to the United States. Exploring this part of the world by land is an amazing experience in and of itself, and it’s easy to see why so many tourists want to visit. Taking it all in by water is truly the experience of a lifetime, though. The string of tropical islands stretches roughly 120 miles from the Southern tip of Florida, giving boaters so much to find as they navigate the waters between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Why Go Boating in the Florida Keys?

There are many different reasons to take your favorite kind of vessel out in this stretch of ocean. As you move between islands, you can enjoy many different types of activities:

  • World-Class Fishing – From deep-sea fishing to party boat fishing, there are many different ways to hunt for your next great catch. Snapper, tuna, and mahi-mahi are among the most popular fish on menus throughout the area, but it never tastes better than it does when you catch it yourself.
  • Exploring New Areas – Some parts of the backcountry in the Florida Keys are only accessible by boat. If you want to get a bit further from the beaten path and connect with nature in a unique and memorable way, ditch your car and venture across the water.
  • Socializing With Like-Minded People – Connect with other boaters from far and wide by pulling up to a sandbar for a few hours. People often share food, drinks, stories, and laughs with others who they just met, then leave feeling like old friends.
  • Cruising the Florida Bay – If staying in one place for the whole afternoon doesn’t sound like it’s your speed, consider taking a long cruise instead. There’s certainly no shortage of things to see as you keep moving.
  • World-Class Diving and Snorkeling – You don’t have to catch a single fish to appreciate the diverse and beautiful species in this part of the world. Look for angelfish with colors ranging from bright orange to electric blue. Rainbow parrotfish are also among the most gorgeous fish in the sea, and you can find plenty of them in this stretch off of South Florida.
  • Other Nature and Wildlife – Even from in the boat, you’re likely to get a good look at plenty of birds, marine mammals, coral reefs, and more.

Safe Boating in the Florida Keys

Don’t be intimidated by all of the islands in this area, because even relatively new boaters can navigate these waters safely if they follow a few common-sense protocols. Your outing shouldn’t be especially tricky if you do all of the following:

  • Take a safe boating course if you’re new to the pastime.
  • Plan your excursions and use current charts.
  • Take advantage of navigation devices.
  • Keep an eye on the weather.
  • Keep communication devices like a position indicating radio beacon just in case.
  • Bring (and wear) your life jackets.
  • Keep your fuel tanks filled.
  • Stay in deeper water or marked channels.
  • Learn how to read navigational aids like signs and buoys.
  • Remember that deepwater often appears green or blue, while shallower water looks brown or white. Keep track of the tides, too.

You don’t need to be scared of boating in the Florida Keys, you just need to be prepared. If you don’t feel quite ready to navigate the islands by yourself just yet, try taking a boating class that’s specific to this area. Alternatively, go out with locals or consider hiring a guide until you get more comfortable.

Best Places to Visit in the Florida Keys

You can get the most freedom to move throughout this area when you travel by boat. The entire archipelago is made up of roughly 1,700 islands and covers about 198 square miles, about 137 square miles of which is land area. Between these islands and the countless reefs, there’s no shortage of things to see. It would take many lifetimes to experience everything the island chain has to offer, so we recommend starting with some of these highlights:

  • Key Largo – Visit this area to rent a kayak, go on a glass-bottom boat tour, and explore underwater. No visit to Key Largo is complete without looking into John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
  • Florida Bay – This area is right between the Florida Keys and the southern extremity of the mainland. It includes Biscayne National State Park with its fishing, lobstering, guided tours, and protected reefs.
  • The Islamorada Hump – Also known simply as “The Hump,” this is a legendary fishing spot. Ocean currents come off of a large seamount (underwater mountain), catching small fish in the current and attracting larger fish from higher in the food chain. Some even call it the fishing capital of the world because of the prevalence of blackfin tuna, sailfish, marlin, and other large fish.
  • Bahia Honda State Park – This park offers a great introduction to the Florida Keys. The island offers a great mix of amenities, entertainment, and history.
  • Key West – Only 90 miles north of Cuba, this island city is known for its colorful houses. It’s only accessible by mainland via the Overseas Highway, so you’ll have more freedom to check out surrounding highlights like Christmas Tree Island and Sand Key if you get around by boat.
  • Fort Jefferson – For those who are adventurous enough and have a boat with sufficient fuel capacity, this coastal fortress is definitely worth the trip. The massive building isn’t completely finished, but it covers an impressive 16 acres of land that makes it the third largest United States fort ever. It was originally built to protect a strategic deepwater anchorage for ships patrolling the Gulf of Mexico and Straits of Florida. Now it’s a scenic thing to admire among the islands that make up the Dry Tortugas. It was under construction from 1846 to 1875, making it an important historical symbol of the lengths the young United States went to protect their independence.

There’s so much to know about this area that even guides like this can only take you so far. We always note that local knowledge is everything. If it’s your first time boating here, ask the locals questions. People are happy to help!

Buy a Boat in South Florida

Every year, people from all over the world visit the Florida Keys to explore all that this area has to offer. Renting a boat is ideal for a day trip or even a weeklong venture, but many enthusiasts choose to buy boats so they can explore the archipelago over the course of years. Visit us at Nautical Ventures Marine Superstore to get your vessel, accessories, and information about the Florida Keys. Most importantly, have fun! Find a location here!

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