Key West, Florida, is a sanctuary for boating, sailing, and watersports enthusiasts! With so much natural beauty to explore like coral reefs, mangroves, and incredible wildlife, it’s easy to see why spending a day out on the water is a must when visiting the Florida Keys!
Choosing the boating experience that’s best for you and your group, however, can sometimes prove to be difficult. From renting your own vessel and venturing off on your own, to taking a guided tour through the islands and beyond, the amount of options to choose from and things to consider can be overwhelming.
But have no fear, because TripShock is here to help make sure you have a boat-load of fun on your next Key West vacation! The Complete Key West Boat Guide breaks down everything you need to know about boating in Key West, along with other important information, so you’re prepared to sail away into the sunset!
Table of Contents
- Why Try Boating When in Key West?
- Nature and Landscapes
- Wonderful Wildlife
- Best Places to Visit in Key West by Boat
- Will I Need a Boating License?
- Yes or No
- Boating License Cost and How to Obtain One
- Rules and Requirements for Boating
- Coral Reef
- Wildlife Encounters
- Safety Requirements
- Other Things to Know Before You Go
- Navigating the Keys
- Annual Key West Power Boat World Championships
- Other Boat Tours to Get you Out on the Water
- Sailing Charters
- Day Trips & Excursions
- Private Charters
- Scuba Diving
- Other Popular Key West Watersports Activities
- Kayaking and Paddleboarding
- Waverunner Rentals
Why Try Boating When in Key West?
When boating in Key West, there is something for the whole family to enjoy
From shopping in Mallory Square to partying it up on Duval Street, there’s so much to do in Key West itself, it’s easy to forget about everything else the area has to offer. Outside of the city, however, lies a vast and diverse ecosystem just waiting to be explored, and one of the best ways to do that is by boat.
Nature and Landscapes
The Southernmost Point in Key West is an amazing landmark and sight to be seen from land or sea
Boating allows you to see Key West from a completely different perspective. Beautiful beaches and magnificent marine life aside, viewing historical landmarks like these from a watercraft makes for breathtaking views and photo-ops:
- Mallory Square
- The Historic Seaport
- The Southernmost Point
If the historical side of Key West doesn’t rev your engine, the unmatched, natural beauty of the area will! From complex and captivating mangrove forests, to famously superb sunsets, to visiting the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States, the innate allure of Key West is truly unmatched.
Young girl with a Key Deer, an endangered species of deer that lives only in the Florida Keys. Image by Richard Elzey via Flickr
As you can probably imagine, having such a diverse environment means Key West is home to a plethora of interesting and incredible wildlife! From sponges that grow in the Florida mangroves to the tropical fish that call the coral reef home, the diversity of animal life in the Keys is unparalleled.
On top of that, there is also the Key West National Wildlife Refuge to consider. Positioned between Key West and the Dry Tortugas, this area was created to provide a breeding ground for native wildlife and protect endangered and threatened plants and animals. Awesome animals you may encounter while visiting Key West include:
- Key Deer
- Sea Turtles
- Tropical Fish
- Spiny Lobsters
Key West is also the perfect place for those who love bird watching! Since John James Audubon discovered many of the bird species unique to Florida while in the Keys, it’s easy to see why Key West means bird-watching bliss. Feathered friends you may see in flight include:
- Bald Eagles
- Green Parrots
Best Places to Visit in Key West by Boat
Now that you’ve decided to hit the high seas and see what the hype is all a-boat, the next step is to choose if you want to rent your own vessel, or hop on a boat tour with a guide. While both are great options, each one provides a different experience.
Taking a guided boat tour is a great way to discover areas and landmarks inaccessible by a typical boat rental. While there may be some traveling involved, taking a guided tour allows you to see and learn about things you may not otherwise on your own. The complete Key West boat guide will help you learn about these popular places to visit near Key West by boat, and decide for yourself if a day trip or afternoon boating excursion is worth the trek:
If you’d rather boat on your own terms, that’s okay too! There are plenty of great places to take a boat rental that the whole group will love. Below are some of the best places to bring your Key West boat rental:
Will I Need a Boating License?
This is what a Florida Boating Safety Education Identification Card, commonly referred to as a “Boating License,” will look like. Courtesy of Boat-ed.com
The short answer is, yes. If you plan to operate a vessel on your own, then you will need a license. If you are hopping on a boat tour with a guide, you will not need one.
Cost and How to Obtain One
In most cases, you are able to get a temporary license from the rental company for a nominal fee. If you need to get one on your own, the prices range from free to $50, depending on which license you select. Below are a few NASBLA-approved online programs for getting your Florida Boating License:
- Boat US: This is the most popular option, as it is free, and takes around 4-8 hours to complete.
- American Safety Council: At only $15, this is another one of the more affordable options offered online.
- BoatEd Online Interactive Course: At $49.50 per student, BoatEd boasts faster completion times, and a more interactive program, to help turn you into a boating master!
Rules and Requirements for Boating
Before getting behind the wheel of a watercraft, it’s important to be prepared
While easy and breezy is a great way to describe Key West boating, there are still some rules and regulations contained in the Key West boat guide to be aware of before hitting the high seas! Preparation is key when it comes to planning your vacation, and being aware of all restrictions is a great way to ensure a great time.
Mahi Mahi (pictured above), Grouper, Kingfish, Marlin, Sailfish, Snapper, Tuna, and Wahoo are among the popular species of fish to catch in Key West, FL
Since Key West is also considered the, “Sport Fishing Capital of the World,” it’s only appropriate to address fishing. When booking a Key West fishing charter, there’s no need to worry about a fishing license. If you plan on fishing from a boat rental, you will need the appropriate fishing license.
If you plan on visiting Key West to test your luck and reel in a keeper, you may also want to consider visiting the area during one of their many fishing tournaments held throughout the year. Popular Key West fishing tournaments include:
- The Key West Marlin Tournament
- Lower Keys Dolphin Tournament
- Screamin’ Reels Tournament
Please be aware that some species of fish may have restrictions when it comes to harvesting. The fishing license you or your charter boat captain has may affect which species you can catch and keep. Please visit MyFWC.com for a full list of what’s in season, harvesting restrictions, and more information.
Beautiful coral and sponge formations at Sand Key in Key West. Image by SnorkelingDives.com via Flickr
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is home to Florida’s Barrier Reef, North America’s largest natural coral reef system, and the third largest in the world! It is actually the ONLY living coral barrier reef in the continental United States. This reef is home to over 150 species of fish, over 50 species of coral, and is the driving force of tourism to the area.
With that being said, it’s easy to see why protecting the reefs is so important. And not only that, due to an overabundance of nutrients in the ocean and boaters not following the proper rules, among other things, there has been an alarming decline in reef population. In order to keep the rare and riveting reefs in tact, it’s important to understand these rules and restrictions when boating in the Keys:
- Collecting certain coral is prohibited.
- Special permits may be needed.
- Having a vessel anchored on living coral in water less than 40 feet deep, when the bottom can be seen, is prohibited.
- Wake zone and speed limit laws must be abided by.
- Operating a vessel at more than 4 knots within 100 yards of a “divers down” flag is prohibited.
- Diving or snorkeling without a dive flag is not allowed.
- Operating a vessel in such a manner which endangers life, limb, marine resources, or property is prohibited.
- Damaging or removing markers, mooring buoys, scientific equipment, boundary buoys, and trap buoys is prohibited.
...and that’s just to name a few! All of these rules and regulations are in place to not just protect the coral, but to protect you, other divers, swimmers, snorkelers, and all other local plant and animal life. Click here for a full list of rules and regulations.
When boating in Key West, you never know what wildlife you’ll encounter. You may even encounter a baby green sea turtle, like the one pictured above
Besides the coral reef restrictions listed above, there are other important things to know when it comes to encountering wildlife, whether by land or by sea, in Key West:
- Even though dolphins are friendly, majestic creatures, and are practically everywhere in the Keys, it’s important to remember not to feed or touch them, for your safety and theirs.
- There are sharks in the water, please be vigilant and aware of your surroundings when snorkeling, swimming, diving, etc.
- Be respectful and careful when enjoying the natural beauty of the local plant and animal life. For example, touching the beautiful and colorful coral may seem harmless, but it could actually kill it and prevent future growth.
- Be aware that there are multiple endangered and threatened species that call Key West home. If you cross paths with one of these species, it’s best to be careful, use caution, and enjoy their beauty and charm from a distance.
Endangered species native to the Florida Keys include:
- Schaus Swallowtail Butterfly
- Key Deer
- Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit
- Key Largo Cotton Mouse
- Key Largo Woodrat
- Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle
- Hawksbill Sea Turtle
- Leatherback Sea Turtle
- Green Sea Turtle
- Florida Panther
Threatened species native to the Florida Keys include:
- Loggerhead Sea Turtle
- Stock Island Tree Snail
- American Alligator
- American Crocodile
- West Indian Manatee
- Roseate Tern
Many of the animals listed above are found only in the Keys! The diverse habitats of the area help these protected species thrive and continue to grow. Many conservation efforts are in place, with the goal of protecting and re-establishing these threatened and endangered species.
Having the proper amount of the appropriate-sized life jackets are a necessity when boating in Key West
It wouldn’t be a Key West boat guide without some safety info! While most rentals will come equipped with the proper safety equipment and instruction, if you plan to venture out on your own, it is best to be prepared. These safety requirements and recommendations will ensure a safe and seamless Florida Keys boating experience:
- Make sure there is a life jacket for every person on board, including infants.
- Communication is key. Pick up a VHF radio and be prepared in case of an emergency.
- Depth finders are a great device to have when boating in Key West, mostly because of the coral reef. Just because the water looks clear, doesn’t mean there isn’t beautiful coral right under the surface.
- Understand the buoys; each one has a different and significant meaning. For example, if you see a mooring buoy, it means you are to tie off to the buoy, as opposed to using your anchor. This is because the anchor could damage the precious coral reef underneath.
- Be aware of your surroundings. This is important for so many reasons, but when boating in Key West, one of the main reasons is the coral. A great example of this is, if you notice waves breaking, you may want to steer clear of this area. It is not uncommon for coral reefs to rise above the water’s surface, and not being aware of the signs, like waves breaking, could potentially destroy the coral, and your boat.
- Use common sense. When in Key West, there is a high chance you will come across people scuba diving and swimming. If you see boats in the area tied off to buoys, but no people, there is a high chance they are just below the surface of the water. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s using common sense in these types of situations that could save lives.
Other Things to Know Before You Go
Beautiful waters like these are the reason why boating is so popular in Key West, Florida
While there is a lot to consider when venturing out by boat in the Florida Keys, the preparation is completely worth it once you’re in the crystal-clear, beautiful Key West water! With that being said, there are just a few more things to consider before trimming and tilting your engine.
Navigating the Keys
Aerial view of the Florida Keys from Wikimedia
Boating in the Keys is quite literally like nothing else on earth with beautiful waters, incredible and untouched islands, serene landscapes, and diverse marine life. These hundreds of miles of waterway, however, can prove to be dangerous if you don’t know where you’re going. This is why picking up or printing out a nautical chart before boating in the Keys is a must.
A nautical chart is more than just a map of the waterways. These maps provide water depths (very important when boating so close to the coral reef), warn you of dangerous locations, and is a great tool to use to navigate the Keys safely.
We’ve also created an indepth island guide. Check out our official Guide to the Florida Keys Islands right here on TripShock.
Waterspout image by Jef Nickerson via Flickr
Weather is always something to be considered when visiting any part of Florida, but most specifically the Keys. Weather there can be very unpredictable, so it is important to check the forecast, pack/dress appropriately, and be flexible when booking activities in case the need to reschedule arises.
Leave it to Florida to be both predictable and unpredictable at the same time. While the weather there can be unpredictable, there are a few weather occurrences you can count on. Afternoon showers are almost a daily happening, but will typically pass as quickly as it arrived. If there is a storm coming in, however, Key West is known to have waterspouts. If you see a storm forming, it’s best to head back to shore immediately.
Annual Key West Power Boat World Championships
Image of the 1984 Key West Power Boat World Championships by Florida Keys Public Libraries via Flickr
Boating in Key West is not just something travelers do while they’re on vacation! People travel from across the globe specifically to experience this boater’s paradise. Hence the popularity of the Annual Key West Power Boat World Championships!
The Key West Power Boat World Championships bring the world’s top offshore boat racers to Key West to push their limits and take their shot at the World Title! Since 1989, this adrenaline-pumping event has been the world’s biggest and fastest offshore racing series.
Other Boat Tours to Get you Out on the Water
Sailing comes in all shapes and sizes when in Key West. From sunset sails to combination tours, there is something for everyone
Ready to hop on a Key West boat, but not ready to take the wheel? That’s okay, too! Lucky for you, Key West is full of incredible boat tours and other activities to fulfill your need to be on the sea! Keep reading this Key West boat guide for the top boat tours available to Keys travelers.
According to a recent Traveler Story, their sunset sail pleased even the pickiest in their group
Take it slow and take it all in on a smooth and serene Key West sailing charter! With daytime sailing charters and sunset sails to choose from, there is truly a charter available for every age and interest.
And have we mentioned the sunsets? Watching the sun disappear over the water from a Key West sunset cruise will make your entire vacation!
Day Trips & Excursions
Day trips and excursions are a great way to experience the best of Key West all in one sitting
Day trips & excursions are the best way to take in all that Key West has to offer! Besides the boating experience you’re craving, many day trips will also include other activities like:
- Dolphin Tours
- Banana Boat Rides
All inclusive experiences like these really allow you to take advantage of the watersports, nature, and scenery that attracts millions of visitors to the Keys, all at once!
Private charters, like the Private Luxury Day Cruise with Courage Charters pictured above, are a great way to see the sights of Key West in the most luxurious way possible
Hopping on a private charter in Key West gives you the same freedom and flexibility as a watercraft rental, but without having to do any of the work. With a knowledgeable and friendly captain and crew, you and your group won’t have anything to worry about, except who gets to jump in first!
Key West also offers a lot of unique and exciting private charters, as well. Luxurious yacht charters are a popular activity in the Keys, with some even including hors d’oeuvres and cocktails!
The Arbutus Wreck off of Key West is just one of many sunken ships in the area. Hosting a variety of marine life, shipwrecks make for excellent spots to scuba dive
If scuba diving is something you’ve always wanted to do, Key West, FL, is a great place to check it off of your bucket list! Take in the beautiful sights and sounds below the surface, and see why the area goes to such great lengths to preserve it. With beginner and advanced tour options available, diving in the Keys is possible for all skill levels!
According to a recent Traveler Story, snorkeling is a great way for couples to reconnect and spend quality time together
Key West, FL, is one of the most popular snorkeling destinations in the country, as it is home to the only living barrier reef in the continental U.S. This means that snorkeling not only allows you to see the incredible beauty of the reef, but also the amazing marine life that inhabits it. Cool critters you may see when snorkeling include:
- Tropical Fish
- Sea Stars
- Spiny Lobsters
- Sponge Gardens
Snorkeling trips come in a variety of forms, durations, and locations, meaning there is something for everyone. Whether you spend the day or just a couple hours snorkeling this submerged paradise, you’ll be happy you did!
Other Popular Key West Watersports Activities
Water-logged or just looking for something different? Try one of these other popular Key West activities, for even more fun in the sun!
From 300 feet in the air, there’s no telling what you’ll see when parasailing in Key West, FL
Get a bird’s eye view of the Florida Keys, and the best vacation selfie from above while parasailing. And just imagine the things you might see when looking down at the crystal-clear water! Be sure to keep an eye out for Flipper and friends!
Kayaking and Paddleboarding
With Key West’s beautiful water literally at your fingertips, kayaking through the keys is one of the best ways to truly get “in touch” with nature
If you’re wanting to get out on the water, but are looking for something more slow and steady, renting a kayak or paddleboard is the perfect choice! Get up-close-and-personal with Florida’s magnificent mangroves and incredible wildlife, for an experience like no other.
Waverunner & Boat Rentals
Zip and zoom across glass-like water for an adrenaline-pumping thrill like you’ve never experienced!
With incredible jet ski tour coupons, gliding across the smooth, glass-like water is as fun and affordable as ever. Not only do you get to see Key West from a different perspective, but waverunners are just so much fun, you won’t be able to stop smiling!
Boats, primarily pontoon boats, are also a popular choice for boat rentals in the Keys. Pontoons are easy to operate, hold over a dozen people, and can be used for a variety of activities including fishing and tubing.
Stunning, Serene, and Scenic Sunsets
They beauty of seeing a Key West sunset from a boat is almost indescribable, and definitely unmatched
Key West, Florida, is the pinnacle of fun in the sun, and with so much natural beauty to explore, boating through that beauty should be at the top of your Florida Keys bucket list! Whether you decide to captain your own vessel, or take it easy on a boat tour, you’ll be happy you decided to take advantage of this favorite Key West pastime.