With an average of 361 days of sunshine each year, St. Pete Beach can almost guarantee visitors a sunny vacation. About an hour west of Tampa, the beach lies on a small barrier island along the west coast of Florida. Snorkelers enjoy swimming over the grass flats that dot the ocean floor at a number of spots off the coast. These grass flats play host to a variety of species, from tiny sea horses to large manatees, and offer visitors an up-close look at the majestic underwater world. Forget about land and grab a mask, snorkel and fins to explore this underwater playground.
Sand Dollar Payoff
Shell Key Preserve, a small breakwater island less than half a mile from the southernmost point of St. Pete Beach, is known by locals as an excellent place to search for the ubiquitous sand dollars that dot the sandy bottom. Other shellfish, such as sea urchins, whelks and scallops, are also residents and are sure to make an appearance as you glide just feet from the bottom in the shallow, protected waters of the key. The secluded preserve is only accessible by boat, with the nearest boat ramp located in Ft. De Soto Park.
A Fort for the Fish
Explore the land-based ruins of the fort at Egmont Key State Park, then continue past the water’s edge to snorkel along the fort’s submerged, crumbling foundation. These structures provide an excellent habitat for schools of colorful fish, and dolphins have been known to frequent the area as well. Because Egmont Key lies in a channel and is subject to offshore currents, it is advisable to stick to the protected southern side of the island, where visibility is better and the conditions are safer. Catch the ferry from St. Pete Beach and spend the day snorkeling along this historic site.
Snorkel along 3 miles of shoreline at Fort De Soto Park in Tierra Verde to see crabs skitter in and out of hiding and schools of mullet swimming between grass flats. The area is also home to sea turtle nesting grounds, so keep your eyes peeled for these beautiful creatures as you fin your way through the waters. Pay a small permit fee to park along the beach, and walk right out to the water for a day of snorkeling amongst the wildlife that calls this area home.
A Sea of Grass
Due to its location on the eastern, or bay side of St. Pete Beach, the grass flats of Boca Ciega Bay Aquatic Preserve in Terra Ceia differ from other sites around St. Pete Beach. These waters tend to be a little warmer and a bit calmer than those on the Gulf side, and while visibility can be more restricted, the payoff is that these grass flats are home to resident manatees. While Florida law prohibits touching these endearing creatures, you can still get close enough to enjoy an excellent view of these mammals as they go about the ponderous business of filling their expansive bellies. The marine grasses also play host to a variety of sea life, such as crabs and conch, and you can float above colorful coral and oyster bars.
- Ned DeLoach’s Underwater Florida; Ned DeLoach
- Pinellas County, Florida: Shell Key Preserve
- Florida State Parks: Egmont Key
- Pinellas County, Florida: Fort De Soto Park
- Florida Department of Environmental Protection: Boca Ciega Bay Aquatic Preserve and Pinellas County Aquatic Preserve
- Trade Winds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach: Beaches
- Rich Patterson/iStock/Getty Images