Exploring the Florida Keys by personal watercraft

The Florida Keys are a bit of a hidden gem. Sure, Florida is a well known, and much loved, tourist destination, but the Keys dangle at he far southern end, stretching out into the sea, forming a barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Many travelers never make it that far south, preferring to stop in the theme park that is Orlando or maybe wander down to Miami for the never ending beach party there.

Those who do make the trip south along scenic U.S. Highway 1 will be treated to quite a destination. The Keys are a fantastic mix of deep south hospitality and Caribbean charm that blends well to give the place its own unique feel. The islands have a laid back vibe that is quite contagious, and after just a day or two, you’ll be shopping for real estate and contemplating making a permanent move.

The more than 1700 islands that make up the Keys are sprinkled throughout the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a 2800-square nautical mile area that stretches from the Atlantic to the Bay of Florida, and on to the Gulf itself. The Sanctuary boasts the third largest barrier reef in the world, and the only one of its kind in North America. It also happens to be home to more than 1800 different species of plants and animals, including sprawling fields of seagrass and thick copses of mangrove trees surrounded by beautiful deep blue waters.

The Marine Sanctuary is a place that begs to be explored, both above and below the water, and on a recent visit to the Keys, I was introduced to the perfect way to take in the sights there. Aboard a personal watercraft, aka a “jet ski”, visitors to the Sanctuary are able to gain access to places that are typically unreachable by any other means. The small, but powerful, vehicles are quick and agile in tight quarters, but really fast on the open water, and best of all, they’re simply a blast to ride. Especially in a setting as amazing as the Keys.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Aren’t those personal watercraft incredibly bad for the environment? That was my first thought as well, and I wondered how they could possibly be allowed to operate inside a marine sanctuary. As it turns out, the PWC industry has seen some major technological advancements in recent years, and they are now one of the most environmentally friendly vehicles out on the water. In fact, today’s jet ski is 90% cleaner than the ones that were built a decade ago and they’re 70% quieter as well. The results are a fast and fun machine that is safe to take into even protected waters.

Just how environmentally friendly are these new watercraft? They’re so good that the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has joined forces with the Personal Watercraft Industry Association to create the Blue Rider Ocean Awareness and Stewardship Program, which looks to raise awareness of environmental and ocean conservation efforts throughout the Keys and beyond. The program works directly with tour operators throughout the region, encouraging them to share their sustainable tourism approach with their customers while also introducing them to the incredibly beautiful, yet still fragile, Keys environments.

With all of this in mind, I was all set to hit the water and for my first excursion into the National Marine Sanctuary, I would be riding through the waters off Key West, the southernmost island in the chain. Enlisting a guide from Barefoot Billy’s, a local jet ski tour operator, and following a brief orientation on my watercraft, we were soon off on an early evening ride that would cover 27 miles, completely circling the island. Along the way, we made brief stops at a few points of interest, including a nearby Naval base and a private island with massive homes starting at $5 million.

Our guide also took us out onto the open water, and with a bit of familiarization with the watercraft, we were soon zipping across the waves at speeds approaching 50 mph. The PWC’s were very responsive and easy to maneuver, even as we crossed under one of the mile long bridges of U.S. Highway 1 and out into the Atlantic Ocean, where the choppier waters introduced an exciting new element to the ride. Hitting incoming waves at higher speeds caused the jet skis to catch plenty of air, making an already great ride all the more exhilarating. At times we would fly several feet into the air, skipping from one wave to the next. The Yamaha Waverunners we were riding certainly lived up to their names.

Despite the intense experience of the open water however, the highlight of the cruise was a decidedly low speed affair. The best part of the ride was when we cut the throttle back to idle levels, and simply drifted through the natural pathways that lead to the interior of the mangroves, which grow up out of the oceans themselves. Surrounded by those lush trees on all sides, while deftly navigating the waterways, was a sublime experience, and one that left a smile on my face long after we returned to shore for the evening.

Following my heart-thumping introduction to the Keys on the back of a personal watercraft, I was more than hooked and eager for more. So, the next day we made the 70 mile drive north along scenic Highway 1 to the lovely island of Islamorada, where we grabbed yet another set of Waverunners. This time our PWC’s were provided by a local rental service called Extreme Sports Florida Keys, and after filling out all the necessary paperwork, and once again getting acquainted with the vehicle, we set out for a completely different kind of experience from the one we had the night before.

Sure, it was still loads of high speed fun out on those amazingly blue waters, but this time we really left the town behind and rode into the very heart of the marine sanctuary. Maneuvering our watercraft around a number of small islands, we once again, slipped into the lush mangrove trees, which were more dense in this area, creating an actual covered tunnel to float under. While we drifted under the thick canopy of those branches, a variety of birds hung overhead and at one point a sea turtle paddled by, barely taking notice of our presence.

The waters surrounding Islamorada offered a bit more diversity than those around Key West. At times, they were just 1.5 feet in depth, which further demonstrated the PWC’s ability to reach places where much larger, and more ponderous, boats couldn’t go. This gave us access to some beautiful, yet remote, coral reefs, and with the water so clear, we could cut the engines and drift, while fish swam all about us. At one point I even had three nurse sharks pass directly beneath my jet ski, which was yet one more spectacular experience in a day filled with them.

After skimming across the calm waters to the west, we once again passed under the highway and entered the Atlantic Ocean, where we slalomed over the rougher waves for a time, before our guide gave us the signal to cut our engines and come to a stop. He then instructed us to pop open the storage compartments on the front of our watercraft, where we were delighted to discover he had stowed snorkeling gear for each of us. Moments later, we were fitting the masks to our faces and hopping off our Waverunners into the warm ocean waters. We then proceeded to spend the next 20 minutes, or so, exploring a colorful reef teeming with marine life. When we were finished, we simply scrambled back aboard our little water vehicles, re-stowed our masks and snorkels, and raced off once again.

Eventually, and very reluctantly I might add, we returned to shore, bringing an end to another aquatic adventure. But both rides through the Keys provided exciting and unique experiences that gave me the opportunity to visit the amazing environments there in an unusual and very unexpected way. Believe it or not, the personal watercraft not only deliver an exhilarating ride, but also allow you to get closer to nature than you might have ever thought possible. They truly are an outstanding way to explore the Keys, and I highly recommend the experience.