When you think of tropical paradises, you might not immediately think of the Best Florida Panhandle Snorkeling. But this region offers much for beach lovers (and snorkelers) who want to enjoy the warm waters and the soft, white sands.
The Florida panhandle has some of the finest beaches in the country and some of the best snorkeling spots too. You can compare them with other famous snorkeling destinations in Florida, like the Florida Keys, and you won’t be disappointed. And the best part is, you can reach this amazing place by driving less than a day from many parts of the country.
If you’re not looking for busy amusement parks or wild nightlife (which are fine but not our focus here!), you’ll have a great time in places like Destin, Panama City, or Pensacola, where you can relax on the beach and explore the underwater world.
There are so many places to snorkel in this area that you might feel overwhelmed by the choices. But don’t worry; we’re here to help you find the best snorkeling spots in the Florida panhandle for your trip. Not all of them are worth your time, and some might surprise you.
But don’t be afraid — we’ll show you where to find the best snorkeling spots in the Florida panhandle for your trip.
Where Is The Panhandle In Florida for Snorkeling?
The Florida Panhandle is the northwestern part of the U.S. state of Florida. It is a salient roughly 200 miles long, bordered by Alabama on the north and the west, Georgia on the north, and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. Its major communities include Pensacola, Destin, Panama City Beach, and Tallahassee. The eastern boundary of the Panhandle is arbitrarily defined¹. The geographic meaning of the term is inexact and elastic.
The Florida Panhandle is known for its conservative politics, Christianity adherence, and “piney woods” ¹. The largest city in the Panhandle is Tallahassee, the state capital. The total population of the Panhandle, as of the 2010 Census, was 1,407,925, just under 7.5% of Florida’s total population as recorded in the same census. At roughly 70 persons per square mile, its population density is less than one-fifth of Florida’s. Here is Florida Panhandle Map link.
7 Best Florida Panhandle Snorkeling & Scuba Diving
Some of the top snorkeling spots in the Florida panhandle are Henderson Beach State Park, East Pass Jetty and Norriego Point near Destin, Pensacola Beach Gulf Snorkel Reef near Pensacola, Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary near Navarre, and St. Andrews State Park and Shell Island near Panama City.
We’ll give you a detailed overview of each Panhandle Florida spot and what you need to know to have a blast.
1. Henderson Beach State Park (Destin)
Henderson Beach State Park near Destin is a stunning place to visit even before entering the water.
You’ll be greeted by 30-foot white dunes that contrast with the emerald waters along more than a mile of coastline that is usually not too crowded.
For several reasons, Henderson Beach is one of the best snorkeling spots in the Florida panhandle.
First, it’s convenient to access but relatively quiet, which is a big plus. You can easily drive to the parking lot, grab your gear, walk down the beach, and dive into the water. And, since it’s a state park, the people there are usually more relaxed and interested in nature than at your typical public beach.
Next, the water is amazing. The temperature is perfect and refreshing (usually 75-80 degrees most of the year). The water is usually very clear and a beautiful emerald color thanks to the sun reflecting off the white sand under the waves. Since it’s a sandy-bottom area, you won’t see a lot of coral or other natural marine structures, but you’ll see plenty of fish and other sea life, like dolphins, if you’re lucky.
Finally, it’s all about the sea turtles! Henderson Beach State Park is an important nesting site for loggerhead sea turtles, so you might see them swimming by in the water, especially in the summer months.
This makes the park one of the best snorkeling spots in the Florida panhandle near Destin. Still, if you want to try something different, Henderson Beach is also great for camping, hiking, fishing, and biking, with restrooms and showers available.
Henderson Beach State Park charges $6 per vehicle for up to 8 people to enter and is open from 8 am to sundown every day of the year.
2. East Pass Jetty (Destin)
On the other side, the East Pass Jetty (and its counterpart, the Destin West Jetty) is one of the most popular places to snorkel near Destin, and it’s easy to see why. The East Pass Jetty is one of the best snorkeling spots in the Florida panhandle in the area.
The jetties are artificial rock walls built to protect the nearby inlet from currents, tides, sediment, etc. Still, they also have another benefit: they provide a great habitat for marine life.
The rocks give colorful fish, crabs, octopuses, and more a nice place to live with some shelter, but they also have coral growing on them over time, creating a thriving reef ecosystem.
The jetties also block many waves from reaching their far sides, so it can be a nice, calm place to snorkel and swim, which is especially helpful for those new to snorkeling.
You can get to the East Pass Jetty by car and on foot (park at the O’Steen Public Beach Access [map] and walk south). From there, find a spot with easy entry into the water near the rocks on the north side of the jetty, put on your gear, and enjoy.
Easy beach access to snorkeling is always great, but it is also a fairly large area, and the equally great Destin West Jetty across the inlet is no longer accessible by car or on foot. Plus, some of the best snorkeling spots are only reachable by boat, so a snorkeling tour is a good idea.
Most snorkel tours from the Destin area will stop near East Pass Jetty, and one of our favorite tours is the snorkel and dolphin sightseeing tour with Beach Weekend Marina (here on Viator).
We love being able to both experience some of the best snorkeling in the Florida panhandle near Destin and see dolphins (bottlenose dolphins are very common in the area), plus the guides and boat staff know the area well, which gives us an advantage over doing it ourselves. They also do a great job with kids and snorkelers of different experience levels, so this is a great tour, no matter your group dynamic.
3. Norriego Point (Destin)
Norriego Point is on the northwest corner of Holiday Isle, while the East Pass Jetty (above) is on the southwest corner, so they are very close. That means they have many of the same advantages but also some differences.
Some similarities are that they are in a very similar location (of course), the jetties and the point protect the water, so the water is usually very calm. There are a lot of fish (even some bigger ones like tarpon, wahoo, grouper, or mahi mahi) to see near the shore. You can also easily walk into the water and see plenty of fish.
The main difference is what the area is made of and how it affects snorkeling. Instead of being made entirely of big rocks like the East Pass Jetty, Norriego Point is a natural sand peninsula. The downside is that there are fewer places for fish to hide and coral to grow (but you’ll still see plenty of fish), but the upside is that there’s a wonderful beach here, along with some of the best snorkeling in the Florida panhandle.
If you have to choose between East Pass Jetty and Norriego Point, I will pick East Pass Jetty if you’re looking for the best snorkeling between the two, or Norriego Point if you also want a great place to relax and spend a morning or afternoon with some still-great snorkeling.
Snorkel tours also visit the waters near Norriego Point, so the snorkeling and dolphin-watching tour (Viator) mentioned under East Pass Jetty will also help you get better access to this area.
4. Pensacola Beach Gulf Snorkel Reef (Pensacola)
In 2011, the local government installed an artificial reef about 500 feet offshore of Park East, just southeast of Pensacola, to restore the lost reefs in the area. That’s great — artificial reefs are helping marine ecosystems worldwide — but they also provide excellent snorkeling opportunities where there may not have been before.
And that’s the case with Pensacola Beach Gulf Snorkel Reef, which is certainly some of the best Florida panhandle snorkeling.
This one is for stronger swimmers and more experienced snorkelers since the reef is about 500 feet offshore into the Gulf of Mexico, as mentioned, and in somewhat deeper water. But, if that describes you, the artificial reef is a fantastic opportunity to experience a living reef in the Florida panhandle with tons of fish and even small sharks, sea turtles, and the occasional passing dolphin pod.
Finding the reef is easy by the orange-topped locator poles on the beach at the easternmost tip of Park East (map). Just line up with those and swim roughly 500 feet straight out from the beach, and you’ll reach the reef (it’s quite large, so it’s hard to miss).
(If you’re a less experienced snorkeler who might feel uncomfortable swimming out into the gulf, there’s also the Pensacola Beach Bay Snorkel Reef on the island’s bay side where the Gulf Snorkel Reef is anchored. You’ll still want to be a strong swimmer since the waters are typically 7-10 feet deep, but the waters will usually be much calmer at the Bay Snorkel Reef. To find it, park at the Fort Pickens Road parking lot (map), head straight north to the beach, and look for the orange pole markers.)
5. Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary (Navarre)
The Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary covers 150 acres. It has 3 complexes of artificial reef systems along the sands of Santa Rosa Island, and as you might expect, they’re also some of the best snorkeling spots in the Florida panhandle you can find in the area.
The reefs are becoming well established and attract fish, crabs, cephalopods (like octopuses), and some sea turtles with easy access from the beach. Two reef systems are built off the island’s northern sound coast, with another on the opposite southern gulf side.
The marine park is also well-developed and much better for a family day than most areas. The park has plenty of facilities like picnic areas, bathrooms and showers, kayak launches, and the like, and it even has an on-site sea turtle conservation center and a marine science education center, both great for kids.
One of the unique things about Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary is that if you change it up a bit from snorkeling, a clear-bottom kayak is a lot of fun to take over the reefs. Especially at night, which is exactly what Glow Paddle’s night glow kayak tour (on Viator) does. It’s a blast.
Navarre Beach also boasts Florida’s longest pier at 1,545 feet long, where you can rent fishing gear and buy bait to catch a fish dinner in the waters off the pier.
If you don’t have your snorkel gear, you can rent what you need from the concessions in the park, and several lifeguard towers along the waters may help newer snorkelers feel more comfortable.
6. St. Andrews State Park (Panama City)
St. Andrews State Park is one of the nicest parks along the coast of the Florida panhandle, and luckily, it also has some of the best snorkeling in the Florida panhandle near Panama City.
The park is located between St. Andrews Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. It is divided into two parts: the main part of the park (open from 8 am until sundown, 365 days a year, with an entry fee of $8/vehicle), which you can easily drive to, and Shell Island (covered in the next section), which you can only reach by boat.
On the main side of St. Andrews State Park (the focus of this section), the best snorkeling is along its jetties at the southernmost point of the main park area. The jetty system is huge, with plenty of structures for fish and other marine life to gather around, and the water depth is shallow (usually around 3-15 feet), so it’s easy to feel like you’re part of the habitat.
It’s also easy to get into the water off the jetty (once you enter the park, follow the signs to get there) and have a great experience exploring the rocks alongside diverse marine life in clear water. But, like the East Pass Jetty above, some of the best spots are in hidden places and other spots that are easier to get to with a boat, so a snorkel tour of the area is a good option if you want a top-level experience.
Most snorkel tours from the Panama City area will go through the St. Andrews waters, and our favorite one is the snorkel and dolphin sightseeing tour with Captain Zach (at Viator).
Captain Zach does a fantastic job putting all of the different parts of the tour together (snorkeling, boating, dolphin watching, etc.) to make for a really fun trip, and his ability to find where the resident bottlenose dolphins are hanging out that day is particularly impressive. I’m big on snorkeling and dolphins (who isn’t?), so this is a no-brainer for us.
If you have a slightly larger group or want more autonomy, B By The Sea Adventures’ snorkel and dolphin tour with Captain Brittany (here on Viator) is also well-executed, but instead with your private boat and the ability to adjust the itinerary to what you want to see most.
7. Shell Island (Panama City)
The other “half” of St. Andrews State Park is Shell Island, just across an inlet into St. Andrews Bay from the park’s main area, and it offers a completely different experience than the jetties on the west side.
Shell Island is a 7-mile long undeveloped barrier island with wide beaches and lots of nature that feels away from the shiny condos of Panama City. There are many places to snorkel, kayak, hike, and plenty else to satisfy your nature itch. Sea turtles and bottlenose dolphins are often seen here as well.
The best snorkeling on Shell Island is at the west end of its jetty structure, tucked back behind a point facing the Gulf of Mexico. Not only can you see a ton of marine life off the jetty, but its protected position means the water is much calmer and great for various snorkelers.
Shell Island is only reachable by boat, which means you either need to take the Shell Island Shuttle (a ferry for which you can buy tickets at the park’s concessions area and which also provides snorkel rentals if you need it) or take a tour.
If we have the time, we always like to take a tour because the local knowledge of the guides is always going to beat our best guesses about an area, and I like Island Time Sailing’s snorkel and dolphin catamaran cruise to Shell Island (here on Viator). The crew is awesome, the boat is high energy, and you’ll be able to sneak in some snorkeling and dolphin-watching before the drinks start getting passed around ????. It’s not a bad way to do some of the best snorkeling in the Florida panhandle near Panama City.
Tips For The Best Florida Panhandle Snorkeling Experience
To have the best snorkeling experience in the Florida panhandle, you must know some tips and tricks to make your trip more enjoyable and memorable.
Some of the tips are:
Choose the right season. The best time to snorkel in the Florida panhandle is from May to October when the water temperature is warm, and the visibility is good. Avoid the winter months, when the water is cold and choppy, and the summer months, when the water can be murky due to algae blooms.
Choose the right spot. The Florida panhandle has many snorkeling spots to choose from, but not all of them are equally good. Some of the best spots are:
- Henderson Beach State Park near Destin, where you can see sea turtles and dolphins in clear water and sandy bottom.
- East Pass Jetty near Destin, where you can see a variety of fish and coral on an artificial reef.
- Norriego Point is near Destin, where you can see colorful fish and octopuses on a natural sand peninsula.
- Pensacola Beach Gulf Snorkel Reef is near Pensacola, where you can see a thriving artificial reef with fish, crabs, and small sharks.
- Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary near Navarre, where you can see a complex of artificial reefs with fish, crabs, and cephalopods.
- St. Andrews State Park is near Panama City, where you can see a huge jetty system with fish, coral, and sea turtles.
- Shell Island near Panama City, where you can see a pristine barrier island with fish, coral, and dolphins.
Choose the right gear. It would be best to have a good snorkel mask, tube, and fins to snorkel comfortably and safely. You can bring your gear or rent it from local shops or tours. Wear a wetsuit or rash guard to protect yourself from the sun and jellyfish stings.
Choose the right tour. If you want a guided snorkeling experience with local experts, you can join one of the many snorkeling tours available in the area. Some of the best tours are:
- Snorkel and dolphin sightseeing tour with Island Time Sailing near Destin, where you can snorkel near East Pass Jetty or Norriego Point and see dolphins on a catamaran cruise.
- Snorkel and dolphin sightseeing tour with Captain Zach near Panama City, where you can snorkel near St. Andrews State Park or Shell Island and see dolphins on a boat tour.
- Night glow kayak tour with Glow Paddle near Navarre, where you can kayak over the reefs at Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary with clear-bottom kayaks that glow in the dark.
The Florida panhandle is so easy to reach from many parts of the U.S., and it’s a great spot for a winter (or any other season) getaway. But, many visitors only focus on the soft white sand beaches and chill vibes (both great!), yet don’t know that the area’s jetties, artificial reefs, and state parks are also great for snorkeling.
However, with the information from this article, you’ll be well prepared with knowledge on the best spots, times to go, and local tours to experience the best Florida panhandle snorkeling you can.