Clearwater, Florida, sits on the state's Gulf Coast, about 30 minutes from Tampa. The area's pristine freshwater springs, rivers and lagoons have gained notoriety for their excellent snorkeling. Don a mask and fins, and ease into the mild water, and you'll be treated to close-up encounters with manatees, sea turtles and an abundance of other marine life.
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Where to Go
You have several snorkeling choices in and around Clearwater. Honeymoon Island State Park is just a short ride away on the Dunedin Causeway. You can snorkel just off the beaches on the island. Caladesi Island, just off the coast, is reachable by boat from Honeymoon Island State Park. Here, too, you can walk right off the beach to snorkel. At Egmont Key State Park, you can rent snorkel gear on the beach before heading into the water, where you can explore the underwater ruins of Spanish American War-era Fort Dade. You can get here by ferry from Hubbard's Marina in Fort DeSoto State Park. And the Crystal and Homosassa rivers, just outside of town, are known for their abundance of manatees.
What to Bring
You'll need a snorkel, mask and fins for any snorkeling trip. You should wear a bathing suit and consider wearing a rash guard or snug shirt to keep the sun off your back. Always wear sunscreen, too; the sun can quickly damage your skin as you float at the water's surface. Most water in Florida is warm or mild year-round so you likely won't need a wetsuit. If you are snorkeling in one of the rivers, though, you'll want a wetsuit, as these waterways tend to run a little chilly.
What to See
You'll see a wide variety of marine life in these areas. Sea turtles, dolphins, sting rays, tarpon, sheepshead and giant groupers are common sightings along the Gulf Coast. And, of course, in the Crystal and Homosassa rivers, manatees are the highlight. Hundreds of West Indian manatees congregate in these rivers from November to March.
What to Consider
When entering the water along Gulf Coast beaches, be sure to shuffle your feet as you walk. This scares away any sting rays that might be lurking in the sand; otherwise, they may sting you. Florida outlaws the harassing of marine mammals, like manatees. You can swim close to them, but you cannot feed or touch these slow-moving creatures.