Know Before You Go
The Florida Keys' surrounding waters are protected by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, extending from south of Miami westward to encompass the Dry Tortugas, excluding Dry Tortugas National Park. FKNMS has spectacular and unique resources such as coral reefs, shipwrecks, seagrass beds and fisheries that are the source of commercial and recreational activities like diving, fishing and boating.
This page is designed to help provide visitor with simple, sea smart and safe boating and reef etiquette tips, as well as share informational resources to better acquaint first-time and repeat pleasure boaters with on-the-water guidelines and important features of protected Florida Keys waterways.
Boating in the Florida Keys can be complicated, especially for first-time visitors navigating shallow island waters.
The sustained health of the Florida Keys is vital. Disturbance and direct impacts, including damage by boat propellers, groundings, turbidity, and water quality, are major contributing factors to declines in habitat essential for birds, fish and other animals.
This free online course provides information for responsible boating and stewardship, and highlights relevant rules and regulations.
Image by Nancy Diersing, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
One of our most precious natural ecosystems is the coral reef that parallels the Florida Keys — the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States.
Mooring buoys help make protecting this resource possible with a system of 18-inch diameter blue-striped buoy markers that boaters can tie off to, and avoid damaging the coral reef with anchors.
Since 1981, the Florida Key National Marine Sanctuary has maintained more than 470 mooring buoys in an effort to avoid breakage and damage to the reef formations.
These buoys mark various locations of artificial reefs, sanctuary preservation areas (SPA), shipwreck trail sites and more. There is no fee to use these mooring buoys.
How to Use a Mooring Buoy
(courtesy of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary)
- Buoys are available on a first come, first served basis.
- Steer the boat from a helm station that enables you to see the buoy during the entire hook up.
- Approach slowly from down wind or down current, so that the floating yellow pick-up line is closest to you. Keep the buoy on the same side as the helm station so you can see it as you approach.
- Safely retrieve the yellow pick-up line with a boat hook. Put your vessel in neutral to avoid entanglement.
- Run your boat's bow line through the loop of the yellow pick-up line. Cleat both ends of your bow line to the bow of your boat. Never tie the yellow pick-up line directly to your boat as it puts undue stress on the mooring anchor.
- Let out enough line so that the buoy is not pulled underwater and the line is horizontal. Rougher days may require even more line. Adding extra line will produce a more comfortable experience for your vessel while moored and reduce wear on the buoy system.
- Inspect the buoy your boat is tied to; you are responsible for your vessel. Check that it is holding as intended and report problems to any of the sanctuary offices.
Click here for a map of buoys within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Tips for Fishermen & Boaters
(courtesy of Reef Relief)
- Practice good seamanship, and safe boating. Maintain a safe distance from other fishermen, and divers. Do not troll over or near divers. Stay at least 100 feet from a red and white diver down flag and watch for bubbles.
- Know and observe size and catch limits; release any fish you can't eat. Florida law requires a fishing license. Applicable size, bag limits, and seasons must be observed when harvesting seafood. NOTE: Avoid throwing fish carcasses and wrung lobsters overboard or into canals, as they decompose and degrade water quality.
- Use reef mooring buoys if available. Otherwise, anchor in sandy areas away from coral and seagrasses so that anchor and chain do not drag or grate on nearby corals or tear-up seagrass beds.
- Accidental boat groundings damage the reef. Consult tide and navigational charts and steer clear of shallow areas (shallow, seagrass beds appear brown in color). Accidental boat groundings damage coral and seagrasses, and fines are imposed for such damage. Remember, "Brown, brown, run aground. Blue, blue, sail on through."
- Avoid disturbing wildlife, harassing fish and invertebrates; it only makes them wary of people.
- Keep boating speeds and noise to a minimum, and avoid boat wakes near isolated mangroves. When in a diving area, slow down to an idle speed.
- It is illegal to dump trash at sea; plastic bags and other debris can injure or kill marine animals. Try to retrieve fishing gear and equipment, especially monofilament line. Bring your trash back to shore and recycle it.
- Camping, campfires, and collecting of any kind is prohibited on all National Wildlife Refuges. Personal watercraft and airboats are prohibited in all National Parks and Wildlife Refuges in the Florida Keys.
Learn More About Florida Keys Fishing
Boat ramp at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (Photo courtesy of Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation)
Florida Public Boat Ramp Finder — Select "Monroe" from the County dropdown menu to find public boat ramps in the Florida Keys.
Florida Boating Regulations — Learn more about waterway speeds, vessel registrations, requirements for personal watercraft, updated information about boating safety, divers-down and marker systems.
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Boater Education Course — Developed specifically for the Florida Keys, this free online course provides information for responsible boating and stewardship, and highlights relevant rules and regulations.
Tips for Snowbirds & Annual Boaters During High Boating Season
(courtesy of Sea Tow Services International and Reef Relief)
- Do annual maintenance. Make sure your maintenance is up to date. The manufacturer's recommendation is to service the engine "at 100 hours or annually, whichever comes first" whether you do it yourself or take it to a dealer or service shop.
- Inspect the water pump. If the pump has dried out or the impeller has disintegrated or is broken, the next time you run it may cause severe damage. It is recommended to start every (boating) season with a new one.
- Check the fuel filter. If sitting unused for three months or longer, today's ethanol-enhanced fuel can precipitate out water. Remove the filter and pour some fuel into a cup to inspect it. Remove any water from your tank and change the filter.
- Top off the batteries. Use distilled water, not tap water. Sun and heat in the south can evaporate water in the batteries quickly. Clean and tighten all terminals. Start your engine and let it warm up to be sure it has a good charge before leaving the boat ramp or dock.
- Maintain your trailer. Avoid a blowout from an under inflated tire, by checking the tire pressure. Re-grease the hubs or buddy bearings annually. Remember to put the drain plug back in before launching it on the water.
- Inspect your life saving equipment. Inspect and/or replace any expired flares, fire extinguishers, damaged life jackets. Keep plenty of PFD's on board, including extras for guests and sizes that can fit children.
- Use sewage pump-out facility and biodegradable bilge cleaner and never discharge bilge water at the reef.
- If you run aground; immediately turn the engine off, and tilt it up if possible. Do not try to motor off. Wait until high tide to remove the vessel. Call for assistance when necessary.
- Before heading out, check weather conditions. Strong winds and rough seas can result in poor visibility and reduce safe interaction at the reef.
Did you know the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has determined that a paddleboard is a vessel in most situations and is required to have the same safety equipment as other small human-powered vessels (canoes/kayaks)?
Click here to learn more about safety equipment for paddleboards.
Blue Star Program
Recreational divers and snorkelers can use a Blue Star-recognized dive operator/charter, a designation that ensures the operator is dedicated to coral reef education and actively involved with conservation-related activities.
Blue Star operators also promote responsible tourism and teach divers and snorkelers in-water etiquette, including practicing good buoyancy, taking care in placement of hands and fins and avoiding touching or standing on coral. Blue Star–rated operator vessels display a decal with the Blue Star logo and current calendar year.
A Blue Star Fishing Guides program also recognizes charter boat captains who are committed to sustainable fishing and educating their customers about resource protection in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The voluntary training and compliance program seeks to increase fishing guides’ knowledge and, ultimately, that of their clients, to conserve the unique marine ecosystem of the Florida Keys.
There are things you can do in and on the water to minimize impact to the reef while enjoying its beauty. Here are seven tips:
- Don't stand or rest on coral — if you need to adjust your gear, float on your back or in a seated postion. If you need to stand, return to your boat.
- Maintain buoyancy — streamline gear, and use proper dive posture, with feet elevated slightly above the head.
- Secure all equipment — make sure it does not come in contact with the reef. Avoid wearing gloves in coral reef environments.
- Keep your distance — maintain a comfortable distance, and avoid very shallow areas, especially at entry and exit points.
- Leave marine life alone — do not touch, handle, feed or ride marine life. You are in their home.
- Keep the reef at the reef — animals or corals from the reef are not souvenirs. Remember, it is illegal to harvest coral in Florida.
- Look but don't touch — even a minor brush with a hand, fins or other dive and snorkel equipment can damage sensitive corals.
Lend a Hand
Human garbage is one of the greatest threats to marine wildlife. If you see refuse in the water or on the reef such as plastic bags, floating debris, monofilament line or other litter, please bring it aboard your boat and recycle or discard on land.
Frequently Asked Questions