Snorkeling Sanibel Island: The 7 Best Spots for 2023

By Josh

With hundreds of miles of beaches, annual sunshine, and a Latin infusion, Florida is a popular vacation destination for tourists and international travelers, but did you know the Sunshine State is home to some of the best snorkeling spots in the United States? The underrated Sanibel Island is only a short drive from Fort Myers and boasts some of the richest diversity of sealife in America. In this article, we reveal the seven most popular spots for snorkeling in Sanibel Island.

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The idyllic destination has 15 miles of unspoiled coastline and boasts white sand beaches and turquoise, translucent waters. The island boasts warm weather and clear skies for large parts of the year, while Sanibel’s isolated location means that snorkelers can enjoy uninterrupted fun in its underwater playground.

If you are looking for the best places to snorkel in Sanibel Island, Florida, you have come to the right place. The Gulf of Mexico is home to over 1,400 species of fish, and Sanibel Island is the perfect place to get up close with your favorite marine wildlife. The sun-kissed waters around Sanibel and Captiva are not the best to support natural coral growth, but man-made structures have been introduced to restock marine wildlife and act as coastal defenses. A network of over 12 artificial reefs and a collection of sunken ships can be found near the island, making it a haven for snorkeling and scuba diving.

Bowman’s Beach

Snorkeling at Sanibel Island
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Bowman’s Beach is one of the most popular beaches in Sanibel and offers a tranquil escape from some of the more developed parts of the island. The expansive carpet of immaculate sand stretches along the coastline and is uniquely littered with beautiful shells. The waters adjacent to Bowman’s picturesque beach are ideal for snorkeling and widely regarded as one of the best places to snorkel on Sanibel Island.

The waters are crystal clear and perfect for spying on the wide selection of exotic fish who live in the area. Named after a local fishing guide, the man-made, Belton Johnson Reef is located five nautical miles from Bowman’s Beach and is home to an array of sea creature families. The artificial reef can be accessed via a short boat trip and offers spectacular underwater views for snorkeling enthusiasts. Look out for the yellow and white marker that signposts the Belton Johnson reef.

If you prefer a day on dry land, the beach is open from 7 am-7 pm and is famous for its shelling. Low tide provides access to some of the best seashells in the Gulf. Bowman’s Beach is a protected area. It allows visitors to forget about the chaos and hubbub of the real world. It has public picnic tables, BBQ grills, bathrooms, outdoor showers, and changing rooms. The beach also provides an unsurpassed viewpoint for one of the most spectacular sunsets in Southwest Florida.

USS Mohawk

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The USS Mohawk was a historic U.S. naval boat that operated during WWII. After launching in 1934, the 165-foot ship served in the North Atlantic and survived 14 attacks from German U-boats. It even heroically rescued 300 survivors from a sinking ship. Decades later, it became a museum and memorial for naval battles fought in the Atlantic, in Key West, Florida. But In 2012, the USS Mohawk was retired and sunk in 90 feet of water, becoming the first military vessel and artificial reef to be dedicated to U.S. veterans.

The legendary boat quickly became a prominent diving site and one of the most popular reefs in Sanibel. While the area is a good snorkel location, divers have expressed delight in being able to find whale sharks and giant sea turtles in the deeper waters around the USS Mohawk.

When it was time to rest on the seabed, six tactically placed charges were used to sink the USS Mohawk in an upright position. This fantastic location is essential for any snorkel or diving fans traveling to Southwest Florida. The military vessel is located 28 nautical miles from Sanibel Island, and you will need to board a charter or rent a private boat to find it. Deans Dive Center regularly travel to this shipwreck.

Cayo Costa

Snorkeling at Sanibel Island
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Cayo Costa is a nearby resident of Sanibel Island. It has its own nine miles of pristine coast, and due to its remote location, Cayo Costa reserves more privacy for its guests. The Cayo Costa State Park is only accessible via water. Most people rent a boat or board one of the charter ferry boats from the Sanibel and Captiva Islands, such as Captiva Cruises or Sanibel Cruises.

This isolated paradise is one of the best snorkeling options in and around Sanibel Island, Florida. The clear blue waters provide excellent viewing of the local underwater wildlife. Previous visitors have expressed delight in finding trout, pompano, sheepshead, starfish, and schools of whitebait. But if you’re lucky, dolphins have also been known to frequent in Cayo Costa. Stingrays and manatees often swim in the area too.

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If you are planning a trip to Cayo Costa, make sure you bring supplies. There are no restaurants on the island, no equipment shops, and no wifi – so any insta-worthy photos will have to be uploaded when you get back to Sanibel. The best time to snorkel in Cayo Costa is when there have been a few dry days – this will improve visibility. We suggest that April and May will provide the best underwater conditions.

It’s not uncommon to bump into a snake on the island, but they are not likely to bother you if you leave them alone. Just in case, here’s a guide on six venomous snakes in Florida. 

Captiva Island

Snorkeling at Sanibel Island
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Captiva Island is the neighbor to Sanibel and is another essential checkpoint on the snorkeling tour of Southwest Florida. Legend has it that pirates once walked the island, and there are still plenty of treasures to be found on your trip to Captiva. This relaxing location is only an hour’s drive from Fort Myers but feels like its own private retreat.

To make the most out of your snorkeling in Captiva, we recommend visiting either Turner Beach or Blind Pass Beach. The waters provide the same brilliant conditions as Bowman’s and Cayo Costa, and the nearby reef attracts a hoard of marine wildlife. Regional fish can include barracuda, moray eels, grouper, amberjack, and nurse sharks.

Another highlight on Captiva Island is the Redfish Pass – the stretch of water that separates the North and South Captiva islands. It was created naturally from a Hurricane in 1921 and is among the most popular fishing sites in South Florida, particularly for sports fishing. It earns its name from the abundance of redfish that have been caught in the locality.

If you are looking for other activities, local boating tours combine sensational sunsets with dolphin watching to create unforgettable experiences. Captiva is also home to over 250 types of shells that make the best vacation souvenirs – thanks to the Gulf tides.

Pegasus/Charlie’s Reef

snorkeling wreck
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The Pegasus tugboat was built in 1927 in New York. It lived several lives, but it eventually ventured south and found home as a cruise ship’s ticket office in Fort Myers Beach. In 1999, the ship was sunk in an area known as Charlie’s Reef, and it joined the array of fantastic man-made reefs in the area. It is located 28 miles west of Red Fish Pass. To find Charlie’s Reef, you will need to board a charter boat service from Sanibel, such as Buccaneer Adventures.

The shipwreck is in 88 feet of water, and the depth attracts a wide selection of large fish, including goliath grouper. Other residents include barracuda, cobia, and nurse sharks. The area is a popular dive site, so if you fancy taking your Sanibel Island snorkeling experience to the next level, this is a great place to start.

The wreck has started to break up over the years but still offers a fascinating aquatic maze to explore. Due to the depth of Charlie’s reef, an advanced diving certificate is required, so please take this into account before heading out to the reef.

If you are heading out to buy some new equipment and you often struggle to find the right size. Check out the seven best snorkeling fins for wide feet.

Lighthouse Beach

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A bridge once connected Lighthouse Beach to mainland Florida, and the underwater remains have become the man-made, Edison reef. The reef is around 15 nautical miles from the lighthouse and in 42 feet of water. It is full of life and provides the best snorkeling in the area. Water conditions are excellent for spying on residential underwater creatures.

Due to the beach’s south-facing direction, visitors can often find seahorses, hermit crabs, and some outstanding shells in the shallow waters. The family-friendly beach has some exceptional views, providing dramatic outlooks and photo opportunities of San Carlos Bay. If you stay in central Sanibel, this beach requires the smallest travel distance. It is also a leading option to take your kids. The Lighthouse Beach pier is another highlight in a trip to Sanibel Island.

Did you know that there were two lighthouses built in New Jersey during the 19th century that were the same? The Sanibel lighthouse and its twin were delivered to Flordia by boat. But the ship that carried the two lighthouses sank in a storm close to Sanibel. But luckily, divers managed to save both of the structures from an early end. The other lighthouse still stands on Cape San Blas.

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Doc Kline

Snorkeling at Sanibel Island
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The Doc Kline reef was one of the first man-made reefs around Sanibel Island. The site is created from a range of sunken objects. These include a 50-foot sailboat called the Misty Green-Go. The boat’s creator, Ben Green launched this unique boat in 1979 on the Missouri River at Bellvue, Nebraska. A large crowd watched the launch and waited to see if it would float. This was because the crowd thought Green was crazy. After all, he had made his boat from concrete. After proving the doubters wrong. The Misty Green- Go was eventually scuttled and sank in 1992 at the Doc Kline reef location.

The rest of the reef has been created from concrete pilings, cellphone towers, culverts, and bridge rubble. It can be found at 30 feet and roughly six miles south of Sanibel Island. If you are looking to book a ferry to get to the reef, Knot Tell’n Charters are well-recommended. It can also be accessed if you hire a private boat for the day.

Doc Kline is a lot closer from the mainland than Charlie’s Reef, but still offers plenty to see. The snorkeling and scuba location plays host to over 250 species of fish. Some of these include snapper, parrotfish, and redfish, while dolphins are common too. Previous divers have commented on the beauty of the coral and the clusters of exotic underwater wildlife.

The site is also popular for fishing. The large numbers of fish who live in and around the reef make it the ideal place to bait your hook.

Snorkeling at Sanibel Island
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Can you snorkel in Sanibel Island?

Snorkeling has been popular in the waters surrounding Sanibel Island since the 1980s. The array of shipwrecks and artificial reefs that lie within a 15 miles radius of Sanibel places it among the leading destinations for snorkeling addicts in South Florida. The weather and water conditions are perfect for finding tropical marine life and sensational shells.

If you want to spy on the bigger fish at one of the amazing, manufactured reefs near Sanibel. You may have to strap on a tank and dive instead of a snorkel.

Are there sharks when snorkeling around Sanibel Island?

The Gulf of Mexico is home to over 49 species of sharks, and there is a chance you could see a shark while swimming in Sanibel Island. However, The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation reports that there have only been eight incidents between sharks and humans on record – and none were fatal. We can’t guarantee that there won’t be any sharks around Sanibel Island, but the chances of you coming face to face with Jaws during your snorkeling adventure are not likely.

Is it expensive to snorkel in Sanibel Island?

It is affordable to snorkel in Sanibel Island if you have equipment and snorkeling gear. But the prices will start to add up if you rely on renting gear and booking tours. Sanibel, Captiva, and Fort Myers all have a wide range of tour operators. So make sure you shop around to find the most affordable prices. Florida is a popular tourist destination, and the prices can reflect this.

The sunshine state has become internationally famous for its attractions on dry land. But there is so much to see beneath the water, especially on the Gulf Coast. Flordia has more manufactured reefs than anywhere else in the world. It also has the three largest ships that have been sunk for coral use. Almost all of the shipwrecks that lie on the sea bed around Sanibel were used to facilitate coral growth.

A snorkeling trip to Sanibel Island is worthy of the travel time. We have only scratched the surface with some of the spectacular sites that you can enjoy in Sanibel. Whether you like to see underwater sites through specially arranged tours or you have more fun doing it solo. You will not regret the decision to visit Sanibel.

Sanibel Island is a sanctuary to some of the most colorful and curious sea creatures. The waters are clear, and any trip to Sanibel Island would not be complete without snorkeling or scuba diving. We’ve told you our seven favorite snorkeling spots, but do you agree with our list? Do you have any other underrated snorkel hotspots or unexplored beaches on Sanibel Island?


James Ardimento has spent the last 12 years journeying around the globe ! With its precious experiences and tips he gained around Asia, South America, Europe and the US he is a precious asset for this blog and for its readers