Snorkeling Safety at the Jetty

Snorkeling Safety at the Jetty

The St Andrew Bay pass jetty is more like a close family friend than a collection of granite boulders. The rocks protect the inlet ensuring the vital connections of commerce and recreation. One of the treasured spots along the jetty is known locally as the “kiddie pool”, which is accessible from St Andrew’s State Park. There are similar snorkeling opportunities throughout northwest Florida. Jetties provide an opportunity to explore hard substrate or rocky marine ecosystems. These rocks are home to a variety of colorful sub-tropical and migrating tropical fish.

sergeant majors

Snorkelers and divers who visit are likely to see a variety fish like sergeant majors, blennies, surgeon and doctor fish, just to name a few. Photo by L Scott Jackson.

Exploring a jetty is more like a sea-safari adventure than an experience in a real swimming pool – it is a natural place full of potential challenges that first time visitors need to prepare to encounter.

Divers and snorkelers are required to carry dive flags when venturing beyond designated swimming areas. These flags notify boaters that people are in the water. Brightly colored snorkel vests are not only good safety gear but they help you rest in the water without standing on rocks which are covered in barnacles and sometimes spiny sea urchins.

Long Spined Sea Urchin

According to the Florida Department of Health, most sea urchin species are not toxic but some Florida species like the Long Spined Sea Urchin have sharp spines can cause puncture injuries and have venom that can cause some stinging. Swim and step carefully when snorkeling as they usually are attached to rocks, both on the bottom and along jetty ledges. Photo by L Scott Jackson

Dive booties also help protect your feet. I found out the hard way! A couple of years ago my foot hit against a sea urchin puncturing my heel. The open back of my dive fin did not provide any protection resulting in a trip to the urgent care doctor. My daughter later teased it was an “urchin care” doctor! Sea urchin spines are brittle and difficult to remove, even for a doctor. Lesson Learned: “Prevention is the best medicine”.

After a couple of weeks of limping around and a course of antibiotics, I recovered ready to return one of my favorite watery places – a little wiser and more prepared. I now bring a small first aid kit, just in-case, to help take care of small scrapes, cuts, and other minor injuries.

Gloves are recommended to protect hands from barnacle cuts and scrapes. Shirts like a surfing rash guard or those made from soft material help keep your body temperature warm on long snorkel excursions. Along with sunscreen, shirts also protect against sunburn.

Properly Prepared Snorkeler

There’s opportunity to see marine life from the time you enter the water with depths for beginning snorkelers at just a few feet deep. Some SCUBA divers also use the jetty for their initial training. Most underwater explorers are instantly hooked, and return for many years to come. Photo by L Scott Jackson

Finally, know the swimming abilities of yourself and your guests, especially when venturing to deeper areas. It’s good to have a dive buddy even when snorkeling. Pair up and watch out for each other. Be aware that currents and seas can change dramatically during the day. Know and obey the flag system. Double Red Flag means no entry into the water. Purple flags indicate presence of dangerous marine life like jellyfish, rays, and rarely even sharks. Local lifeguards and other beach authorities can provide specific details and up to date safety information.

Follow these beach safety tips for helping your family enjoy the beach while protecting coastal wildlife.

An Equal Opportunity Institution. UF/IFAS Extension, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension. Single copies of UF/IFAS Extension publications (excluding 4-H and youth publications) are available free to Florida residents from county UF/IFAS Extension offices.


Snorkeling… 5 Ways to Safely Enjoy Our Nearshore Snorkel Reefs

Snorkeling… 5 Ways to Safely Enjoy Our Nearshore Snorkel Reefs

It’s that time of year… the air is warming and spring break has begun. Crowds of locals and visitors have begun to descend on area beaches to enjoy the panhandle sunshine and waterways, and safety is always a concern.

One of the many water activities visitors can enjoy are snorkeling our nearshore reefs. From St. Andrew’s to Perdido Key, panhandle counties provide several snorkel options that can be reached from shore.  However, there are hazards that all need to be aware of and, with a few behavior changes, the risk can be reduced.

Know your limitations… Some of snorkel spots are an easy swim – some you can even walk to – but others can be a 500 ft. swim or more. Nearshore snorkel reefs must have 6 ft. of water clearance above them at low tide – to avoid collisions with boats – and this can be mean they are considerable distance from shore. If you are not a strong swimmer you need to consider a snorkel vest that can be inflated while you swim to the location. Once there you can deflate and enjoy. Keep in mind that this depth requirement may require a 20 ft. dive to reach the bottom.

  1. Sun protection… with your face in the water observing the marine life you become comfortable and relaxed, but your back and legs will still be exposed to the sun. Recent studies have indicated that sunscreen has been a problem for coral polyps in the Keys but you will need to protect yourself. If you are not interested in sunscreen a long sleeve t-shirt or surfing chaff-guard should be considered.
  2. A dive flag… they are actually required for snorkeling in Florida. With the number of jet ski and pontoon rentals exploring some of the same areas you will be snorkeling, this flag is a must. If snorkeling in open water, a dive buoy can be used in lieu of a dive flag.  The dive buoy can have either 3 or 4 sides but must display dive symbols.  The symbols must be at least 12×12 inches.  However, if displaying from a boat you must continue to use a standard dive flag at least 20×24 inches. In open water you must remain within 300 ft. of the dive marker. If snorkeling in a channel you must remain within 100 ft.
  3. Marine life… Some of the inhabitants on local snorkel spots can deliver a painful bite or sting. It is not recommended that any snorkeler try to capture any form of marine life; in state and national parks it is prohibited. Spearfishing may be illegal in some locations, check with local dive shops to determine. The state has several non-take species for spearfishing. Those can be found at
  4. As always pay attention to the Beach Safety Flags. These are posted for your safety. “Red” = stay out of the water, conditions are not good; “Yellow” = enter with caution, should be a strong swimmer; “Green” = all is good, enjoy; “Purple” dangerous marine life have been seen in the area – generally these are jellyfish but could mean frequently seen sharks or other hazardous marine life.
This sea turtle frequents the nearshore snorkel reef at Park East in Escambia County. Photo: Robert Turpin

This sea turtle frequents the nearshore snorkel reef at Park East in Escambia County.
Photo: Robert Turpin

These range markers allow snorkelers to find the reef when swimming. Photo: Rick O'Connor

These range markers allow snorkelers to find the reef when swimming.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

There are a lot of interesting organisms to be found on our local snorkel reefs and it will be a great addition to your day at the beach. With a few behavior changes on your part, and adhering to regulations, the adventure should be an enjoyable and safe one.