Safe Boating in the Florida Keys

Navigating Florida's shallow waters can be a challenge for even the most experienced boater. Unfortunately, inadvertent or careless boating practices can cause serious trouble for the Florida Keys ecosystem. With a little care, you can avoid damaging valuable Keys habitat (and your boat) and avoid fines, fees, and other costs associated with running aground.

boat grounded in the sanctuary


Before hitting the water...

  • Take a safe boating course.
  • Check the weather. Visit to obtain the latest marine weather conditions, forecasts, and possible warnings or advisories. If weather conditions do not look favorable in the area, or at the destination, consider altering your plans until conditions improve. If in doubt, don't go out!
  • Familiarize yourself with the local waters where you plan to boat. Study your charts. Always use up-to-date nautical charts of the area.
  • Make sure you have enough life jackets for all on board, including children. Life jackets can greatly increase chances of survival at sea.
  • Purchase and register an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). This device, when activated, sends a distress signal to a satellite, helping rescue crews pinpoint a person's exact location in the event of an emergency. A personal locator beacon (PLB) is also recommended. PLBs function like EPIRBs, but are smaller and can be worn on clothes or a life jacket.


While on the water...

  • Wear life jackets.
  • Use marked channels where they exist and stay in deeper water where your propellers and hull won't damage shallow-water habitats. Know the draft of your boat and how much water you need to operate safely.
  • Always pay attention to signs, markers, navigational aids, and information buoys, which may indicate shallow areas closed to motorized vessels and/or provide user information for that area.
  • Wear polarized sunglasses to help you "read" the water. Shallow water appears dark (brown) to the observer, while deeper water appears blue or green. Sand-covered bottoms appear white and may or may not be deep enough for your vessel to navigate. Remember this jingle:
       "Brown, brown, run aground.
        White, white, you just might.
        Blue, blue, sail on through.
        Green, green, nice and clean."
  • Keep track of the tides. The greatest range of tides (shallowest and deepest water) occurs during a full moon and new moon. Use extra caution when boating on a low tide.
  • Monitor the weather. Wind and weather can change rapidly around the Florida Keys. Use VHF Channels 2 (lower Keys), 5 (middle/upper Keys), or 4 (North Key Largo-Ocean Reef) for updates on marine weather conditions.
  • When in doubt about the depth, slow down and idle. Make sure the bow of the boat is down and the motor is trimmed or tilted up.
  • If you run into a seagrass flat, you will be leaving a sediment trail behind your boat, making the water murky and probably cutting seagrass roots. Stop immediately and tilt your engine. Pole or push the boat into deeper water.
  • If you feel you are in a distress situation, do not hesitate to call for help. The Coast Guard monitors VHF Channel 16 for marine emergencies. If your previously reported distress situation improves, notify the Coast Guard to reduce false alarms and ensure Coast Guard rescue crews are ready to respond to actual distress situations.