You may visit Panama City Beach for the mesmerizing views of the blue horizon and the soft, white sand beaches, but there’s just as much to enjoy underneath the water’s surface.
So grab your mask and fins and join the ranks of explorers before you by embarking on a snorkeling adventure in Panama City Beach! (There are also some excellent SCUBA diving opportunities for deeper exploration!) For newbies, snorkeling is easy to learn and only requires a few pieces of equipment to enjoy the turquoise waters. Here’s where to go snorkeling, rent gear, and enjoy guided tours in Panama City Beach.
Shell Island Snorkeling
Discover some of the best snorkeling in Panama City Beach around Shell Island. This undeveloped barrier island sits directly across the pass from St. Andrews State Park – with St. Andrews Bay on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other.
Although the island remains uninhabited, it’s easily accessible by boat, and there are myriad ways to get there. Catch a ride on the Shell Island Shuttle that runs trips from St. Andrews State Park every half hour during peak season. Rent a pontoon boat for a private excursion, or take your pick of tour operators for a hands-free journey.
Though no bathrooms or concessions are available on the preserved island, the trade-off is worth it since you’ll see a beautiful array of marine life swimming below the surface. Panama City Beach is home to a large bottlenose dolphin population, and you may see one or an entire pod during your snorkeling excursion. Other common marine life sightings include sea turtles, needlefish, manta rays, starfish, sand dollars, giant hermit crabs, and sea urchins.
St. Andrews State Park Jetties
Originally built to protect ships coming in and out of port, the St. Andrews State Park jetties offer snorkelers a chance to get closer to some of the area’s marine life.
Imagine a school of needlefish with pointy noses, blue crabs nestled in the rocks, and juvenile sheepshead (with their human-like teeth). Several species of coral, including tube coral, robust ivory tree coral, cup coral, and sea whips, also call the jetties home. Remember that coral is a fragile, living thing that can be observed but not touched.
So how do you get to the jetties? You can come by boat through the pass to the Gulf side and drop anchor, or pay the small entry fee to enter the State Park by car and ask the park ranger for directions. The jetties begin at the shore and go out to the Gulf, making them easily accessible and enjoyable for small children and experienced snorkelers alike.
Snorkeling Tours & Shops
When you’re ready to get in the water, you’ll find plenty of local outfitters that provide tours, boat rentals, and gear for all your snorkeling needs.
As the name implies, Shell Island Boat Rentals & Tours offers pontoons and cruisers for solo snorkeling excursions and guided tours for up to six guests, except on the family cruiser, which can accommodate 15 people. Choose a daytime or sunset tour and prepare for an unforgettable snorkeling adventure and maybe even dolphin sightings.
Panama City Dive Center runs half-day snorkeling trips from Capt. Anderson's Marina to Shell Island. Snorkel in water four to eight feet deep as you observe stingrays, sea turtles, starfish, sand dollars, seahorses, sea urchins, soft coral, sea slugs, puffer fish, and ornamental fish.
Take your snorkeling to the next level when you sign up for a skin diver course at Red Alert Diving (RAD). The course teaches you how to comfortably venture underwater to observe aquatic life for short visits while holding your breath.
Water Planet differentiates itself with immersive dolphin programs. Enjoy a two to four-hour dolphin tour with snorkel gear provided. Or prolong your adventure, anywhere from three days to a week, with professional instructors teaching you how to safely interact with dolphins while snorkeling a shipwreck, exploring Shell Island, and more. Best of all, Water Planet is inclusive and offers a dolphin therapy program for children with unique abilities.
Before Heading Out
Remember to bring a hat, water, UV protective clothing (long sleeves), rub on sunscreen (the spray on kind makes the boat slippery!), gratuity for the crew (15-20% is customary for a job well done), and, of course, a fully charged camera or GoPro to capture all of your aquatic memories.