Before arriving on the keys, I had done a lot of research on the web to find exactly what I was looking for: Inexpensive shallow water snorkling in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park with a personal in-water guide. Upon arriving on the keys, the first building we passed seemed to have the same advertising I saw on the web site so we stopped. There was a sign on the door redirecting us 2 blocks north and around the corner. While sitting in the parking lot, preparing to call the number I had written down, the sales lady came out and asked us to come in. There she explained the all the dive companies were John Pennekamp and proceeded to sell us a package. Being new to the keys and snorkeling, we didn't know what to expect and were an easy target for this lady who seemed sweet and friendly and patient. We paid in advance and were advised to come back the next day for the scheduled tour. Upon our early arrival, the sweet lady had turned into a cold shoulder. We were advised to go hang out on the dock or over in the restaurant across the parking lot until the time of departure. There was a school group leaving about the same time ours was scheduled to depart, of course, they got the personal attention and direction while we were shuffled around and passed off like yesterday's fresh fish catch. From the research I had done on the web, we knew that it was advised to wear a wet suit when snorkeling in less than 78* weather. My daughter went up to the gear shack and asked wear to get her "stuff." She was handed a snorkel and fins and an inflatable vest and told, you are all set. When we asked for further directions, one of the guides pointed to the far boat loaded with old-hat scuba passengers who didn't need any help. As the manifests were called, we discovered that our names were manifested for one of the other boats with the snorkeling group but were again directed to remain on the boat we were on, assured that they would be both diving and snorkeling.
Once the snorkeling boats left, the captain came onto our boat and advised that there would be a 40minute boat ride out to the reef and once there he would brief us about the area. Sure enough, 40 minutes later, te boat arrived and set anchor over the reef (which was 30-40 feet below the boat) and the scuba divers prepped themselves and jumped into the water. The crew did help my daughter get her gear on and directed her to the back of the boat... Ever the braveheart, she plunged into the cold water and "snorkeled" around in the deep water by herself not really knowing where to be for the best experience. When she asked one of the guides, he pointed of in the opposite direction of the rest of the swimmers. Call me an overly-cautious mother at this point, but it didn't appear to me that the guides were doing a very good job paying attention to all the swimmers (particularly the beginner they had just directed out into open water), so as much as my land legs would allow in the choppy atlantic waters, I circled the boat and kept a close eye on her. This being my first time parked in open waters, I had my own fish-feeding experience.
After being in the cold water for as long as she could stand without a wetsuit, my daughter climbed back about the boat and waited shivering for the rest of the divers to finish. (We had not brought any warm clothes or even a towel, thinking that she would have had a wetsuit). Once all the divers were aboard, the boat moved to another location and once again discharged the passengers for a second swim. My daughter jumped in again and swam around hoping to see more than she did the first time from her "nose bleed section" above the reef. During this 2nd session after checking with my daughter, I was able to relax a little and decided to close my eyes to keep from getting even more seasick above the choppy waters.
Once the divers finished their 2nd tank of air, they boarded the boat once again and we head for shore. All totaled, we were on/near/under the boat for 4 hours.
If I were asked for my opinion of how the experience might have been improved I would definitely ask for the following:
- A more comprehensive overview from the sales lady about what we are signing up for.
- Checklist for land-lubbers of things to bring on the boat and things to expect
- Friendlier, more attentive staff who recognize that "tourists" experiencing this for the first time might need basic information to help them have a more enjoyable experience.
- An option to choose the package we are signing up for.
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.