Waverunning and Jet Skiing in The Florida Keys

Adventure Travel, Florida Keys, Tours & Attractions — By on August 12, 2010 at 3:00 pm

By Patty Hodapp
LG Deputy Editor

The sun hung low in the sky over Key West—a gigantic, hovering, juicy orange. I just had to be closer to it.

I gunned my waverunner, shooting a jet of water into my white, sharp-edged wake in the turquoise water. Salty ocean water beads hit me full force in the sunglasses.  In a wrenching leap, my machine jumped on top of the water and took off down the bright yellow ocean-road of diamond sparking waves—I was literally riding into the sunset. My machine picked up speed as my thumb pushed the accelerator to the max. My mind went blank.

The speed, the wind whipping through my loose blond hair, the rush of apparent danger—it all burst out of me. I couldn’t help but throw my head back and let out a full-throttle yell, which turned to laughter. If anyone else would’ve been near me, I probably would’ve looked like a crazy lunatic on a Jetski, but no one was there. Just me and the water and the machine. I was free, and nothing mattered.


About the Florida Keys

As the United States’ own tropical destination, the Florida Keys—a 220 mile string of Islands stretching south and west from Florida’s mainland—are a popular and affordable place for water lovers to vacation. North America’s only coral barrier reef (and the world’s third-longest) lies about six miles offshore. This reef supports a unique marine ecosystem, from dolphins and sharks to mangrove trees and turtle grass, in the 2,900 square nautical miles of marine sanctuary that extend from the Florida bay to the Gulf of Mexico and out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Naturally, considering just how beautiful the Keys are, people want to be there…diving, boating, snorkeling, swimming and exploring the reef. That’s all fine, of course, until someone harms the sanctuary (which is a lot easier to do than you might think). Just by touching the coral or sandy ocean bottom, or by refueling a boat the wrong way, you can leave an environmental imprint which drastically damages the sanctuary.

Keeping the Sanctuary Safe: Blue Rider Ocean Awareness and Stewardship program

To promote proper ocean etiquette, and give visitors a deeper appreciation for the marine life in the Keys, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Personal Watercraft Industry Association teamed together to form The Blue Rider Ocean Awareness and Stewardship Program, in March 2010.

About Blue Rider

The program works with local personal water craft (a.k.a. Jet Ski, Seadoo, Waverunner, etc.) rental businesses in personalized, small-group tours where visitors ride the water craft and learn about the marine life in an environmentally-safe way. Then they invited me and a few other journalists down to ride waverunners on two different guided tours, and see the Keys waters for ourselves.

We took two 25+ mile guided tours—one in Key West and one in Islamorada. Each guide took us through the mangrove trees rooted out in the ocean away from the mainland. We snorkeled above the coral and rode over shark populated sections. They taught us boating rules about riding in the marked channels, and about being a good ocean citizen.

5 Blue Rider Tips for Keys Riding

The Blue Rider program puts out guidelines for local rental businesses that give them tips on environmentally-friendly care of the machines as well as tips for visitors to receive during their orientation. A sample of these are:

  • Refuel PWC out of the water or on a dry dock.
  • Do NOT harass, pursue, touch, feed or disturb wild dolphins, manatees or sea turtles.
  • Avoid touching or swimming with wild marine mammals, even if they approach you.
  • Shallow reef areas and seagrass beds will appear down. Please avoid these areas. If you run aground, immediately turn off the engine. Do not try to motor off; wait until high tide to remove the vessel and call for assistance when necessary.
  • Use reef mooring buoys or anchor in sandy areas away from coral and seagrasses so that anchor, chain and line do not contact or damage coral or seagrasses.

Click here for an extended list

Why to book a PWC Tour: Don’t be fooled

These aren’t slow, tame tours. These are legitimate, open-ocean tours where you have the freedom to ride as fast as you like, and as crazy as you like (within reasonable safety parameters). Some tour guides even incorporate free-riding time where they allocate a huge bay of water and give you 20 minutes just to tear up the water, or jump in and swim with the fish. Between stops to learn about marine features, you’ll zigzag all over the water, no doubt hitting tall Atlantic waves at full speed—catching a few feet of exhilarating air.

The guides are knowledgeable and interesting—I walked away with more questions than answers, but learning the marine basics made me want to find out more. Plus, there’s simply no better way than to get up close and personal with the Keys than to drive your own machine, take charge, and explore for yourself.


Tours run anywhere range on average from $85-$150 for a single machine depending on the business.


You must be 21 to rent a machine.

Stay tuned for more on the Florida Keys marine sanctuary and about our two island tours.

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  • Ivo Stoichev says:

    We must protect nature , if not for any more noble cause, then at least for the selfish cause of being able to enjoy it longer. So I guess Blue Rider has a lot of meaning , considering it’s goals. But I really have to ask, how long have jet trips been around ?

  • King Conch says:

    When have you ever seen a jet ski obey the most basic of safety or navigational rules?

  • Island Robbie says:

    The Blue Water program does nothing to properly educate PWC operators in correct boating techniques needed to navigate the extremely sensitive and shallow waters of the Florida Keys. How is this kind of activity considered “eco-friendly” when the article describes boating this way? “I gunned my waverunner, shooting a jet of water into my white, sharp-edged wake.” How about this, “the rush of apparent danger.” My personal favorite, “they allocate a huge bay of water and give you 20 minutes just to tear up the water.” Really! Tear up the water and seagrass! That is the attitude that PWC riders have. As for the Blue Water propaganda website, this is coming from the PWC industry that continues to push to have PWCs allowed in locations already banded such as our National Parks. Until there is a license and MANDATORY boater education course for all power boaters, PWCs will never be the environmental boat choice for enjoying the Florida Keys.

  • Patty H says:

    Thank you for your comments. You’ve addressed many concerns that improper use of waverunners and jetskis bring to the Florida Keys sensitive, shallow waters. To address your comments, both jetski tours we went on were led by qualified guides who stressed not only the fragile state of the marine life several times during our tour, but also gave us extensive navigational directions and rules. The guides took extra precautions to ensure we were well versed in machine operation, both on and off the water, hence my sentence “the rush of apparent danger”. The combination of speed and the thrill of being out in the open ocean, for me, gave me a sense of “apparent” danger, while in actuality I was perfectly safe and under the watchful eye of my guide. During our free riding session, the guides sanctioned off a section of open water for us to enjoy, and we were riding over at least 20 feet of water, so turtle grass and other coral/marine life could not have been harmed.

    I’d also like to stress that recreational PWC riders are different from PWC riders who’ve been through this Blue Rider Program. This program educates and informs PWC riders in the sensitivity of the marine life, and in navigational safety. This is far from the recreational jetsking ignorance that many people sadly exercise, and this program is trying to bring awareness to the sensitivity, show that people can have fun jetsking safely without damaging the environment–and they can actually learn something about the marine ecosystem while doing it.

  • madexpert says:

    Florida is in real danger, I dont think so, Eco System make every thing eco friendly by itself.

  • It’s in point of fact a great and useful piece of info. I’m happy that you simply shared this useful info with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

  • David Ralph says:

    The Florida Keys must be protected, even though the National Marine Sanctuary are doing all they can, everyone of us have a god given duty to protect what nature has to offer.

    I have just come back from the Keys and visited the Eco-Discovery Center for the first time.

    I could not believe that you could enter for free.

    Until you stop and realise the message it rams home as soon as you walk through the door.

    Then the entrance fee is priceless!!!!

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