The small French Key has one of the best preserved reefs on the south coast of the island of Roatan. This lagoon with translucent waters sheltered by a coral reef is ideal for snorkeling. Although it is not easy to access (and there is almost always an entrance fee), the abundance of fish, lobsters and coral make it one of the most beautiful snorkeling spots on the island.

French Key coral reef, Roatan

How to get there?

French Key is near French Harbor. From Coxen Hole or the airport, head north-east along the main road for 6 miles or so. The French Key reef is accessible either by the privately owned islands of Big French Key and Little French Key or by the Fantasy Island Resort. The latter option is the best because it gives direct access to the reef, but in all three cases you need to pay for admission to the site for the day (from $30 per person). The resorts also offer 2-hour snorkeling packages including equipment, transport by boat and one or two snorkeling stops from $25 per person (on top of the daily admission fee). It is also possible to rent swimfins, masks and snorkels for about $10 per day. It is difficult to get to the reef by other means, unless you rent a boat.

Water entrance

The best option is to enter the water from the main beach of the Fantasy Island Resort. You can also swim to the reef in a few minutes from Little French Key. If you are on an excursion, follow your guide’s instructions.

French Key Roatan snorkeling map

Exploration

The area to explore covers a strip of about 50 yards wide along the inside of the barrier reef between the Fantasy Island Resort and Little French Key. The depth of the water is the same throughout the area (↕3-6ft/1-2m). The area shown on the aerial shot can be extended to the west.

If you swim from the Fantasy Island Resort beach, you first come across sandy areas before the first coral appears (mainly lettuce coral) and grows denser. The coral is in calm waters, protected from the waves, and is unusually fine. You will soon spot large shoals of grunts living near the coral beds. Move closer to the reef and you will come across a large number of fine lobsters, which are seldom to be seen elsewhere, nestling in the crevices in the rocks and given away by their white antennae. But the rocky shelter is also the chosen home of much more fearsome creatures. Dozens of lionfish have taken up residence in the reef. Sometimes, in groups of 3 or 4, they rest in the shelter of the coral. They are highly elegant, with their wing-shaped gills, and not aggressive, but you should not touch them as their sting is dangerous.

School of grunt at French Key

Here more than anywhere else, you should avoid placing your hand on the rocks or setting foot on the sea bed, and stay continually alert. Lionfish are an invasive and voracious species that causes great damage to the underwater life of the Caribbean (unlike in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, their original home, they have no known predator in the Caribbean). Killing them is authorised in all Roatan reefs. As you continue to explore, you may also see reef squid, butterflyfish or fine specimens of jacks. It is not unusual, in the deepest area behind the reef, to come across southern stingrays, but they always swim off straight away into the ocean blue, darting above the sand and the seagrass.

Permit at French Key

You will probably be surprised by the clearness of the water, highlighted by the white sand sea bed. The shallow waters make this an ideal spot for underwater photography.

Restaurants & accommodation

The French Key resort provides meals as part of the package or outside it. This is the only food and drink on the site. You should also take along some water and snacks.

Species you may spot while snorkeling French Key
COMMON NAME SCIENTIFIC NAME ABUNDANCE FISHBASE WIKIPEDIA
Southern stingray Dasyatis americana  
Common lionfish Pterois miles  
Spotfin butterflyfish Chaetodon ocellatus  
Banded butterflyfish Chaetodon striatus  
Foureye butterflyfish Chaetodon capistratus  
Atlantic blue tang Acanthurus coeruleus  
Doctorfish tang Acanthurus chirurgus  
French grunt Haemulon flavolineatum  
Mahogany snapper Lutjanus mahogoni  
Schoolmaster snapper Lutjanus apodus  
Smooth trunkfish Lactophrys triqueter  
Yellowhead wrasse Halichoeres garnoti  
Harlequin bass Serranus tigrinus  
Permit Trachinotus falcatus  
Lobster  
Calamar de récif des Caraïbes Sepioteuthis sepioidea  
Sabella Sabella sp.  
Jack-knifefish Equetus lanceolatus  
Bar jack Carangoides ruber  
Queen conch Lobatus gigas  
  • Level required Beginner
  • Protected areaSandy Bay-West End Marine Reserve
  • Maximum depth8ft/2.5m in the lagoon, 20ft/6m in the channel
  • Water entranceEasy, from a sandy beach
  • Potential DangersMany lionfish, boats in the channel
  • LifeguardNo
  • Visitor numbersMedium
  • Access costsAdmission fee (from $30 pp.)
  • Restaurants nearbyYes
  • Public toilets & showersNo

MAP Spot

These snorkeling spots are accessible to beginners and kids. You will enter the water gradually from a beach, or in a less than 3ft. deep area. The sea is generally calm, shallow, with almost no waves or currents. These spots are usually located in marked and/or monitored swimming areas. It is not necessary to swim long distances to discover the sea life.

This level only apply when the spot experiences optimal sea and/or weather conditions. It is not applicable if the sea and/or weather conditions deteriorate, in particular in the presence of rough sea, rain, strong wind, unusual current, large tides, waves and/or swell. You can find more details about the definition of our snorkeling levels on our snorkeling safety page.