7 Sharks in Key West Florida

Written by Jude Speegle
Published: April 16, 2022
Image Credit Fiona Ayerst/Shutterstock.com
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Key West is the furthest south you can go in the continental United States. It is a string of islands connected via a highway, though the main Key West island is its largest population center. It is a four-mile-wide island with a full surrounding coast that is seeded with sharks. 

The waters of Key West are perfectly clear, a tropical tinted blue that you can see in magazines. The sands are white and soft, perfect for spending the day sunning. The area of Key West is a tropical dream destination save for one thing: the sharks.

Yes, of course, Key West is an island in the ocean; there definitely would be sharks making their homes in the waters surrounding it. We, as people, are the ones who end up most encroaching upon the territories of the sharks. There are plenty of different shark species to find in the ocean of this area. 

Are there Shark Attacks Off Key West?

In January of 2021, a great white shark pinged off the coast of Key West, Florida. This particular shark is eleven feet long and seems to travel all along the coast of Florida at its own pace. More than 2200 miles have been logged since September 2020, when the great white was first tagged.

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Below we’ll look at some of the sharks that live along Key West. The most common are nurse sharks, sandbar sharks, and lemon sharks. That is to say, sharks that are generally harmless.

  • Nurse Shark
  • Sandbar Shark
  • Mako Shark
  • Reef Sharks
  • Hammerhead Shark
  • Lemon Shark
  • Tiger Shark

It’s important to note that there are zero records of fatal shark attacks in Key West. That’s not to say the Keys are without incident. In January 2022, a woman was attacked by a normally non-aggressive lemon shark in Dry Tortugas, which is a common trip from Key West. The attack was non-fatal. Another recent attack happened in 2020 when a man was snorkeling at a reef near Marathon Key and received a severe bite from what was believed to be a bull shark. In total, the county Key West is located in – Monroe County – has seen 18 unprovoked shark attacks since records were first kept in 1882.

Now that you know the history of shark attacks near Key West, let’s look at some of the sharks you may find in the waters near the island

1. Nurse Shark

What do nurse sharks eat - nurse shark face
Nurse sharks are very common and not dangerous.

Maui Topical Images/Shutterstock.com

As the most common shark in Key West, readers will be happy to learn that nurse sharks are not a threat to humans. They do like to swim in shallow waters, so keep an eye out for them. They also frequent deep coral reefs searching for their prey.

Nurse sharks mainly eat smaller things like crabs, lobster, and tiny fish by crushing them in their strong jaws. They grow pretty large but are docile and not likely to attack; maybe just take a nibble.

They are dark gray with a white underbelly and have a flatter head and snout than the average shark.

2. Sandbar Shark

Sandbar shark (Carcharhinus plumbeus)
Sandbar sharks eat smaller fish and shrimp.

Vladimir Wrangel/Shutterstock.com

The sandbar shark is likely to be found along sandbars and shallow water areas, searching for their food. They eat smaller fish and shrimp and are not classified as aggressive toward humans or swimmers.

Sandbar sharks grow rather large but are ultimately not a threat to people as they are not aggressive and are considered safe to swim with. However, bear in mind that we will see a shark later in the list that was involved in an attack near Key West that’s also generally considered non-aggressive, so do use caution even if this shark is considered generally non-threatening.

3. Mako Shark

Fastest Sea Animal: Mako Shark
Mako sharks are one of the fastest and most aggressive sharks.

Al McGlashan/Shutterstock.com

This is a shark you will want to watch out for because the mako shark is both the fastest shark and one of the more aggressive types of shark. Mako sharks tend to stay out in deeper waters, so if you enjoy diving, these are the shark you want to be aware of. They can swim at up to 40 miles per hour and tend to shoot out quickly.

Since the mako shark is aggressive, it is known to eat other sharks, along with fish and octopus.

Mako sharks are longer and thinner with angry-looking faces. They have long fings that spread outward and torpedo-shaped heads, which probably help their excessive speed. There have been two unprovoked mako attacks near Florida waters, one in 1960 and another in 1981. Neither happened in the Keys and both incidents were non-fatal.

4. Reef Sharks

A Caribbean reef shark swims with school of jacks.
Reef sharks come in many different varieties and hang around reef drop-offs.

Maui Topical Images/Shutterstock.com

Reef sharks make their home near Key West, Florida, because of the coral reefs to be found there. That’s where they find their food, munching along on fish, crustaceans, octopus, and squid.

There are many different types of reef sharks and they include:

  • Blacktip Reef Shark
  • Grey Reef Shark
  • Whitetip Reef Shark
  • Galapagos Shark
  • Caribbean Reef Shark

They tend to live where coral reefs drop off into the deep ocean, the spot all the fish in Finding Nemo were afraid of. Reef sharks tend to group en masse in this area during the day, just swimming around and lurking for prey. The most common reef shark off Florida is the Caribbean reef shark.

The average reef shark is grey with a white underside, and different types have different colors on the tips of their dorsal fins. Reef sharks generally don’t bite. A shark named the blacktip shark is responsible for 15% of unprovoked shark bites off Florida, but it’s different than the blacktip reef shark

5. Hammerhead Shark

hammerhead shark
The scalloped hammerhead shark is an endangered species.

Sophie Hart/Shutterstock.com

The hammerhead shark is one of the more common sharks you can find in Key West waters. They swim amongst all sorts of depths and are cautious creatures staying away from divers and usually not attacking, though if there is food around, they can get aggressive to catch it. 

They can track their prey from far away and knock them or pin them with their hammer-shaped heads. They enjoy eating fish, smaller sharks, stingrays, and squid.

Hammerhead sharks have excellent depth perception and binocular-like vision due to their head shape. The scalloped hammerhead shark is also registered as an endangered species, which means conservations efforts are underway to protect them from extinction. Hammerheads have been responsible for 8% of shark bites off Florida, but there are no reports of hammerhead bites off Key West.

6. Lemon Shark

Animals That Play Dead lemon shark
Lemon sharks have magnetic detectors in their noses to help them find other lemon sharks. 

Lemon sharks are particularly fascinating because they can lay down on the ocean floor and not move if they desire to. They are yellow and brown sharks with a lighter colored underside. 

Lemon sharks have a useful magnetic link in their nose that helps them find other lemon sharks to hang around or mate with. They are not particularly aggressive and hunt easy prey that does not tend to fight back. However, due to their abundance, they have had three unprovoked bite incidents since the 1980s, including the recent bite we discussed earlier that took place in January 2022.

Smaller in size, lemon sharks are no less fascinating than their other more active cousins and are one of the most common sharks to find off the shores of Key West.

Tiger Shark

What do tiger sharks eat - feeding a tiger shark
The tiger shark is an apex predator.

Tomas Kotouc/Shutterstock.com

The tiger shark will be the shark you want to avoid when swimming out in the sparkling tropical waters. They are the aggressive tigers of the sea with their dark tiger striped patterns that run along their grey bodies. 

Long and solid, these sharks are not one you want to mess with. They can grow to nearly a ton in weight and are fearsome predators, though they are only the second-largest shark in the ocean. 

Tiger sharks are a near-threatened species, which means they could be classified as endangered in the future. This is due to shark finning and overfishing. Their habitats are being threatened, which leads to them being threatened. There has been one recorded unprovoked tiger shark attack recorded in the Keys that happened in 1980. It was non-fatal.

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About the Author

Jude is a writer both by trade and by heart. They have been writing since a very young age and have eight years of professional writing experience. Passionate about animals, Jude has three birds and three cats.