Are There Sharks in the Florida Keys? (Types, Attacks & Photos)

The Florida Keys is an island chain in southern Florida. Most of the island chain is in Monroe County, with a small portion in Miami-Dade County. The islands are stringed together by the famous Overseas Highway, which is a little over 110 miles long and has 42 bridges.

Along the Overseas Highway, there are five main points that make up the Keys. From north to south, these points include:

  • Key Largo
  • Islamorada
  • Marathon
  • the Lower Keys
  • and Key West.

Some of the most common attractions and activities locals and visitors of the Keys enjoy include kayaking, boating, fishing, swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving. Key Largo has a number of state and national parks and is home to the only living coral reef system in the continental US, known as Florida’s Coral Reef.

As travelers approach the Seven Mile Bridge, they enter the Lower Keys. This area includes a series of small islands. It leads to Key West, which is the last stop on the island chain. Key West is known for its tropical resorts, the Key West Aquarium, and fun water sports activities.

But if you’re planning a trip to the Florida Keys, you might be wondering:

Are there sharks in the Florida Keys? How common are Florida Keys shark attacks?

Photo by Daniel Piraino/Flickr

Some of the most common shark species that live in the Florida Keys waters include:

  • Blacktip sharks
  • Spinner sharks
  • Sandbar sharks
  • Nurse sharks
  • Lemon sharks
  • Bull sharks
  • Blacknose sharks

Still, shark attacks in the Florida Keys are quite rare — there have only been 17 confirmed attacks in modern history, most of which were not fatal.

Let’s take a look at each type of shark found in this area, photos, and some information on shark attacks in Key West and the rest of the Florida Keys!

Types of Sharks in the Florida Keys

There are several types of Florida Keys sharks because the island chain is surrounded by warm tropical waters that many shark species inhabit. 

Many of these Florida Keys sharks are inshore species. Some travel closer to shore at different times of the day or year.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these Florida Keys sharks and how likely you are to spot one while in the Keys!

Blacktip Shark

Albert kok, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Blacktip sharks are medium-sized sharks that range from dark gray to brown in color with white underbellies. They’re named for the black coloring they have on the tips of their fins. These sharks are fairly timid, but can become aggressive if approached.

Blacktip sharks are responsible for 35 attacks since they’ve been recorded, none of which were fatal. Injuries caused by these sharks are usually minor. They’re accountable for about 20% of all shark attacks that have occurred in Florida.

They’re common in shallow waters, as this is where they forage for food. Much of their diet consists of small schooling fishes. The largest population of blacktip sharks resides in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.

Adult blacktip sharks reach an average length of 5 ft and weigh about 40 pounds. They can be spotted swimming at the surface when hunting for food.

Spinner Shark

Photo by Matthew Paulson/Flickr

Spinner sharks are a fast-swimming species that inhabit temperate and tropical nearshore waters. Blacktip sharks are often confused with spinner sharks because they have similar markings and feeding behaviors.

Spinner sharks are known for traveling at high speeds through water while hunting. As they zip through schools of fish to feed, they jump out of the water and spin several times in the air. This behavior is what gives them their unique name.

Adult spinner sharks are usually around 6.5 ft in length, but larger individuals can reach up to 9 ft. They frequent inshore waters more during the spring and summer months. During the winter, they migrate further offshore.

Although they’re not considered dangerous, spinner sharks can pose a threat due to their speed. They’re responsible for a total of 16 non-fatal attacks. Their teeth are adapted to feeding on small fishes, and their bite rarely inflicts serious injuries.

Sandbar Shark

Brian Gratwicke, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Sandbar sharks can be found along sandy bottoms near coastal areas. They’re distributed globally in temperate and tropical waters, but the largest concentration of sandbar sharks is in the western Atlantic Ocean.

This bottom-dwelling shark migrates north during the summer and is more common in southern Florida waters in the cooler months.

Sandbar sharks aren’t very aggressive. They only have 5 non-fatal attacks on record as of 2022. However, their size can make them a potential threat. These sharks average about 6 ft in length and can reach up to 150 pounds.

Nurse Shark

Public Domain

Nurse sharks are one of the most docile shark species. They’re quite shy and typically swim away when they encounter humans. They have 9 non-fatal attacks on record, some of which are a result of provocation.

Nurse sharks are very common in shallow Florida Keys waters. They’re mainly concentrated in Key West compared to the other Keys. Nurse sharks are often seen resting on the seafloor in large groups during the day. These creatures are nocturnal and most active at night.

The size of a nurse shark can be a little intimidating. They can weigh up to 200 pounds and average about 8 ft in length. Their large size makes them capable of a powerful bite, but they’re not considered a threat to humans because of their relatively calm behavior.

Lemon Shark

Photo by Albert Kok via Creative Commons 3.0

Named for their yellowish-brown color, lemon sharks are found in coastal inshore waters along the east coast of the US down to southern Brazil. They’re fairly large sharks, reaching an average length of 10 ft and can weigh up to 550 pounds!

Lemon sharks aren’t considered a threat to humans, but their large size should be respected. Since they’re found in shallow waters, lemon sharks can be encountered by swimmers, divers, and surfers. They frequent depths of 300 ft or less.

The color of lemon sharks allows them to easily blend in with sandy inshore areas where they hunt for bony fishes and crustaceans. Sometimes they’re seen in groups within their defined home range.

Bull Shark

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bull sharks are a unique species because they’re found in saltwater and freshwater. Bull sharks live in tropical and subtropical coastal waters all around the world. They can travel long distances in freshwater systems, such as rivers.

In the western Atlantic, bull sharks are more common along northern coasts during the summer. They migrate south as winter approaches. They mainly inhabit shallow waters less than 100 ft deep.

Bull sharks are one of the most aggressive shark species in US waters, along with the great white and tiger sharks. These sharks are commonly referred to as the “Big Three” because they’re responsible for the most attacks.

Bull sharks are very large. They can reach lengths up to 13 ft and weigh up to 700 pounds! Due to their aggressive behavior, size, and their preferred habitat in shallow waters, bull sharks are considered dangerous to humans. 

There are 93 non-fatal and 23 fatal bull shark attacks recorded in history.

The bull shark is believed to be responsible for more attacks, but its non-distinctive appearance makes it difficult to differentiate between other requiem shark species.

Blacknose Shark

By D Ross Robertson – Public Domain

Blacknose sharks are a small inshore shark species that reaches a little over 4 ft in length. Their name comes from a black marking they have on their nose, which typically fades as they get older.

Their distribution is limited to the western Atlantic Ocean. Blacknose shark populations can be found from the coast of North Carolina down to southern Brazil.

They’re common residents in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Their habitat consists of continental shelves near sandy and coral bottoms in tropical and warm temperate waters.

Blacknose sharks are slender with a long snout, which helps them move quickly through the water.

They’re known to perform threat displays by hunching their backs and raising their heads when confronted by divers. Although they display this behavior, blacknose sharks aren’t considered aggressive and don’t pose a threat to humans.

Shark Attack History in the Florida Keys

Shark attacks are considered very rare incidents.

However, Florida experiences the most shark attacks than any other state in the US. Florida accounted for 60% of shark attacks in 2021, with a total of 28 incidents. Hawaii came in second place with just six attacks.

(See: States with the most shark attacks.)

Florida’s tropical environment mixed with its plethora of recreational water activities brings in millions of visitors each year. Since the Keys are a tourist hotspot, this leads to increased shark attack numbers compared to other coastal and island locations.

Although shark attacks in Florida are more common, they’re still rare.

The International Shark Attack File has recorded just 17 shark attacks in Monroe County in modern history as of October 2022.

Four shark attacks have occurred in the Florida Keys in 2022 leading up to September. One of the most recent attacks occurred in September, when a scuba diver in Marathon was bitten by a shark at a depth of about 70 ft near the reef line.

10-year-old boy was bitten by a shark in August 2022 while snorkeling in a shallow reef in Looe Key. The bite caused serious injuries to his leg, resulting in amputation. A bull shark was suspected to be responsible for the attack.

Another attack occurred in June 2022 on Summerland Key, which sent a 35-year-old to a hospital for multiple surgeries to repair their leg. In April 2022, a man was bitten by a shark at the Islamorada sandbar and suffered deep lacerations to his leg.

To put it into perspective, visitors to the Florida Keys are far more likely to drown or suffer other water-related injuries than encounter a shark.

Wrapping Up

Several types of Florida Keys sharks can be found inshore. Nurse sharks are one of the most common sharks that live in Florida Keys waters. They’re not considered aggressive and are much more docile than other species.

Some sharks, such as the bull shark, are known to be aggressive. However, attacks are typically a result of sharks confusing humans with prey or from being provoked by certain activities, such as spearfishing.

Shark attacks occur more in Florida than any other state in the US. However, shark attacks are still extremely rare occurrences and most of them aren’t fatal.

Using caution, being aware of your surroundings, and going in the water with a buddy may help reduce the risk of shark bites. Pay attention to posted warnings, and if you see a shark from a distance, enjoy the sight!

For more guides, see:

Hope this helps!