Last updated on November 8th, 2020.
Is there good surfing in Florida?
Florida can have excellent surf, but only during specific conditions.
Sadly, Florida’s marine geography is not well suited for good, consistent waves. Florida’s surf conditions are exceptionally location-specific. Because of many different factors, wind, wave and swell conditions don’t affect the coastline consistently.
Certain spots on Florida’s east coast can have surprisingly good, overhead and barreling surfing waves when specific conditions are in place.
This is especially true during hurricanes and powerful offshore storms. Especially if a big storm parks itself offshore, it can generate large, sustained waves and “ground swell” conditions, instead of the sloppy, short “wind swell” waves which are more common.
Ground Swell vs. Wind Swell
For anybody who visits or moves to Florida from California, prepare to be disappointed. Compared to the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic’s surfing conditions are underwhelming.
West Coast waves generally have a much longer period, and swells are more well-organized than any wave found in Florida.
In general, waves in California and the West Coast occur thanks to “ground swell”. This describes the nature of the wave; a ground swell is a function of smooth, consistent wave energy, transmitted across a vast, unbroken area, also known as “Fetch”. Across such long distances, the wave patterns have a chance to “smooth” themselves out, and fall into a predictable and consistent march.
In comparison, Florida’s swell is generally “wind swell”, driven by localized wind patterns. These waves typically form less than 100 miles from shore. With this wind swell, wave periods are short, and waves will always be “messier” than those found on the West coast.
Is there surfing in the Florida Keys?
Generally, you can’t surf in the Florida Keys due to coral reefs, marine geography, and the resulting lack of waves.
The Florida Keys are protected by the Great Florida Reef, which is the third largest barrier reef in the world. It runs southward, just offshore of Florida’s coast, from Miami to the Dry Tortugas.
This reef is great for many reasons, and it offers priceless protection during hurricanes and tropical storms. But, it also means that there is little to no wave action in the Florida Keys. Without waves, there is no surfing. Interestingly, that’s also why there are not any natural sandy beaches in the Florida Keys.
Florida’s Marine Geography
Florida’s surfing wave potential is limited because of the “Bahama Shadow”.
This refers to the area west of the Bahamian archipelago, which blocks and interrupts oncoming wave energy before it hits Florida’s coast.
In some places, the Bahamas are very close– only 50 miles– to Florida’s east coast, so the archipelago acts as a “barrier” island chain.
This can benefit and protect Florida during hurricanes, but it also means that open-ocean wave energy is disrupted before it can turn into a good Florida surfing wave. Due to the location of the Bahamian islands, this is especially true of swells from the East or Southeast.
The Bahama shadow is reduced along Florida’s northern coast, and the area generally above Fort Pierce.
Surfing Cocoa Beach
Cocoa Beach is the surfing capital of the U.S. east coast, and it’s got some of the best surfing in Florida. It’s at the epicenter of Florida’s surf culture and history. The waves at Cocoa Beach produced legendary surfers like Kelly Slater, among others.
Cocoa Beach is one of the closest surfing spots near Orlando.
Travel time varies depending on traffic and day of the week, but Cocoa Beach is usually less than an hour drive from Orlando.
The stretch between Cocoa Beach and Melbourne has several good spots; the best ones to “work” will depend on current conditions, especially the tide, storm status, and seasonal wind patterns. Check the surf cam at Cocoa Beach Pier to see current conditions.
Many beaches on this stretch of coast are sandy bottom breaks, although some have rock bottoms. Most agree that the most consistent surfing waves can be found between Ponce Inlet and Sebastion Inlet.
Sebastion Inlet Surfing
Sebastion Inlet has a fascinating history. Read about the wave, and how it’s changed over time courtesy of the Florida Surf Museum.
Surfing in South Florida during Hurricane Sandy
What time of year is best for surfing?
Florida’s surfing season generally runs from late September until early May. But, great surfing conditions vary depending on the season and specific weather conditions; especially the presence of offshore storms.
The months from September to November — Mid to late hurricane-season, are often good surfing months because of storms and semi-reliable swell patterns. Especially if a big storm lingers offshore, it can pump out great surfing waves. In these cherished times, Florida surfers will drive up and down the coast to their favorite spots, depending on which spot catches the swell best.
Do you need a wetsuit?
Because of its warm weather, you can generally surf year-round in Florida, if there are good waves to surf. Some people prefer wet suits, and others do not find them necessary. During the coolest of the winter months, it is probably good to plan on using a wetsuit.
The biggest waves in Florida
The biggest waves in Florida are found on the North East coast. The exact location of the best waves will vary depending on the precise conditions, because Florida’s surfing conditions vary so much. The coastal region around Sebastion Inlet –especially New Smyrna Beach– is considered to be one of the best, and most consistent, wave breaks in Florida.
Surf Drone: New Smyrna Beach Inlet, Florida
Should you worry about sharks?
We’ve all heard that that statistically, you’re more likely to be killed by a coconut, or lightning, or, really, anything other than a shark attack.
The odds of having any sort of encounter with a shark are extraordinarily low. But, shark attacks do happen, and the North East coast of Florida which is best for surfing has the most concentration of shark attacks. It’s just a fact: there are sharks in the water in Florida. So, should you be worried? You really have to consider the risks for yourself.
For more information, check out the Florida shark attack research by the University of Florida.
Gulf of Mexico Surfing
Florida’s Gulf coast sometimes has surfable waves, but not often. These waves tend to be “mushier” and more wind-driven, with less swell than you will find on the East coast. To some, the more “mellow” waves of the Gulf coast can actually be better, because they are easier to learn on.
When a hurricane creates large swell in the Gulf of Mexico, surfing conditions can improve dramatically.
Many folks on Florida’s Gulf Coast enjoy kiteboarding, paddle boarding, windsurfing, and other forms of surfing which are less reliant on steady, consistent surfing waves.
It’s not recommended that anyone move to Florida’s Gulf Coast specifically for surfing. But, if you already live there, you can surf when the stars align and conditions are “just right”.
For more on Florida surfing, check out the Florida Surf Film Festival.