Abstract Physical processes affecting the dispersion of passive particles (e.g., coral larvae, pollutants) in the Upper Florida Keys are investigated through in situ observations (acoustic Doppler current profilers and surface drifters) and numerical ocean circulation modeling (horizontal resolution: 800 m, vertical resolution: 0.1–1 m). During the study period in August 2006 (set to coincide with an annual coral spawning event), Lagrangian trajectories in the vicinity of the reef tract indicate that alongshelf advection was mainly poleward and due to the subtidal flow of the Florida Current, while cross-shelf advection was mainly onshore and due to wind-driven currents. Tidal currents resulted in predominantly alongshelf displacements, but did not contribute significantly to net passive particle transport on a weekly timescale. Typical advection distances were of the order of 10 to 50 km for pelagic durations of 1 week, with significant variability linked to geographical location. In contrast, the direction of transport from the offshore reefs remained essentially constant (i.e., potential dispersion pathways were limited). In addition, Lagrangian trajectories and progressive vector diagrams in the vicinity of the reef tract indicate that alongshelf variations in the cross-shelf velocity gradient associated with the FC are relatively weak on an alongshore scale of ca. 50 km. For August 2006, the highest particle concentrations typically occur inshore of the reef tract, thereby suggesting that onshore transport associated with wind-driven currents contributes significantly to the local retention of passive organisms (and other tracers) in the Upper Florida Keys. Overall, the results illustrate the necessity of conducting targeted in situ observations and numerical model predictions to quantify the physical processes affecting reef-scale advection, especially in an effort to understand local retention and dispersion mechanisms for larval marine organisms.