Ecotourism in Florida, Part 2: On Water and Land in the Florida Keys

| 1/20/2014 9:15:00 AM

sailboatRead Part 1: "Ecotourism in Florida: Island-Hopping on the Wild Side."

The rich and diverse marine life of the Florida Keys can be experienced without ever getting wet: in a kayak, on a sailboat or at one of the many animal rescue or rehabilitation centers scattered along the Keys. This is my second of three blogs related to island hopping in the Keys with my family last year.

“They’re called ‘walking trees’,” says Brian Eversole, our kayak tour guide with Lazy Dog, in describing the mangroves found throughout the Keys. The operator is located just outside Key West. “They’re the island builders, trapping sediment and debris. Along with the sponges, both work to clean the waters and stabilize the shoreline while providing habitat for juvenile fish.” During our two-hour paddle with our group of ten in kayaks or paddleboards, we squeezed through mangrove tunnels and observed several ospreys, sea stars and two Queen conch, for which the Keys are famously known.

While kayaking brought us close to nature, there’s nothing like hitting the open waters, powered completely by the wind. With a breeze at our back and turquoise waters breaking at our bow, we sailed with Captain Andrew aboard his elegant 105-foot American 2.0 Schooner, departing from Classic Harbor Line’s slip in the Historic Key West Bight. Our 3,600 square feet of sail and steady winds sent us plying across the waters – at more than 11 knots – as the sun dropped over the horizon.  There's a "splash zone" at this speed, so heed the captain's direction as to where to hang onto your seat for the ride.

On land, animal rescue and educational marine centers are prevalent throughout the string of islands, providing diverse opportunities to get up close and personal with brown pelicans, endangered leatherback turtles, kestrels and bottlenose dolphins.Kestrel

“We’ve rehabbed over 6,000 wild birds and released them back into the wild,” says Kelly Grinter, founder of the Marathon Wild Bird Center, as she hastily prepares a “cormy buffet” for her injured cormorants and brown pelicans. Her center, inspired by the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center further north on Tavernier Key, is nestled in the 63 acre Cranes Point Museum and Nature Center, an ecological and cultural preserve that manages to capture what the Keys were like hundreds of years ago. “The pelicans can be a bit on the snappy side,” she laughs, while feeding them.

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