Ecotourism in Florida, Part 1: Island-Hopping on the Wild Side

| 1/13/2014 10:08:00 AM

boy dolphinOur family stepped on the floating platform, wide grins crossing our faces. The Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, Hastings, Lucky and Balla, frolicked in a saltwater lagoon off Duck Key in the Florida Keys. Then Haley Merritt, one of the nine educator-trainers at the Dolphin Connection, motioned for one of the dolphins to swim our way. For the next twenty minutes, we worked alongside her, practicing “target training”, hand signals, even cradling the 500-pound dolphins in the water.

Drawn in by the experience, our son, Liam, interacted with the dolphins as if some magical Harry Potter spell had been cast upon him – allowing him to “speak” to the playful mammals. Truth be told, this was the only way to interact with the dolphins responsibly. Chasing down dolphins from a boat is definitely not the way to go. That Lucky earned its name because he was rescued after being caught in a shrimp net off the coast of Texas brought the experience full circle.

“We’re creating an emotional interaction between our participants and the dolphins,” shares Terran McGinnis, back in the classroom area where we first learned about the dolphins, their behaviors and training. “It’s this emotional experience that forever changes how we think and act toward marine life – and the planet.” While based at Hawks Cay Resort, the Dolphin Connection is open to anyone with an interest in dolphins, offering a range of experiences in addition to being the only dolphin facility in the Keys offering educational displays and a free dolphin viewing area.

Florida Keys Ecotourism

And so began our Florida Keys adventure, filled with iridescent-colored fish flickering in the sunlight on coral reefs, soaring ospreys, gentle Key Deer, and a glimpse of a few fleeting sharks. The more than 1,700 islands that encompass the Florida Keys provide refuge to hundreds of bird species, a spectacular diversity of tropical plants and abundant sea life. In other words, it’s the ultimate place for tropical adventure without leaving the continental US. No passport needed. Since there’s so much to see and do, I’ll cover it in three blogs.

Stretching along the largest living coral reef in North America and the third largest in the world, the Keys are essentially a patchwork of wildlife preserves divided by the Overseas Highway that hops through the string of islands connected by forty-two bridges. From Key Largo, where America’s first underwater preserve was established, to Key West, vast off-shore sections of the Gulf or Atlantic, along with terrestrial areas, are designated as wildlife refuges or marine sanctuaries. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary alone make up the 2,800 square nautical miles of coastal and oceanic waters and submerged lands.

Whether we were atop the water, in the water, or on dry land, nearly everything needed for adventure we found somewhere along the 128 mile highway. But stepping off the pavement, sometimes by hiking less than a few minutes off the main road, we found ourselves lost in a labyrinth of mangroves in the “backcountry” – or bobbing around in a boat in either the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean.

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