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

Reader Contribution by John Ivanko
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Read 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.

“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.

Just down the road is the Turtle Hospital where hundreds of endangered loggerhead, hawksbill and Kemp’s Ridley turtles have been rescued since 1986, many returned to the wild. Here, the turtles get the “beds” at this former hotel; the tourists receive a first-class educational program on site.

On Deer Key and No Name Key, the tiny and endangered Key Deer seemed to greet us as we hiked in the National Key Deer Refuge. Turns out, the two crocodiles we spotted in the Blue Hole are the least of the deer’s worries (collisions with cars kill most of the deer). On this stretch of islands, the aggressively enforced speed limit seeks to primarily benefit the deer.

Staying on land, our adventure also took us to Key West’s abundance of natural, historical and cultural wonders (and a few oddities, like a knife-swallowing performer in Mallory Square). We counted butterflies at the Key West Butterfly Garden and Nature Conservatory, including their latest addition, Poseidon Birdwing from New Guinea, took a virtual dive to 1,600 feet at the Eco-Discovery Center, and meandered through Ernest Hemingway’s home and gardens where he penned For Whom the Bell Tolls. Finally, the Key West Aquarium offers an interactive preview for what you’ll see in the wild – perfect for young and old alike.

There’s plenty of adventure to be had in the foods to be savored and the very accommodations themselves, covered in my next post.

John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authoredRural Renaissance, the award-winningECOpreneuringandFarmstead Chefalong with operatingInn Serendipity B&Band Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer andphotographer, Ivanko contributes to MOTHER EARTH NEWS, most recently,9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living”. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine.