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

Reader Contribution by John D. Ivanko
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Our 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.

In the Water

“Pool’s open,” invites Captain Ron of the Fury Water Adventures’ Cruzan Cat catamaran. While some of the eleven passengers descended into the warm, turquoise waters from a ladder at the back of the boat, others, like us, jumped off the side, hanging onto our snorkel mask. We coasted along the surface to a patch coral reef known as the Western Dry Rocks, nestled within the Key West National Wildlife Refuge about seven miles from Key West. To get to the reef anywhere in the Keys requires at least a three mile journey off shore.

The sun bathed the rainbow-colored parrotfish and angelfish in light, shimmering off the Fire, Elkhorn and Staghorn coral. Elaborate sea fans waved with the current. Visibility was over 60 feet. Crew member Stephanie not only prepped us prior to us jumping in, she was right there alongside us, pointing out a nurse shark resting on the sandy bottom and confirming our glimpse of a reef shark — before it sped off. “You’re much too big to be a possible meal for them,” confirms Stephanie, smiling off the encounter.

Woman Key Mangroves

The reef wasn’t our only stop on the Fury’s six-hour “Island Adventure” eco-trip. Next, our captain took us to Woman Key. To get to a spectacular shallow sandbar off the island, we climbed into sea kayaks and paddled ashore. Stephanie took some of our group to explore the mangroves while the rest of us hung on the sand bar, spotting a bonnethead shark and sea biscuits.

Later in the week during a stretch of calm winds and plentiful sun, we visited another patch reef closer in, aboard Sabago’s catamaran sailboat. This was followed by a trip in Danger Charters’ 65-foot skipjack sailboat, uniquely able to put us in five-foot-deep seagrass meadows, dotted with huge sponges, around which we spotted squid and stingrays. 

“There are those captains that admit they’ve run aground and those that have yet to run aground,” laughs Captain Christian, steering Danger’s Prize with one foot while peering over the side at the four-foot-deep waters. “And then, there are the ones who lie about it.”   While snorkeling is the most readily accessible way to explore the reef and ocean, for the PADI-certified, thousands of people every year go SCUBA-diving to patch or bank reefs or at the more than 1,000 shipwrecks scattered along the Keys.

My next blog will cover the adventure from on top of the water or on dry land.

Dolphin Photo: Courtesy ofDolphin Connection.

John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, the award-winning ECOpreneuringand Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn SerendipityB&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun.  Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs.  Ivanko writes and contributes photography 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.