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Below the Sparkling Turquoise Waters

Nov 01, 2023 02:30PM ● By ANN MARIE O’PHELAN

Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary works to protect a fragile eco-system

As staff at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary likes to say, “As soon as you step into the waters of the Florida Keys, you are in the sanctuary.”

“And it’s a big place—3,800 square miles,” contin­ues Scott Atwell, communications manager for the sanctuary. Indeed, anyone who has visited the Keys via the 110-mile Over­seas Highway, with its 42 bridges and expansive ocean views, knows it’s no small place. Nor is it a place one forgets. “Out on those turquoise waters, within sanctuary boundaries, lie spec­tacular, unique, and nationally significant marine resources, including North America’s only coral barrier reef, extensive seagrass beds, mangrove-fringed islands, and more than 6,000 species of marine life, including sea turtles, jellyfish, and West Indian manatees,” says Atwell.

“This is like the Yellowstone of the marine ecosystem. Irreplaceable. These waters are the linchpin of Florida Keys eco­nomics, culture, and social structure, and the sanctuary’s role is in protecting and preserving it for future generations,” he adds.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, one of 15 protected marine areas that make up the National Marine Sanc­tuary System, works to protect this national gem. “The ocean is a remarkably connected ecosystem, so nearly everything in it can benefit from our protections, whether it’s the mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, or coral reefs, where 25 percent of all marine life will spend some of their life cycle. We also protect nesting birds and sea turtles,” says Atwell.

On November 16, 1990, President George H. Bush signed into law the bill that established the sanctuary. With this des­ignation, measures were put into place to protect against oil exploration, mining, and activities that alter the sea floor. The bill restricts large shipping traffic, as well as anchoring on, touching, and collecting coral in the sanctuary waters.

The sanctuary also protects pieces of the nation’s history, including the nine historic shipwrecks along the Shipwreck Trail within the sanctuary. This includes the oldest ship on the trail, the San Pedro, part of the 1733 Spanish treasure fleet caught by a hurricane in the Florida Straits. It lies in 18 feet of water one mile south of Indian Key. All told, there are more than 1,000 shipwrecks off the Florida Keys; some are old, and some are more recent.

The 150-year-old Alligator Reef Lighthouse was recently relit after being extinguished a decade ago, a reminder of the historic nature of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. PHOTO COURTESY OF JACK FISHMAN

Visitors to the sanctuary can participate in recreational activ­ities such as scuba diving, swimming, snorkeling, and fishing. Diving, fishing, and snorkeling trips can be booked on Blue Star charter boats, officially recognized by the sanctuary as being dedicated to education and habitat conservation. A list is avail­able at

The sanctuary does not run tours but offers a mobile app that can help plan your visit and keep you on track. The Marine Sanctuary Explorer app is free from both Apple and Google. The app can also connect visitors to a Blue Star charter. “We recom­mend you choose Blue Star,” stresses Atwell.

In Key West, visitors get free admission to the 6,000-square-foot Eco-Discovery Center, which has interactive exhibits showcasing the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Here they can learn all about Aquarius, the world’s only underwater ocean laboratory. The center also has a 2,500-gallon reef tank with living corals and tropical fish.

The interactive exhibits highlight the different ecosystems, animals, and cultural resources of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. “Visitors can push buttons to listen to ani­mals that live in the mangroves and spin a giant ship’s wheel to learn about some of the shipwrecks that rest below the water’s surface. They can also learn about coral biology through micro­scopes and how they can help protect this fragile ecosystem,” says Emily Kovacs, Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center manager.

The Eco-Discovery Center strives to be accessible to every­one. “There are tools for people to use if they are feeling overstimulated, non-English speakers will find translated exhibit text, and an audio tour in English and several other

languages is available,” says Kovacs. The center’s days and hours can change according to staff availability, so check the website for current hours.

Now is the perfect time to visit the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, notes Atwell. “Cooler temperatures foster the clearest water visibility of the year, and if you’re from the north, we use the word ‘cooler’ very loosely.”

Ann Marie O’Phelan is a Southwest Florida resident and a regular contributor to TOTI Media.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center
35 Quay Road, Key West­covery.html