Eco Adventures

From swimming with dolphins to kayaking and snorkeling, the Florida Keys provides plenty of hands-on ecological encounters.
By John Handley

The two fins sliced the water, moving fast toward the swimmer.


Above: A dolphin trainer giving commands at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key. John Handley photo

Below: Kayakers paddling adjacent to mangrove islands at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo. Bob Krist, Florida Keys News Bureau photo


The sea creatures then made contact with the swimmer’s feet and propelled him across the surface on his back.

This was not an unprovoked attack. Actually, the swimmer was smiling, and the two dolphins seemed to be smiling, too.

The aquatic action was part of a dolphin encounter in the Florida Keys. Interacting with these friendly and intelligent marine mammals is just one way to learn about America’s subtropical paradise, a 125-mile chain of islands dipping southwest from the Florida mainland.

Beyond the beaches and the souvenir shops, beyond the piña coladas and the Key lime pie, the world of ecotourism is waiting to be explored.

Swim with the Big Boys

Ecotourism is more than just the latest buzzword for nature vacations. It’s much more than fun in the sun. It’s learning and enjoying it at the same time.

In the Florida Keys, it can be swimming with dolphins; kayaking in the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay; spotting sand sharks, turtles and sea birds. It can be snorkeling in the massive Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary with the third-largest coral reef in the world. It can be visiting a historic Bahamian village at Crane Point Museum & Nature Center, and seeing the big ecological picture at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center.

Start at Key Largo, the largest key and closest to Miami. Famed for the classic 1948 movie “Key Largo,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, it is home of the No. 1 snorkeling and scuba diving site in the Keys–John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The nation’s first undersea park, Pennekamp was established to protect and preserve the only living coral reef in the United States. It can be viewed wet or dry. Concession services near the visitor center offer daily snorkeling, scuba and glass-bottom boat tours.

A high-speed, glass-bottom catamaran takes passengers out to the undersea gardens three times a day. For a closer look, take a snorkeling tour. Equipment can be rented. A dive boat roars out to the reef, five miles offshore.

On the way out, the dive master warns everyone not to touch or stand on the fragile coral, parts of which has been damaged in recent years by pollution, oil spills, tropical storms and boat anchors.

While the reef is the home of sharks, moray eels, barracuda, jellyfish, sea turtles, sponges, crabs and lobsters, the snorkelers on this day are happy to see just a variety of multi-colored fish swimming past their masks.

After the trip, some continue snorkeling on the beach near the visitor center where 130 feet offshore are sunken cannons from an early 1700s Spanish shipwreck.

Elsewhere on Key Largo is another watery adventure. Dolphins Plus is one of the places in the Keys to meet these amazing mammals up close and personal. The awesome–though pricey–experience of swimming and playing with dolphins is offered daily at the facility that bills itself as a marine mammal research and educational facility.

The dolphin lifestyle is explained during the hour-long briefing before swimmers jump in the water. First, these are not animals captured in the wild and trained to perform for humans. Most have been born in captivity and probably would not survive in the wild if released. The trainer maintains that if they wanted to escape, they could easily jump the fence and be cavorting out in the Atlantic in no time.

But they choose to stay. It actually seems the dolphins have trained the humans to cater to their every whim. They are fed an assortment of fish five times a day. The biggest eater is “Little Bit,” an 11-footer who weighs in at 700 pounds. Dolphins don’t drink seawater but get moisture from the fish they eat.

“They thrive on attention, look forward to interaction and love to be touched,” says Jim Weinpress, trainer at Dolphins Plus. They make sounds–clicks and whistles–through their blowholes. Swimmers, who wear flotation vests, wait for the trainer to give verbal and hand signals to the dolphins. Then the fun begins–belly rubs, hand-flipper shakes, foot pushes, dorsal fin tows, and even kisses. Their skin feels slick and rubbery.

When the dolphins are off duty, they cruise at their own pace. Another program allows swimmers with fins, mask and snorkel to swim along with them. But no touching is allowed.

Other places for dolphin encounters include the Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, about 25 miles south of Key Largo, and at the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, 30 miles farther south.

In addition to dolphin, sea lion and stingray swim programs, the Theater of the Sea presents dolphin and sea lion shows, displays turtles and tropical birds, and gives glass-bottom boat tours in a saltwater lagoon.

The Dolphin Research Center is a tourist attraction and a behavioral study facility. It has 19 dolphins, most born there. But Jax is an exception. He was estimated to be eight to 10 months old in March 2007 when he was spotted swimming in the St. John’s River near Jacksonville, Fla. Orphaned and injured, he was nursed back to health. Deemed by the National Marine Fisheries to be non-releasable and in need of a permanent home, Jax joined the pod at the research center in January 2008 and is thriving there.

Farther south in Marathon is the Turtle Hospital, a state-certified veterinary care facility for sea turtles that also gives guided tours. In addition to rehabbing injured sea turtles and returning them to the wild, the hospital also educates the public through outreach programs, conducts research and advocates for legislation to make the beaches and water safe for sea turtles. On average, it receives 70 injured sea turtles a year and to date has released more than 1,000.

Also on Marathon is a unique nature preserve. A part of old Florida has been preserved at Crane Point. The 64-acre environmental and archeological site includes the fascinating Museum of Natural History of the Florida Keys. Then stroll through a wilderness of tropical vegetation on winding trails to the site of a 19th-century Bahamian village.

Nature Up Close

For those who want to get out on the water, there are many outfitters up and down the Keys that rent kayaks. Naturalist guide Bill Keogh, author of “The Florida Keys Paddling Guide,” specializes in half- and full-day kayaking tours at his Big Pine Kayak Adventure on Big Pine Key.

Robbie’s Marina on Islamorada rents kayaks for paddling to nearby mangrove systems. But many stop at Robbie’s just for its “tarpon show.” People buy food to hand-feed the large, hungry tarpon that swarm under the dock. Watch your fingers, though; the tarpon have sharp teeth. Resident pelicans share the dock with tourists and boaters.

Known for one of the best sandy beaches in the Keys, Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key also rents kayaks for exploring the ocean and the bay. The 524-acre park also is the jumping off point for daily snorkeling trips to Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary.

The old Bahia Honda Bridge, visible from a bay beach, is a reminder of what was once called “Flagler’s Folly,” the construction of a railroad line from Miami to Key West. Completed in 1912 and destroyed by a hurricane in 1935, the rail line was converted into U.S. Highway 1.

At the end of the road is Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States. This also is the site of the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, a must stop for eco-tourists. The 6,400-square-foot center showcases the Keys’ underwater world, as well as land environments. Be sure to step into the mock-up of the Aquarius Undersea Lab and take an interactive tour of the wonders beneath the sea.

For eco-friendly adventures, the Florida Keys will unlock a treasure trove of experiences that will put you in touch with nature–literally.

John Handley is a contributor from Northbrook, Ill.

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May/Jun 2009 Issue


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