Sitting at the southernmost tip of Florida, the Keys are a chain of islands that mark the border between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. The waters that surround the more than 1700 islands are famous for their warm temperatures, stunningly blue colors, and diversity of wildlife. It is because of all those things, and more, that the waters are protected, making up the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Last week we told you how you could explore that sanctuary aboard a personal watercraft, but for those looking for a less adventurous, not to mention less expensive, option, you can simply drop by the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, located in Key West.
The Discovery Center is operated by NOAA and offers up three things that are often in short supply in Key West, namely free parking, free admission, and plenty of air conditioning. The Center has plenty of other things to offer beyond that however, giving visitors a chance to see what life is like in the Keys both above and below the water. The numerous displays on hand show the diversity of both the flora and fauna throughout the region and describe in detail how those natural elements co-exist to create such an amazing environment.
One of the most prominent of these displays is the Mote Marine Laboratory’s 2400 gallon “Living Reef” aquarium, which gives us a glimpse of the brightly colored and energetic marine life that thrives in the waters just off the coast of the Keys islands. These fish go about their lives just as they would in the open ocean, while we get to watch on from the other side of glass.
Not far from the Living Reef display is a much smaller, but more sobering one that comes in the form of a tiny aquarium that contains the beautiful, yet destructive lionfish. Native to the Pacific, the lionfish has become an increasingly troublesome invasive species in the Keys and throughout the Caribbean, as it eats everything it encounters and has no natural predators to quell its advance. Marine biologists at the Sanctuary have been studying the fish for some time and are formulating plans on how to manage these invaders, but they fear that it could become a major threat to the Keys ecosystem in the years ahead.
Another popular display at the Eco-Discovery Center is its mock-up of the Aquarius underwater ocean laboratory. The real Aquarius Lab is one of the few underwater research stations in the world and is located in the Keys as well, but the Center’s simulated one is as close as most people will ever get. Looking through the lab’s portholes makes it seem that you really are far beneath the surface of the ocean, complete with divers drifting by the windows as they go about their work.
If you drop by the Discovery Center, be sure to check out their 17 minute long film entitled Reflections. The movie, which was shot completely in High Definition, chronicles life in the Keys through the eyes of a young girl who grows up with a unique appreciation for the place she lives in. The underwater scenes are breathtaking and will delight and captivate visitors of all ages.
Located at the end of Southard Street in the Truman Waterfront, in Key West, the Eco-Discovery Center is easy to find and a great way to beat the tropical heat. It also happens to be very close to Fort Zachery Taylor, a popular Florida State Park. While you’re in the area, it may be worth swinging by that historic site as well.