Beat the heat at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center

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.

Exploring the Florida Keys by personal watercraft

The Florida Keys are a bit of a hidden gem. Sure, Florida is a well known, and much loved, tourist destination, but the Keys dangle at he far southern end, stretching out into the sea, forming a barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Many travelers never make it that far south, preferring to stop in the theme park that is Orlando or maybe wander down to Miami for the never ending beach party there.

Those who do make the trip south along scenic U.S. Highway 1 will be treated to quite a destination. The Keys are a fantastic mix of deep south hospitality and Caribbean charm that blends well to give the place its own unique feel. The islands have a laid back vibe that is quite contagious, and after just a day or two, you’ll be shopping for real estate and contemplating making a permanent move.

The more than 1700 islands that make up the Keys are sprinkled throughout the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a 2800-square nautical mile area that stretches from the Atlantic to the Bay of Florida, and on to the Gulf itself. The Sanctuary boasts the third largest barrier reef in the world, and the only one of its kind in North America. It also happens to be home to more than 1800 different species of plants and animals, including sprawling fields of seagrass and thick copses of mangrove trees surrounded by beautiful deep blue waters.

The Marine Sanctuary is a place that begs to be explored, both above and below the water, and on a recent visit to the Keys, I was introduced to the perfect way to take in the sights there. Aboard a personal watercraft, aka a “jet ski”, visitors to the Sanctuary are able to gain access to places that are typically unreachable by any other means. The small, but powerful, vehicles are quick and agile in tight quarters, but really fast on the open water, and best of all, they’re simply a blast to ride. Especially in a setting as amazing as the Keys.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Aren’t those personal watercraft incredibly bad for the environment? That was my first thought as well, and I wondered how they could possibly be allowed to operate inside a marine sanctuary. As it turns out, the PWC industry has seen some major technological advancements in recent years, and they are now one of the most environmentally friendly vehicles out on the water. In fact, today’s jet ski is 90% cleaner than the ones that were built a decade ago and they’re 70% quieter as well. The results are a fast and fun machine that is safe to take into even protected waters.

Just how environmentally friendly are these new watercraft? They’re so good that the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has joined forces with the Personal Watercraft Industry Association to create the Blue Rider Ocean Awareness and Stewardship Program, which looks to raise awareness of environmental and ocean conservation efforts throughout the Keys and beyond. The program works directly with tour operators throughout the region, encouraging them to share their sustainable tourism approach with their customers while also introducing them to the incredibly beautiful, yet still fragile, Keys environments.

With all of this in mind, I was all set to hit the water and for my first excursion into the National Marine Sanctuary, I would be riding through the waters off Key West, the southernmost island in the chain. Enlisting a guide from Barefoot Billy’s, a local jet ski tour operator, and following a brief orientation on my watercraft, we were soon off on an early evening ride that would cover 27 miles, completely circling the island. Along the way, we made brief stops at a few points of interest, including a nearby Naval base and a private island with massive homes starting at $5 million.

Our guide also took us out onto the open water, and with a bit of familiarization with the watercraft, we were soon zipping across the waves at speeds approaching 50 mph. The PWC’s were very responsive and easy to maneuver, even as we crossed under one of the mile long bridges of U.S. Highway 1 and out into the Atlantic Ocean, where the choppier waters introduced an exciting new element to the ride. Hitting incoming waves at higher speeds caused the jet skis to catch plenty of air, making an already great ride all the more exhilarating. At times we would fly several feet into the air, skipping from one wave to the next. The Yamaha Waverunners we were riding certainly lived up to their names.

Despite the intense experience of the open water however, the highlight of the cruise was a decidedly low speed affair. The best part of the ride was when we cut the throttle back to idle levels, and simply drifted through the natural pathways that lead to the interior of the mangroves, which grow up out of the oceans themselves. Surrounded by those lush trees on all sides, while deftly navigating the waterways, was a sublime experience, and one that left a smile on my face long after we returned to shore for the evening.

Following my heart-thumping introduction to the Keys on the back of a personal watercraft, I was more than hooked and eager for more. So, the next day we made the 70 mile drive north along scenic Highway 1 to the lovely island of Islamorada, where we grabbed yet another set of Waverunners. This time our PWC’s were provided by a local rental service called Extreme Sports Florida Keys, and after filling out all the necessary paperwork, and once again getting acquainted with the vehicle, we set out for a completely different kind of experience from the one we had the night before.

Sure, it was still loads of high speed fun out on those amazingly blue waters, but this time we really left the town behind and rode into the very heart of the marine sanctuary. Maneuvering our watercraft around a number of small islands, we once again, slipped into the lush mangrove trees, which were more dense in this area, creating an actual covered tunnel to float under. While we drifted under the thick canopy of those branches, a variety of birds hung overhead and at one point a sea turtle paddled by, barely taking notice of our presence.

The waters surrounding Islamorada offered a bit more diversity than those around Key West. At times, they were just 1.5 feet in depth, which further demonstrated the PWC’s ability to reach places where much larger, and more ponderous, boats couldn’t go. This gave us access to some beautiful, yet remote, coral reefs, and with the water so clear, we could cut the engines and drift, while fish swam all about us. At one point I even had three nurse sharks pass directly beneath my jet ski, which was yet one more spectacular experience in a day filled with them.

After skimming across the calm waters to the west, we once again passed under the highway and entered the Atlantic Ocean, where we slalomed over the rougher waves for a time, before our guide gave us the signal to cut our engines and come to a stop. He then instructed us to pop open the storage compartments on the front of our watercraft, where we were delighted to discover he had stowed snorkeling gear for each of us. Moments later, we were fitting the masks to our faces and hopping off our Waverunners into the warm ocean waters. We then proceeded to spend the next 20 minutes, or so, exploring a colorful reef teeming with marine life. When we were finished, we simply scrambled back aboard our little water vehicles, re-stowed our masks and snorkels, and raced off once again.

Eventually, and very reluctantly I might add, we returned to shore, bringing an end to another aquatic adventure. But both rides through the Keys provided exciting and unique experiences that gave me the opportunity to visit the amazing environments there in an unusual and very unexpected way. Believe it or not, the personal watercraft not only deliver an exhilarating ride, but also allow you to get closer to nature than you might have ever thought possible. They truly are an outstanding way to explore the Keys, and I highly recommend the experience.