Florida Keys Ecotourism Attractions and Activities
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
Running parallel to the only living coral reef in the continental United States, the Florida Keys are custom-made for wildlife explorers, with four national wildlife refuges, two ecological reserves, fish hatcheries and miles of kayaking trails.
The precarious nature of the island chain means the environment is always top of mind here, and you can check out these eco-friendly attractions and activities that support green travel in the Keys.
Get up close and personal with the coral reef at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, America’s first underwater preserve. Part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the 70-square-mile park contains mangrove islands, historic shipwrecks with rare artifacts, tropical fish and other marine life. Enjoy the view from a glass-bottom boat tour, scuba diving excursions or snorkeling charters. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary provide tips on coral reef etiquette, such as no touching coral or marine life.
The National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key protects and preserves the diminutive, endangered Key deer, which has seen its numbers recover from only a few dozen in the 1950s to more than 1,000 today. The tiny deer can be found only in the Lower Florida Keys. With a visitor center and nature trails, the refuge is part of a larger wildlife complex inhabited by endangered marsh rabbits, box and marsh turtles, and other wildlife.
For the Birds
Bird lovers should flock to the 64-acre Marathon Wild Bird Center, which rescues, rehabilitates and released injured wild birds, or Tavernier’s Florida Keys Wild Bird Centre, which has a sanctuary, boardwalk and pelican feeding station. Another great perch to watch wading birds and songbirds is the Crane Point Museum, Nature Center and Historic Site in Marathon, where the gift store loans birding binoculars and bird guides.
In the middle of the Keys, the Dolphin Research Center is a nonprofit research and educational facility that rescues and rehabilitates whales, dolphins, sea lions and manatees in distress. The sea mammals all live in natural, seawater lagoons in the Gulf of Mexico. Interactive programs from the docks or in the water are designed to promote peaceful coexistence and communication between marine mammals, humans and the environment. There are researcher experiences, along with programs designed for children and adults with physical or cognitive limitations.
Also in the middle of the island chain, Marathon’s Turtle Hospital treats injured loggerhead, green, hawksbill and other sea turtles, and offers educational tours.
History, Tropical Gardens
In Key West, the Audubon House & Tropical Gardens is a lush, one-acre estate with orchids, bromeliads and other tropical foliage, an herb garden and an 1840-style nursery. The museum there commemorates Audubon’s 1832 visit to Key West and shares his artwork. The former home of a maritime pilot and shipwrecker, the 19th century mansion on the site was saved from destruction in the 1950s, sparking Key West’s restoration movement.
Also in Key West, the Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, a glass-enclosed habitat with up to 60 butterfly species from around the world and 20 exotic bird species is a kid-friendly escape. The conservatory’s Learning Center provides close-up views of live caterpillars feeding and developing on host plants.
The only frost-free natural conservation habitat and botanical garden in the continental United States, the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden is an arboretum and wildlife refuge that sells native, rare and endangered plants every month, including bird and butterfly attracting plants propagated by nursery volunteers. Tucked away in the garden is a rare, haunting display of Cuban boats, rafts and homemade vessels collected over the years as testimony to the ingenuity and determination of people seeking political and economic freedom across the Florida Straits.
A green find off the beaten path in Key West is the family-friendly Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, a free museum with interactive exhibits, including a 2,500-gallon living reef exhibit and a mock-up of Aquarius, the world’s only underwater ocean laboratory. It’s housed in a nondescript warehouse in the Truman Annex former military zone.
Not far from the crowds and bars of Duval Street, the backcountry of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 208,308 of protected waterways, islands and a hardwood hammock. One of the country’s first wildlife refuges, it was created in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt at a time when plume hunting for fashion was decimating migratory bird populations. Accessible only by boat, the refuge can be explored through commercial dive and snorkel tours or personal watercraft. Two dozen fishing and diving charters that have gone through the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s reef-friendly Blue Star Certification Program are listed on the sanctuary’s website. Look before you book!
Way Out Getaway
Dry Tortugas National Park is a remote offshore preserve 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico that is accessible only by ferry, seaplane or boat. The Civil War-era Fort Jefferson looms over the island, surrounded by a pristine marine environment open to snorkelers, divers, boaters and researchers. The island’s historic preservation zone offers guided tours, fishing and diving. A primitive campground is available for overnight stays.
Book a dolphin watch or snorkel tour on Key West’s first solar-powered, electric charter boat, the SQUID. The hybrid catamaran belongs to Honest Eco Sustainable Nature Tours, which also offers kayaks and yoga classes at sea on stand-up paddleboards. The tour company has a “no-kill” policy on its tours; no fishing allowed.
Catch and Release
While conservation of fish didn’t originate in the Florida Keys, the region is now the world’s poster child for catch-and-release fishing. Even novice anglers release every bonefish, permit and tarpon. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission provides a searchable directory of outfitters and fishing guides who follow environmentally ethical best practices.
Divers in the Florida Keys can explore historic shipwrecks and military vessels purposely sunk as artificial reefs along an underwater trail called the Florida Keys Wreck Trek, which stretches from Key Largo to Key West. Created to encourage an appreciation of the Keys’ maritime heritage, the artificial reefs take pressure off the natural reef system and create new recreational diving areas that thrive with aquatic life.
In the Middle Keys, catch the Pigeon Key Ferry from Marathon Key to get to the tiny, five-acre island, which was once a base for railroad workers. There are historical tours and a casual snorkeling spot around the dock. Also in Marathon, the 64-acre Crane Point Museum & Nature Trail offers guided daily kayak and paddleboard tours, including a full moon yoga tour on stand-up paddleboards.
In Key Largo, take a self-guided hike along the winding trails through the tropical hardwood hammock and butterfly garden at Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, home to the largest tract of West Indian tropical hardwood hammock in the U.S. There are 84 protected and rare species of plants and animals, including wild cotton, mahogany mistletoe and the Schaus’ swallowtail butterfly. The main, half-mile trail is paved and accessible to wheelchairs and bicycles. An additional six miles of backcountry trails are available to explore simply by filling out a backcountry permit at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park Ranger Station.
In the Middle Keys, hike among scurrying Fiddler Crabs along the 1 ½ -mile Golden Orb nature trail, a must-visit for birders at Long Key State Park. The winding path cuts through hardwood hammocks that double as an important refuge for song birds, such as White Crowned Pigeons, a threatened species in Florida.
In Marathon, the small and sublime Sombrero Beach is an ideal spot for sea turtle nest watching between April and October.
DINING AND FOOD
The vegetarian and seafood menu at The Café in Key West is an in-the-know spot for organic-minded locals. Rotating art exhibits by local artists are a plus.
Date & Thyme
Date & Thyme is a Key West café, juice bar and market with gluten-free, omnivore, raw and vegan options.
Sugar Apple Café
Completing the Key West healthy-eating trifecta: Sugar Apple Café & Market is a vegan café with a natural grocery.
Food for Thought
In Marathon, go for a smoothie and a wrap at Food For Thought, a vegetarian, organic and raw foods café inside a health food store and bookstore.
It’s a Conspiracy
On Big Pine Key, Good Food Conspiracy is an organic health food market and juice bar with vegetarian soups, pita sandwiches, salads, smoothies and more.
Conch is no longer a local food in the Keys – due to severe overfishing it’s illegal to harvest them in the United States. Most of the conch on menus in the Keys comes from the Bahamas. If you must sample, Alabama Jack’s, an open-air dive on the highway connecting Key Largo to the rest of Florida, is the place to enjoy excellent homemade conch fritters.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium provides a state-by-state Seafood Watch guide to help green travelers make sustainable menu choices. The guide’s Florida “best choices” include pompano, mutton snapper and wahoo. One fish you should feel free to devour during your visit is lionfish, a carnivorous invasive species now served in restaurants to help curb its over-abundance in South Florida.
Because their claws regenerate and there are strict rules about harvesting them, stone crabs also can be an eco-friendly eating choice. Keys Fisheries, an open-air fish house overlooking the bay in Marathon, is one of the most popular options. Surrounded by commercial docks, it serves stone crabs direct from its own boats during season from October to May.
Key West is a pedestrian- and bike-friendly city, with most tourism sites and restaurants in Old Town reached easily by walking. Bicycle rental companies are everywhere on the island.
There are also ferry services, buses and electric car rentals. Five 6’s Taxi features a hybrid vehicle fleet recognizable for their hot-pink paint jobs. Hybrid rental cars are available for rent at Miami International Airport for visitors who fly into the city and drive down to the Keys.
Kona Kai Resort
Kona Kai Resort in Key Largo has its own botanic gardens, with smart device-enabled signs for self-guided tours.
In Key West, Gardens Hotel was the first in Florida to be designated as certified green lodging by the state. Dubbed the “prettiest hotel in Key West” by the New York Times, it features solar-heated water for laundry, a water filtration system that eliminates the use of plastic bottles of water, in-room recycling basket, composting, nontoxic room cleaning and rain catchment for grounds irrigation, among other eco-friendly practices.
Also in Key West, the Southernmost Beach Resort saved and replanted dozens of plants and trees when it completed its newest wing. The pool here is solar heated and the rooms have keycard-activated cooling systems that lower the thermostat to “efficiency mode” when guests leave.
Grassy Flats Resort
On Grassy Key in the Middle Keys, the oceanfront Grassy Flats Resort & Beach Club is an eco-friendly property that bans single-use plastics, employs plant-based cleaning products and uses reclaimed storm water for landscape irrigation. A five-year solar investment offsets resort consumption and a 1,500-square-foot beach restoration effort is now a turtle-friendly nesting site.
To find other Florida Keys properties recognized for water- and energy-saving measures, the Florida Green Lodging Program provides a directory here.
Website for Volunteers
From coral restoration to building homes with Habitat for Humanity, visitors who want to do good on their vacation have plenty of voluntourism options in the Keys. The Monroe County Tourist Development Council hosts a website of events and Florida Keys charities with volunteer opportunities.
Divers can become citizen scientists and work side-by-side with marine scientists to help with reef restoration in the Upper Keys through the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo. There’s even an Adopt-A-Coral program.
Tribute to Trees
Up the Keys, a woman-owned eco-tour operator, offers voluntouring excursions as part of its kayak tours. Visitors clean up marine trash and debris then plant mangrove seedlings in areas where hurricanes have devastated the plant species.
The Reef Environment Education Foundation (REEF) is a nonprofit that encourages recreational divers and snorkelers to conduct fish surveys during their normal dive activities.
The Monroe County Tourist Development Council provides other green travel tips for the Florida Keys here.