Connect and protect in the Florida Keys: 5 sustainable adventures with the locals

The local residents are the most passionate guardians of the pristine Florida Keys. Here’s how you can explore with the lightest of footsteps, with help from the ‘Stewards of the Keys’…

Jacqui Agate
21 February 2022
Promoted by
Florida Keys Travel

Jutting out from Florida’s southern tip, this sub-tropical necklace of islands brims with natural riches, from a sprawling coral reef to precious and rare wildlife. The local residents are its most passionate guardians, so here’s how you can explore with the lightest of footsteps, with help from the ‘Stewards of the Keys’…

1. Help restore a coral reef with Roxane Boonstra’s dive team

Key Largo-based Coral Restoration Foundation has outplanted some 150,000 critically endangered corals off the Keys since 2007 (Tim Grollimund)

Few experiences are more stirring than diving into the deep blue to see kaleidoscopic coral reefs, and you can do just that in the Florida Keys. The archipelago is home to the only living coral barrier reef in the continental USA, and the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) is committed to protecting it. In just over a decade, the CRF has restored some 17,600 sq km of Florida’s reef through a method called outplanting.

Roxane Boonstra is the foundation’s Dive Training Administrator, working with local charters to help divers explore the coral reef in responsible ways. Start your adventure with a visit to CRF’s Exploration Center in Key Largo to learn of the importance of the ecosystem, before delving beneath the ocean and planting some coral yourself within an organised program.

Nearby, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the USA’s first undersea park, is another great place to make a splash. When choosing a snorkelling or diving expedition, just remember to consider a ‘Blue Star’ sustainable and responsible tour operator.

2. Watch wildlife with Captain Sam Zeher

See Islamorada’s pelicans as well as other wildlife on a boat tour with Captain Sam Zeher

There’s a bounty of wildlife in the Florida Keys, from gentle manatees to colourful birdlife, and a responsible boat tour is a top way to see it. Head out with KeyZ Charters; founded by Captain Sam Zeher, it’s one of a number of female owned-and-run eco-tour operations on the archipelago.

Sam will whisk you out from Robbie’s Marina, Islamorada, in a tri-hull deck boat with room for six wildlife-loving passengers. You’ll weave through labyrinthine mangrove channels, keeping your eyes peeled for basking saltwater crocodiles and ospreys diving for lunch. Sam earned her captain’s license 12 years ago, at the age of just 18, so you’ll be in safe, expert hands.

3. Support rehabilitated sea turtles with Bette Zirkelbach

Five species of sea turtles call the archipelago home (Frazier Nivens)

Five species of turtles, all sadly endangered, call the Florida Keys’ azure blue waters home. These are the hawksbill, green, Kemp’s ridley, loggerhead and leatherback turtles and one Keys woman plays a core role in protecting them.

For a decade, Bette Zirkelbach has been the manager at Marathon’s Turtle Hospital, a facility devoted to the care of these creatures. Since 1986, the centre has helped to rescue and rehabilitate more than 2,000 turtles. The public can get a behind-the-scenes look at the working hospital. Book a 90-minute tour of the centre to learn all about sea turtles and even join a feeding session. It’s sometimes possible to see rehabilitated turtles released back into the wild at beaches across the Keys.

4. Kayak through mangroves with Captain Bill Keogh

Kayaking mangrove-lined waterways (Shutterstock)

Photographer, author and expert tour guide Bill Keogh arrived in the Lower Florida Keys more than three decades ago – and he was so enchanted by the region that he never left. Now he shares the wilds of his adopted home with visitors through his guided eco -friendly kayak tours.

Big Pine Kayak Adventures begin their excursions from Old Wooden Bridge Fishing Camp & Marina near No Name Key Bridge, on Big Pine Key. From here, you’ll navigate the waters around the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge and the National Key Deer Refuge, getting to the heart of a wilderness made up of pin-drop-quiet mangroves and grass flats. Look out for unique-to-the-area Key deer, plus wading birds and horseshoe crabs as you take in Bill’s narration on the area’s natural history. For extra inspiration, Bill published the Florida Keys Paddling Guide so you can plan your own watery adventure.

5. See dolphins with Captain Billy Litmer

Spot wild dolphins from a boat tour (Shutterstock)

Glimpsing a dolphin pod dance about the ocean’s surface is bucket list stuff and Honest Eco’s Dolphin Watch and Snorkel tours offer this rare opportunity. The company is the brainchild of biologist Billy Litmer, who wanted to bring eco-friendly nature tours, including wild dolphin watching, to the Key West area.

To keep environmental impacts low, Billy designed a pioneering hybrid catamaran – affectionately named SQUID – that’s powered by a lithium-ion, solar-charged battery. When you go on a tour, the time spent out on the pristine blue waters of Key West National Wildlife Refuge almost feels indulgent. You’ll spend four hours or so in search of dolphins, and enjoying a guided snorkelling trip.

However you decide to spend your time exploring the Florida Keys, ensuring your visit is an eco-friendly one will be easy with a little help from the ‘Stewards of the Keys’.

Make it happen

America As You Like It (0208 742 8299) offers a seven-night Wandering in the Keys self-drive multi-centre itinerary of the Florida Keys. Priced from £2,229 per person, the package includes return flights from LHR to Miami, car hire, and seven nights’ accommodation (two nights at Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada, three nights at The Gardens in Key West, and two nights in Marathon at Tranquility Bay). The price is based on travel in November 2022.

Turn your dreams of visiting the Florida Keys into a reality by heading over to the official website.

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