Wildlife loving holidaymakers will feel right at home in the Florida Keys, where numerous opportunities await to get ‘simply wild’ with nature. From wild dolphin watching excursions to underwater coral reef adventures, meeting the locals and learning about conservation efforts in the island chain is easy.
For more than a century, the Keys have been committed to preserving the local environment and wildlife, with efforts including the creation of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge in 1908 and the 1990 designation of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary that protects 2,800 square nautical miles of azure waters surrounding the island chain.
Here are seven unmissable and unforgettable wildlife adventures in the Florida Keys:
View a living coral reef: At John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, explore America’s first underwater preserve and a portion of the continental USA’s only living coral barrier reef, which parallels the Keys, to see colourful fish, turtles and rays. Snorkelling, diving, kayaking and glass bottom boat excursions run daily and park entry costs $8 per vehicle (around £6.50) plus a surcharge of 50 cents per person with activities priced separately. www.pennekamppark.com
Feed the ‘Silver Kings’: At Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada, visitors will discover one of the Keys’ most cost-effective and thrilling wildlife experiences – hand feeding the 100-plus tarpon (‘Silver Kings’) that gather at the dock at Robbie’s – an experience that has been attracting visitors for 40 years. Admission to the dock is just $2 (around £1.55) and each bucket of fish costs $3 (less than £2.50). While at Robbie’s, keep your eyes peeled for pelicans too! www.robbies.com/tarpon.htm
Visit the Turtle Hospital: Believed to be the world’s first state-licenced veterinary hospital dedicated to treating injured sea turtles, The Turtle Hospital in Marathon has worked to rescue, rehabilitate and release over 1,500 endangered turtles back into their ocean home since it opened in 1986. Ninety-minute guided tours teach visitors about sea turtles and rehabilitation efforts by the facility. Lucky holidaymakers may even witness a turtle release. Entry costs $22 (around £17) for adults and $11 (around £8.50) for children ages 4-12. Tour reservations are recommended. www.turtlehospital.org
Twitcher’s Paradise: Located near the town of Layton, Long Key State Park was the site of railroad magnate Henry Flagler’s Long Key Fishing Camp in the early 20th century. Today its 1.1-mile-long Golden Orb Trail leads visitors through five nature areas that are popular for birding, attracting white-crowned pigeons and rare Key West Quail Doves. Park entry costs $4.50 (less than £3.50) per person. www.floridastateparks.org/park/Long-Key
Into the Wilds: Unique to the natural Lower Keys, standing at around one metre tall and weighing up to 85 pounds, Key Deer are the smallest subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer. Inhabiting 20-25 islands in the Lower Keys, close to 1,000 remain in the wild. Stop at sites like the Blue Hole in the 9,200-acre National Key Deer Refuge to try to spot deer and other wildlife. No entry fee applies for the refuge. www.fws.gov/refuge/National_Key_Deer_Refuge
Hemingway’s Six-Toed Cats: Author Ernest Hemingway’s former Key West home continues to be home to 40-50 unique polydactyl (six-toed) cats, many of whom are direct descendants of the writer’s own cat Snow White. Entry to the historic house costs $14 (around £11) for adults and $6 (around £4.65) for children ages 6-12. www.hemingwayhome.com/cats
Wild Dolphin Watching: Keys visitors can go in search of wild dolphins in their natural playground off the Key West coast with Captain Victoria Impallomeni of Dancing Dolphin Spirits Charters. Called the ‘dolphin whisperer,’ Captain Victoria is an expert guide to Key West’s backcountry waters with over 37 years’ eco-touring experience. Equipped with her own signature ‘whistle’ to signal her arrival at the playground, she knows many of the dolphins by name. Trips for up to six people cost from $500 (around £385) for a half-day adventure. www.dancingdolphinspirits.com/key-west-dolphin-tours
Sample Package: Purely America (0844 80 444 80, www.purelyamerica.co.uk) has seven nights in the Florida Keys from £1,449 per person. Valid for travel in June 2018, the price includes four nights in Key Largo and three nights in Key West, return British Airways flights from London Heathrow to Miami and car hire for the duration. Based on two adults travelling and sharing room-only accommodation.
Discover the Florida Keys & Key West at www.fla-keys.co.uk