On a recent visit to the Florida Keys, I got a glimpse of the ecosystems that must be safeguarded to ensure that this chain of tropical isles remains one of America’s favorite year-round destinations. The ongoing “greening of the Keys” is a top priority of local residents who have practiced sustainability for more than a century and continue to con-front and deal with critical issues impacting the environment from Key Largo to Key West. Wherever you travel in the Keys you can participate in “eco-attractions” from swimming with dolphins to walking among thousands of butterflies to photographing en-dangered wildlife in its natural habitat. Here are some of the many highlights I discovered.
No organization plays a more critical role in promoting sustainability and eco-tourism than the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Established in 1990, its mission is to preserve and protect the only coral barrier reef in North America and the third longest in the world. The sanctuary encompasses 2,900 square nautical miles, including the entire land mass of the islands along with vast stretches of Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean. Other eco-sensitive areas exist within state parks, forests, and wildlife refuges inhabited by hundreds of species of birds along with indigenous trees, plants, and endangered creatures that include the American crocodile and Key deer.
The Keys were cut off from the mainland until the early 1900s when industrialist and rail-road magnate Henry Flagler began construction of an extension to the Florida East Coast Railroad. This monumental engineering feat, which took seven years (1905 to 1912) to complete, played a leading role in the rise of tourism and commerce by trans-porting people and goods from the mainland to the islands. Mother Nature brought a sudden and tragic end to the railroad in 1935, when the Great Labor Day Hurricane, packing winds of 150 miles per hour, raged through the Keys, wiping out the tracks and killing 800 people.
MARKING THE MILES
The railroad was replaced in 1938 by the Overseas Highway (U.S. Highway 1) which spans 126 miles and crosses 42 bridges en route from Key Largo to Key West. You can chart your progress heading south by referring to Mile Markers (MM) on the right side of the highway designating the locations of state parks, recreational facilities, historical and cultural attractions, hotels, and restaurants. Mile markers begin at the northern tip of Key Largo (MM 126) and get smaller and smaller en route to the end of the road at Key West (MM 0). A good way to begin your road trip is with a visit to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (MM 102). Established in 1963, it is the first underwater preserve in the country and ranks as the number one dive destination in North America. The park’s underwater universe is home to more than 50 varieties of coral, with spectacular formations that include staghorn corals sporting mammoth antlers, lime-green brain cor-als the size of automobiles, transparent sea fingers and lavender sea fans.
Since I don’t dive, I donned a mask and fins for a snorkeler’s-eye view of the coral and the kaleidoscopic array of multicolored parrotfish, angelfish, and butterfly fish darting to and fro beneath the surface. Other sea creatures that depend on the reef for sustenance include crabs, snails, jellyfish, groupers, lobsters, moray eels, barracudas, turtles, and dolphins. Those who prefer to stay dry can peer into the depths from one of the park’s glass-bottom boats that depart throughout the day.
Adjacent to Pennekamp Park is the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge (admission prohibited), the breeding ground of the endangered American crocodile. At one point the number of crocs declined to around 500, and without this preserve protecting the natural habitat of this reptile that roamed the earth during the dinosaur era, it most likely would have become extinct.
TAKING IT SLOW
While many of you may be intent on getting to Key West as soon as possible (depend-ing on traffic, it takes from three to four hours to drive the length of the highway), it’s best to proceed at a more leisurely pace and spend time visiting some of the state parks, wildlife refuges, and sanctuaries along the way. Doing so enriches your overall travel experience, as you explore some of the Keys’ many natural wonders and also learn about the history and culture of different islands.
At many state parks you can rent a kayak or canoe and set off into the surrounding wa-ters. Whether you choose to go alone or with a guide, I recommend spending a morning or afternoon paddling through the unspoiled backcountry wilderness where ecosystems ranging from tidal lagoons to salt flats, mangroves, and seagrass beds play a vital role in the survival of the reef. Mangroves are especially important since the submerged roots of these salt-tolerant trees are a nursery and breeding ground for most of the marine life that migrates to the reef. Seagrasses are also vital to the reef’s creatures, as they provide food for turtles, manatees, and a variety of fish as well as releasing oxygen into the water and stabilizing the ocean bottom with their roots.
FOSSILS, FLORA, AND FAUNA
Less than 20 miles south of Pennekamp Park is the entrance to 32-acre Windley Key Quarry Fossil Reef Geological State Park (MM 85) where you can view the inside of a fossilized coral reef and examine remarkably preserved remnants of ancient coral ani-mals. It’s 10 miles from here to Islamorada—renowned as the sports-fishing capital of the world—where you can take a short boat ride to Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park (MM 77).The centerpiece of this island’s ecosystem is the 280-acre Lignumvitae virgin forest dating from primeval times which has remained virtually untouched by man. The slow growing lignumvitae, an endangered native hardwood tree, was believed by Native Americans who once inhabited the island to have medicinal qualities (the island’s Latin name means “wood of life”). Besides the Lignumvitae there is much else to see, with poisonwood, strangler fig, pigeon plum, and gumbo limbo trees.
Another 14 miles down the road is Conch Key (MM 63), an historic fishing village re-minding what life was like in the Keys long before it became a magnet for tourism. Small cottages built in the 1920s are home to commercial trap and line fishermen who still work from their backyards.
At Crane Point Sanctuary (MM 50) rare flora and fauna flourish, including 10 endan-gered plant and animal species. You can follow a nature trail that wends its way through the last virgin hammock in North America (a hammock is a patch of tropical trees found in wetlands that are excellent habitats for wildlife). Also on view are pre-historic Indian artifacts and a 19th-century-home built to withstand hurricanes.
One of the most fascinating stops is at Big Pine Key, home of tiny Key deer measuring just two feet tall and weighing between 40 and 80 pounds. An endangered species, the world’s smallest deer was hunted to near extinction in the 1940s, when the population dwindled to less than 50. As a result, the Key Deer Reserve was established to make killing illegal and ensure that the deer would be permanently protected. The population has increased to around 800 today, and the best chance of spotting one is early in the morning around sunrise.
GOING GREEN AT THE END OF THE ROAD
Closer to Cuba (90 miles) than Miami, the southernmost destination in the United States marks the end of your ride down the Overseas Highway. While best known as a “fun in the sun” destination where people come to play all day and party deep into the wee hours, Key West is also a strong advocate of sustainability in regard to preserving and restoring both its manmade and natural resources.
I began my self-guided tour at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, a waterfront museum that showcases the Key’s marine ecosystem and upland habitats through innova-tive displays and interactive exhibits. Here you can take a video tour of the undersea world and view indigenous fish and sea creatures on video screens shaped like port-holes. You can also take a “virtual dive” to 1,600 feet and check out a replica of Aquarius, the world’s only underwater ocean laboratory. From here I moved on to the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden, the only “frost-free” botanical garden in the continental United States, which is home to many threatened flora and fauna. The forest has two of the last remaining freshwater ponds in the Keys and is inhabited by many of the Keys’ rare birds. Another “bird-friendly” attraction is the century-old National Wildlife Refuge Center dedicated to protecting the breeding grounds of migratory species. The refuge was created in 1908 by then-president Theodore Roosevelt at a time when migratory bird populations were being decimated nationwide.
Sustainability extends to Key West’s distinctive gingerbread houses and Victorian man-sions, among the city’s 2,500 historical buildings. Many homes built in the 1800s are concentrated in Old Town, including the two-story Spanish colonial mansion constructed in 1851 that was purchased by Ernest Hemingway in 1931. It was here that the Nobel prize winner wrote several classic works including Death in the Afternoon, Snows of Kili-manjaro, and To Have and Have Not. Today the Hemingway House is open to the public, as are many other well-preserved 19th century structures, such as the Little White House (1890) that was Harry Truman’s “home away from home” during his presidency; Audubon House and Gardens (1845), containing an exceptional collection of rare works by artist and ornithologist John J. Audubon; and the Wreckers Museum (1829), containing artifacts obtained from shipwrecks and a collection of model ships, which is reputed to be the oldest house in the city.