From Miami to Key West, U.S. Route 1 leapfrogs key to key for 113 miles and across 42 overseas bridges in a rather amazing feat of engineering. Known as the Overseas Highway, U.S. Route 1 runs through the heart and soul of the Florida Keys passing by an endless supply of souvenir shops, strip malls and fast food joints directly parallel to the third largest barrier reef in the world.
Despite being one of the most touristy spots in the nation, welcoming cruise ships, bohemians, bikers, margherita drinkers, fisherman and boaters, the Florida Keys is also home to one of the most unique ecosystems in the United States. Off the tip of Florida, curving southwest for 126 miles, lies an archipelago of 1,700 islands which are part of a massive coral reef known as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Covering 9,600 square kilometers, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is the closest federally protected coral reef in the continental United States and the third largest coral reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and the reefs off of Belize.
Without the barrier reefs, the entire ecological and environmental make-up of the Florida Keys would be different. Instead of the gentle, calm, nurturing warm waters that provide an essential protected habitat for fish and organisms, there would be rough waves and sandy beaches replacing the mangroves and sea grass that are the trees of life in the Keys.
Although I have visited the Florida Keys numerous times over the past twenty years, I had no idea that that the Keys represent such an amazing ecological treasure until I spent a morning sea kayaking in the backwaters of Stock Island Key. During a fantastic two-hour ecotour with Blue Planet Kayaks, my family and I set off into the warm, shallow crystal clear waters and entered the magical canopies of mangroves where we learned all about the magnificent ecosystem of the Florida Keys.
Our tour began on Stock Island, a short drive from our hotel in Key West, where we met our knowledgeable guide for the morning and had a brief lesson on the essentials of sea kayaking. My nine-year old daughter climbed in front and I took the back of our two-person kayak and set off into the hot breezeless morning paddling towards the first canopy of mangroves.
The Florida Keys are not known for their beaches. In fact, almost all the sand the covers the sparse beaches in the Keys is imported from the Bahamas. I never stopped to question why there were no real beaches or why there were no waves along the Florida Keys until I learned about the importance of the flora and fauna in making this magical sanctuary.
Together with sea grass, mangroves play a critical role in creating and sustaining the unique ecosystem along the Florida Keys. There are over 80 different species of mangroves, and mangroves line more than 1,800 miles of shoreline within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. In the Florida Keys, the red, black, and white mangroves are the most prominent. (1) As for sea grass, an estimated 2.7 million acres of seagrass meadows grow along Florida’s extensive coastline, protected bays and lagoons (2).
Mangroves and seagrass work together to provide a unique haven of nutrients for the fish, sea urchins, starfish and birds that live and feed in the area. The roots of mangroves act as a barrier to the movement of the waves protecting the shoreline from erosion and creating an area of calm, warm, salty water that is called a lagoon or the “flats“. Seagrass acts to stabilize the sediments on the seafloor and together with mangroves filters pollutants and absorbs excess nutrients from runoff helping to increase the beautiful clarity and quality of the water. The leaves from the mangroves fall into water and decompose providing an excellent source of nutrition.
I was amazed by how incredibly magical, mysterious and beautiful it was inside the mangroves. Paddling at times got rather difficult and we had to dissemble our paddle into two smaller parts so we could pass through the tangling web of mangroves. We saw tree spiders that attached themselves to the mangled roots, sea urchins, star fish and lots of different kinds of fish. Ospreys, herons, pelicans and cormorants also make this ecosystem their home.
What I enjoyed most about our ecotour was that the group size was very small (they keep groups to under 10 people) and our guide was like a paddling encyclopedia. For two hours, we learned all about the amazing diversity and uniqueness of this place. When tourists think about visiting the Florida Keys, rarely is it to explore the mangroves that decorate its coast. I think a lot of people are clearly missing out.
If you go:
We hired Blue Planet Kayak to take our family of four on the Boca Chica two-hour tour. The tour is very well suited for families as well as for both beginner and experienced paddlers. Here is a brief description from their website:
The Boca Chica tour offers a great diversity of marine life and habitats in a small area, highlighted by fantastic tidal creeks. We’ll meander on emerald waters through islands of exotic red mangroves, known as “walking trees.” Then paddle over sandy shallows brimming with coral, sponges, starfish, crabs, anemones, urchins and tropical fish. You will want to bring your camera for this!
Your guide will catch some of these critters — you can get to know them personally! As we drift near a tropical island, you will see osprey nesting and wading birds feeding. Queen conch, small sharks, tarpon and stingrays are common, as is the spectacular spotted eagle ray.
This is our most popular tour and a great paddle for families. Being largely sheltered from the wind, it’s ideal for beginner and pros alike. Located two miles from Key West.
Tour Duration: 2.5 hours
Meets: 10 am & 12:30 pm
Summer hours: 10 am only
Price: $50 per person
(does not include $3 per ticket fee + tax)
(1). Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary – What are mangroves?
(2). Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary – What is sea grass?