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.