Florida Keys

Florida Keys wildlife: How to see dolphins, sea turtles, Key deer

See Florida Keys animals while touring the Keys

~ For some, the Florida Keys may be about the nightlife. For my family, it’s always about the wildlife.  Few places in the U.S. offer a road trip with such easy access to such a range of unusual and fascinating creatures, including dolphins, sea turtles, Key deer, tarpon and even butterflies and chicken.

Some are rare and endangered, like the petite Key deer, which number less than 1,000. Some are so common as to be considered nuisances, like the colorful and feisty chickens that strut the streets of Key West.

Animal lovers (and most kids) will delight in them all.

It’s easy to organize your drive down the Overseas Highway into your own personal Florida Keys Wildlife Road Trip. Some of the stops are free or cost only $1 or $2. Here are eight places to help you get wild in the Keys.

For each of these places, more detailed information and photos are available through the Florida Rambler guides linked at the end of each section.

1. Swim with the fish.  John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Key Largo.

Snorkeling at Pennekamp State Park Cannon Beach

A school of snapper take shelter under a cannon at Pennekamp. Photo by PMC 1stPix via Flickr.

The Florida Keys wildlife you see here is all underwater. This is one of the most popular snorkeling spots in the continental United States. Snorkeling trips head to the reefs every day of the year. If you want to stay dry, there are glass-bottom boat tours. (If you’re prone to sea-sickness, make sure it’s a calm day.)

For those who want to see a few fish but not spend the money or time for a boat trip, Pennekamp offers very good snorkeling from its man-made Cannon Beach. The park has placed remnants of an early Spanish shipwreck about 100 feet off the beach. Fish congregate under and round the sea-life encrusted cannons and anchor.

Want to stay firmly on land? The visitor center has a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium.

FloridaRambler guide to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
U.S. 1 Mile Marker 102.5, Key Largo
(305) 451-1202
Admission: $8 per vehicle, with a limit of eight people per vehicle.

2. Befriend the birds. Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, Tavernier.

Pelican at Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, Tavernier

Pelicans crowd the walkways at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center

You’re sure to get close to a wide variety of birds native to the Florida Keys at this rescue and rehab center.  Marked with only a crude sign, the center doesn’t look like much from the Overseas Highway.  Its charm is in its informal, volunteer vibe. The shady mangrove forest is sectioned off via wire caging to create enclosures for injured birds.

But the place is full of birds outside the cages, too, with pelicans, herons and egrets hanging around hoping to snatch a little food.

Florida Rambler guide to Florida Keys Wild Bird Center
93600 Overseas Hwy MM 93.6
Tavernier
(305) 852-4486
Admission: Free.  Donations welcome.

There is also a wild-bird rescue center in Marathon:

Crane Point Museum and Nature Center
5550 Overseas Highway
Marathon
Admission:  Adults $12.50, children 5-13 $8.50 and 4 and under free.

3.  Feed the tarpon. Robbie’s Marina, Islamorada.

Tarpon being fed at Robbie's Marina

Tarpon gets a bite at Robbie’s Marina.

The big draw at Robbie’s is the chance to see 50 to 100 enormous tarpon swimming around the dock in clear water only a few feet deep. You pay $1 to go out on the dock and it’s another $3 for a bucket of fish  to toss to them.

Tarpon grow to 5 to 8 feet long and weigh 80 to 150 pounds, so these aren’t the usual fish that gather when you throw bread crusts into the water in the Keys. These are among the great saltwater game fish, prized for their fight (but not as food.)

Florida Rambler guide to Robbie’s Marina
77522 B. Overseas Highway
Islamorada
(305) 664-9814
Admission: $1 to go onto the dock. $3 for a bucket of fish.

4. Get splashed by a dolphin. Dolphin Research Center, Marathon

Florida Keys roadtrip and wildlife: Dolphin Research Center in Marathon

The focus at the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon is on educational presentations, but the dolphins still make an occasional showy leap

There are a lot of different ways to experience dolphins in the Keys: there are several swim-with-the-dolphins programs, Theater of the Sea in Islamorada offers entertaining shows and several tour boats in Key West offer wild-dolphin-viewing trips.

The focus of the Dolphin Research Center, a not-for-profit facility, however, is on education.  Rather than choreographed shows, trainers hold informative sessions as visitors stand on the dock around open-water tanks.  At a small group session, a staff member demonstrates how they train younger dolphins while visitors ask questions and watch dolphins swim immediately in front of them.

The facility is built along the waterfront with beautiful views of Florida Bay and visitors are free to linger.  While the tour and information sessions can be experienced in an hour or two, many visitors stay for several hours watching the dolphins and talking with the friendly, well-informed staff.

It’s also pretty entertaining to watch the guests who paid extra to interact with dolphins.  The Dolphin Research Center offers a half dozen interactive options, ranging from an extra $25 to shake a flipper and touch a dolphin to $119 to take a dip with a dolphin to $675 for the all-day Trainer for a Day program.

Dolphin Research Center
58901 Overseas Highway
Marathon
(305) 289-1121
Admission: Adults $25;  children 4 to 12 $20; children 3 and under free.

5.  Support a sea turtle. The Turtle Hospital, Marathon.

Bubblebutt, first and longest permanent resident of the Turtle Hospital

Bubblebutt, first and longest permanent resident of the Turtle Hospital.

You probably won’t be lucky enough to see a sea turtle in the wild while in the Keys, but you can get within arm’s reach of several varieties that frequent the Keys and even toss them some food at the non-profit Turtle Hospital.

Located in a former motel on the Overseas Highway, the Turtle Hospital supports its program of rescuing and rehabilitating about 100 injured sea turtles a year through the admission price paid by visitors. A 90-minute educational tour is given several times a day and visitors meet some of those turtles, such as Bubble Butt, the first and longest permanent resident of the facility.

Florida Rambler guide to The Turtle Hospital
2396 Overseas Highway, Marathon
Admission: $18 for adults; $9 for children 4 to 12.
Reservations are recommended: 305-743-2552

 6.  Glimpse a Key deer.  National Key Deer Refuge, Big Pine Key.

Key deer approach bike, No Name Key, Forida Keys

A not so shy Key deer approaches me on my bike.

Driving through Big Pine Key, you are sure to see the warnings to slow down for Key deer — but it may take some effort to see the deer themselves because there are so few.

In 1957, there were only 27 Key deer left. With the establishment of the National Key Deer Refuge and its preservation efforts, the population has rebounded to an estimated 800.

So, how do you see a few Key deer?

If you get lucky, you might see them by the side of the road on the Overseas Highway.  You can visit the visitor center for the National Key Deer Refuge for maps and information that will help you explore. (The visitor center is in the back of a shopping center.)

On a recent trip, we found what I think is a sure thing, though: In early evening we walked and bicycled through No Name Key, an island that is part of the refuge, and saw many Key deer. (Timing, of course, is everything.)

Florida Rambler on Key Deer Refuge
175 Key Deer Boulevard, Big Pine Key.
Admission: Free

7.  Crow at a chicken, Key West

Chicken in Key West cemetery

Chicken in Key West cemetery

You don’t have to work hard to spot Key West chickens  —  you hear them crowing and see them strutting everywhere. The colorful roosters and the mother hens followed by lines of tiny chicks weave in and out of traffic and through outdoor cafes all over town.

The chicken population grew so large that in 2004, Key West hired a chicken catcher to reduce the number. His work was controversial – plenty of people cherish the chickens — and the post was discontinued that year when he quit.

Florida Rambler on chickens in Key West

8.  Behold the butterfly, Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservancy.

Key West Butterfly Conservatory: Vivid blue butterfly

Vivid colors abound at Key West butterfly conservatory.

This is the most peaceful place in crazy, clamorous Key West.  Located on Duval Street within a block of the Southernmost Point in the United States, the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservancy immerses you in a tropical garden where butterflies float overhead and flashy finches dart past waterfalls and koi-filled ponds.

The conservatory is quite compact – it’s a 5,000-square-foot Plexiglas structure designed to look like a Victorian greenhouse.

Florida Rambler on Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservancy
1316 Duval Street
Key West,
(800) 839-4647
Admission:  Adults $12, children 4 to 12 years $8.50, under 4 years free. Look for maps and brochures widely available with $2 off coupons.

Resources for planning your trip:

  • If you’re taking the Florida Keys Wildlife Tour, be sure to print out Florida Rambler’s popular and comprehensive  Florida Keys roadtrip mile marker guide to help you find fish shacks, beaches, parks and other out-of-the stops on your visit.

Resources for planning a Florida Keys vacation:

Special places to discover in the Florida Keys

Camping and lodging

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