It’s located at the center of the action in Key West and it’s been there for almost 100 years. It’s literally Key West’s original tourist attraction.
So why hadn’t I visited the Key West Aquarium before?
First, I knew it was small and old. I knew admission was $20. I read reviews and they were mixed – some people loved it; some were disappointed. Plus there are so many museums and historic sites in Key West, the Key West Aquarium never made it to the top of my list.
Finally, on a steamy August visit, I thought the air-conditioned Key West Aquarium was worth a peek – and, happily, I found it certainly was.
It’s small but interesting, with just enough to see and experience to make a stop worthwhile. Be sure to time your visit for one of the free narrated tours, and you’ll see fish or sharks being fed, hear the stories behind the sea turtles or meet a tarpon that has lived in the mangrove lagoon for 30 years.
We spent more than an hour here and stopped at each tank, finding the fish identified in the informative electronic signage.
It’s small, but that can be an advantage. If there had been more, I don’t think I would have had the capacity to appreciate more creatures. I might have breezed by some tanks, whereas here, I looked at everything.
I think the secret to enjoying the Key West Aquarium, like in all travel, is all about expectations. Expect a small, historic aquarium. Expect an hour’s entertainment. Expect that, pretty much like everything in Key West, it costs too much.
The story behind the Key West Aquarium
If you know anything about Key West, you know it has had dramatic ups and downs. At one time it was one of the richest towns in America, thanks to the wrecking business — salvaging goods off shipwrecks. At other times, Key West was one of the poorest.
During the Great Depression, in fact, the city was in such bad shape that it turned its charter over to the federal government and basically said: Here, you run it.
How to give Key West a boost? A frequent visitor and fan of the Keys had a fresh idea: Maybe it could attract tourists!
Dr. Robert Van Deusen, the director of the (now long gone) aquarium in Philadelphia, had been making annual fishing trips to Key West collecting specimens for his aquarium. He suggested that Key West was a perfect place for an aquarium.
It could be open air and its tanks could be filled directly from the sea, where local species could be caught and displayed. It would help attract visitors to the area.
Thus in 1932, the Works Project Administration was sent in, provided much-need jobs for Key West citizens who built the unusual tourist attraction. It opened in 1934, when only a dozen aquariums had ever been built in the United States. Admission was 15 cents for adults and 5 cents for kids.
Do you know what happened the next year, however? The Labor Day hurricane of 1935. The devastating storm destroyed Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad and any short-term hope that Key West and its new aquarium would be a magnet for tourists.
Visiting the Key West Aquarium today
Located on the same block as sunset capitol Mallory Square, the Key West Aquarium is in a historic one-story building, constructed with salt-water concrete because fresh water was so scarce. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and, architecturally, it’s a gem.
It is located directly on the water, with the back of aquarium opening to a sea-turtle and shark exhibit that is just a fenced off section of the Gulf of Mexico.
While originally designed to be open air, this encouraged algae growth and in the 1960s, the aquarium was enclosed and air conditioned.
Today, the aquarium is popular with families visiting Key West and visitors who want to learn what lives in the water just beyond the aquarium’s back door.
The aquarium’s main building has two large tanks with sharks, rays and sea turtles, a touch tank where visitors are encouraged to interact with live shells and hermit crabs, and a series of tanks built into the walls around the building.
An outdoor area adjacent to the aquarium building holds a pretty enclosed mangrove lagoon where you can see tarpon, fish and a sea turtle.
On our tour, the fish here were fed, having to compete with a wily little green heron who swooped in to steal their food. (Our aquarium educator says the tarpon have on occasion accidently ingested the little heron and spit it out.)
A second outdoor area has the enclosures for sea turtles and a shark.
Depending on your tour, you may get to see various animals being fed. While the aquarium website lists several themed talks that were available, when we visited on a few slow August day, it offered narrated tours every two hours that apparently covered a bit about all the topics.
The tour had an exceptionally good sound system so no matter where you were in the aquarium, you’d hear it.
I particularly liked seeing the animals fed.
The nurse sharks, far from the ravenous beasts depicted, were all slumbering on the bottom and it took a good deal of effort to wake and attract.
When they finally did come to the feeding station, it was a highlight to see them vacuum up the food. (And I do mean vacuum. Sharks have tremendous suction, allowing them to hoover the conch meat, for example, right out of the conch shell.)
Tips for visiting the Key West Aquarium
Tours: The museum educator who led our tour did an excellent job, telling stories about the fish and animals and explaining interesting facts. She made the visit interesting and the tour makes all the difference. Without the tour, you’d be done in 20 minutes. With the tour, it’s a satisfying and worthwhile experience.
Accessibility: The aquarium is accessible to wheelchairs and strollers. I don’t think it would be a huge hit with toddlers. (But who can predict at that age?) School-age kids and adolescents, however, should find plenty to interest them. The museum educator interacted with kids at the touch tank to provide more of a hands-on experience.
Tickets: Adults are $20; kids 4 to 17 are $12, kids under 4 are free. Your ticket is good for re-entry for two days. So, for example, you can come back for the shark feeding if one is not offered when you first visit.
Parking: There is no parking at the aquarium. There is metered parking on several blocks around Mallory Square and a parking garage at the Westin Resort one block over. There is also a Park and Ride garage located on the corner of Caroline and Grinnell Street. This garage, near the Historic Key West Bight seaport, is about a 15 minute walk away.
The free Duval Loop stops a block away at the corner of Green and Whitehead streets.
Pets: You can bring your dog on a leash.
Key West Aquarium
1 Whitehead Street, Key West 33040
Resources for planning a trip to Key West:
- Key West is less crowded (and more enjoyable) when cruise ships are not in town. Check the cruise ship calendar when making your plans. (In general, cruise ships seem to skip Wednesdays more than most other days.)
- Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to finding hotels and restaurants in Key West for the budget-minded.
- Free things to do in Key West
- Overseas Highway Mile marker guide with dozens of stops to help make the most of your drive.
- A great bike path if you’re staying in Key West
- Stock Island: Key West’s fishy, funky promising neighbor
- Florida Keys wildlife: Places to see animals
- Tiki bars: Soak up the Keys atmosphere
- Top 10 restaurant stops on a roadtrip on the Overseas Highway
- Best beaches in the Florida Keys
- Shopping for authentic souvenirs in Key West
This article is original, produced exclusively for our readers and protected by U.S. Copyright law. Any use or re-publication without written permission is against the law.
The information in this article was accurate when published, but changes may occur.
The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.