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Key West Aquarium is small but historic, interesting & fun

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.

The Key West Aquarium occupies a charming historic building built from 1932-34 as a federal project to create jobs and improve the local economy during the Great Depression. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The Key West Aquarium occupies a charming historic building built from 1932-34 as a federal project to create jobs and improve the local economy during the Great Depression. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Interior of the Key West Aquarium with sea turtle and ray in a central tank. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Interior of the Key West Aquarium with sea turtle and ray in a central tank. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Touch tank at the Key West Aquarium with museum educator talking about the live shells. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Touch tank at the Key West Aquarium with museum educator talking about the live shells. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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!

Family looking in one of the aquarium tanks at Key West Aquarium. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Family looking in one of the tanks at Key West Aquarium. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Tour guide feeds the fish in the living mangrove lagoon at Key West Aquarium. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Tour guide feeds the fish in the living mangrove lagoon at Key West Aquarium. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

The nurse sharks were sleeping, but the tour guide finally got their attention and they began patrolling the tank. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The nurse sharks were sleeping, but the tour guide finally got their attention and they began patrolling the tank. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

key west aquarium key west aquarium shark feeding Key West Aquarium is small but historic, interesting & fun
The nurse sharks at Key West Aquarium finally act hungry and suction the fish offered to them off the metal rods. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.)

key west aquarium key west aquarium lion fish Key West Aquarium is small but historic, interesting & fun
An invasive lion fish is one of the more beautiful creatures in the Key West Aquarium. For sheer beauty, however, it’s hard to beat some of the living coral in their tanks. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Key West Aquarium shark tank. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Key West Aquarium shark tank. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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
305-296-2051

A queen triggerfish at the Key West Aquarium. (Photo: David Blasco)
A queen triggerfish at the Key West Aquarium. (Photo: David Blasco)

Resources for planning a trip to Key West:

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