Want to learn more about the Florida Key’s unique mangrove ecosystem and marine life? Then stop by the Key West Aquarium for a hands-on experience. A small, intimate aquarium, its easy to visit if you only have one day in Key West, or you can take your time, linger and enjoy the guided tours. All the staff are enthusiastic in their love of the sea and its inhabitants and enjoy answering visitors questions. It’s a great way to introduce kids to the beauty of the underwater world and its fun for adults - gain bragging rights for feeding a shark! The Aquarium is conveniently located and I time my visit so that afterwards, I can turn the corner and take part in Key West’s Mallory Square Sunset Celebration.
When I enter the Aquarium, the Touch Tank greets me. While I usually prefer self-guided tours,the guides provide a lot of interesting information. Four tours are offered during the day that coincide with feedings of the sharks. I really like that the Aquarium doesn’t charge extra for the tours. By happy coincidence, I arrive shortly after a tour begins so I listen in to parts of it while proceeding at my own pace. From one of the guides, I learn that most of the inhabitants of the Touch Tank are the same critters that I often see snorkeling or kayaking in the Keys. A neat feature of this tank is the opportunity to touch and photograph the harmless wildlife, including starfish, sea cucumbers and crabs.
One of my favorite areas is the next indoor tank with the stingrays and the turtles. Both are so graceful in the water and beautiful to look at. Five sea turtles call the Aquarium their home. Two of those are in this tank - Pepita and Lola - Kemp’s ridley turtles. Did you know that they are named after Richard M. Kemp, a fisherman and naturalist from Key West? Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are rare and critically endangered. I had a chance to talk to Greg Gerwin, the Aquarium’s Curator, and he told me how Pepita has scoliosis which affects her ability to swim. She is outfitted with weights attached to her shell with Velcro to help her out. It’s really cool that the Key West Aquarium helps sea turtles survive by working with several organizations including Marathon’s Sea Turtle Hospital The Turtle Hospital - Helping Sea Turtles Survive, Save-A-Turtle Save-A-Turtle.org and Mote Marine Laboratory Mote Marine Laboratory.
Two of the other rehabilitated turtles reside in Turtle Kraals, the outdoor holding tank. Rocky, a green sea turtle, came to live here after being injured by a boat propellor and like Pepita wears weights attached to his shell. Spike is a Loggerhead sea turtle who was injured as a baby during a bird attack and can’t survive in the wild. During the tour, guides remind everyone how we can help these amazing creatures by practicing smart, safe boating, using proper garbage disposal and being careful of artificial lighting during turtle nesting season.
I take my time and linger over the many smaller glass aquarium tanks lining the side of the building. Looking around, I think about the history of the building. Did you know that the Key West Aquarium began construction in 1933 and is one of Florida’s oldest aquariums? But after a 1935 hurricane destroyed the Overseas Railroad which was the only way to reach Key West by land, the aquarium fell on hard times and closed down. During WWII, the military used the building as an indoor rifle range. In 1946, the Aquarium was rebuilt and continues to this day to be one of Key West’s top attractions as it helps all of us understand and appreciate the delicate eco-system of the Florida Keys.
Many varieties of colorful tropical fish, seahorses and spiny lobsters are in the tanks. Among the tanks is the moon jellyfish exhibit. Jellyfish fascinate me, they look like aliens floating in the water. While moon jellyfish are found in our beautiful waters, they are not poisonous but if touched, can produce a sting. If you see one in the water while snorkeling, admire its appearance but swim around it - don’t try to touch a jellyfish!
The third inside tank holds the nurse sharks. A highlight of the Aquarium tour is the shark feeding where the guides provide information on these fascinating creatures and help clarify popular misconceptions. Feedings are at 11:00, 1:00, 3:00 and 4:30. A lucky guest even gets a chance to feed a shark! After feeding the sharks, the guide holds a juvenile nurse shark that guests have the opportunity to touch and learn what shark skin feels like up close and personal.
Moving outside, I check out the new Stingray Bay Touch Tank, home to 8 cow nose rays, which are part of the eagle ray family. Ray feedings are at 12:00 and 2:00. Guests are invited to touch the rays as they gracefully glide through the water. No need to worry about being stung - their barbs are removed in a harmless procedure.
I head outside to see the Atlantic Shores exhibit, a 50,000 gallon saltwater exhibit of a living red mangrove ecosystem, containing tropical fish, game fish, american alligators and Hector, a hawksbill sea turtle. This exhibit helps all of us better understand how important the mangroves are to the Florida Keys. Our mangrove ecosystem serves as a massive nursery to our oceans. Mangroves provide protected areas for many important marine species like snapper, tarpon, jack, oyster, shrimp and spiny lobster; are crucial habitat for Florida’s native birds; and even serve as a first line of defense against land erosion. Next time you bite into a delicious fish sandwich, be sure to think of the Florida Keys mangroves!
Greg told me about a new virtual tour program offered by the Key West Aquarium. Skype Tours provide interested groups with live, remote access with a guide so no matter where the participants live, they can take a tour of the Aquarium and learn about Key West’s marine life. Talk about the world getting smaller, now wherever you are, you can take a tour. It’s a great way for schools and other organizations to still go on virtual field trips, regardless of budget cuts.
I leave through the gift store, full of fun souvenirs to remember my day by. With the blazing orange sun starting its daily descent towards the blue Atlantic, its time to head to Mallory Square and join in Key West’s Sunset Celebration. Another perfect day in paradise!
Locals tip - the admission price gets you in for two consecutive days so that if someone in your group is hungry, cranky or in a hurry to see the sunset, you can always stop by the next day!
The Key West Aquarium
1 Whitehead St., Key West, FL 33040
on Mallory Square at the corner of Front St. and Whitehead St.
Open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., 7 days a week, 365 days a year
Tour times and Shark Feedings: 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m., 4:30 p.m.
Stingray Feedings are at 12:00 and 2:00 p.m.
To check out more of the Florida Key’s amazing wildlife, use your Vacation Pass to save money while visiting these Key West top attractions - Audubon House & Tropical Gardens, Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, and the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Gardens.