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An Eco-Friendly Travel Guide to the Florida Keys

Fun, memorable, sustainable things to do on a vacation in and around Key West

Two divers restoring coral for the Coral Restoration Foundation™

Coral Restoration Foundation™

En español | Stretching south off the U.S. mainland from Miami, the Florida Keys are a beautiful chain of islands spread over 125 miles, from Key Largo to Key West. Like so many coastal areas, the keys’ fragile ecosystem is threatened by overtourism, water pollution, climate change and development, but there are ecologically friendly ways to enjoy the islands’ wildlife and tropical beauty. These are a few:

Birds at Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center

Lucas Temple

Nature appreciation

See sea turtles on the mend. Viewing sea turtles in the wild is captivating, but the animals’ proximity to humans has meant they've been injured by boats, fishing-line tangles and other dangers. That's where the Turtle Hospital in Marathon steps in. Open to the public and a popular stop for both visitors and locals, the hospital rehabilitates injured sea turtles with the intention of release back into the wild. For those that don't recover enough to be released safely, the hospital works with accredited zoos and aquariums to find forever homes. The public is welcome to come out and watch rehabilitated sea turtles return to the sea; you can find the dates of upcoming turtle releases on the hospital's Facebook page.

Details: The Turtle Hospital's Education Center, 2396 Overseas Highway; open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with hourly guided educational programs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m; reservations are recommended (book online or call 305-743-2552); $27 for adults, $13 for children 4 to 12.

Support bird rescue efforts. The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier, between Islamorada and Key Largo, is dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing wild birds back to their native homes. Birds that can't be released back to the wild make their permanent home at the onsite Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary. The natural refuge houses more than 90 nonreleasable birds, representing nearly 40 different species.

Details: 93600 Overseas Highway; 305-852-4486; open every day from sunrise to sunset; admission is free, though a donation of $10 per person is appreciated.

divers at Corapolooza event for the Coral Restoration Foundation™

Coral Restoration Foundation™


Clean up the waters. When Hurricane Irma hit the Keys in the fall of 2017, debris from land found its way to the water and remains tangled in the mangroves along the shore, or submerged below the water's surface. The mission of the nonprofit Conch Republic Marine Army is to remove as much of the detritus as possible using kayaks, canoes and manual labor. To date, the organization and its volunteers have removed 295,770 pounds of it so far, including 704,000 feet of trap line. But there is still a lot of work to do — an estimated 2 million pounds still need to be removed throughout the Florida Keys. Up the Keys! Eco Tours partners with Conch Republic Marine Army by offering “volun-tours for volunteers” on Saturdays and Sundays. The seven-hour guided tour includes transportation from Key West (they'll pick you up at your lodging), kayak rental and lunch, plus memorable time spent helping to restore the Lower Florida Keys.

Details: $129 per person; book online or call 305-587-5575.

Save the coral reefs. The world's coral reefs are in danger, including those in the Florida Keys. According to the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo, “the Florida Reef Tract has lost almost 97 percent of its once-dominant staghorn and elkhorn coral” since the 1970s, leaving these species critically endangered. As an answer to this crisis, the foundation is working to restore coral reefs on a large scale by growing corals in offshore Coral Tree Nurseries and then outplanting them for continued growth. Since 2007, the foundation has planted more than 100,000 staghorn and elkhorn corals back into the Florida Reef Tract. But their work is far from finished — and you may be able to help. Snorkelers and certified SCUBA divers are invited to participate in the foundation's dive and snorkel programs to help outplant coral, or monitor Coral Tree Nurseries. Divers can also obtain a PADI Coral Restoration Certification.

Details: 5 Seagate Blvd., Key Largo; 305-453-7030; see the foundation's website for qualifications, dates and pricing.

people biking on a Hydro bike in Key West

Key West Hydrobikes

Water sports

Try self-powered water transport. Let your legs do the work with Key West Hydrobikes — stable, self-powered water bikes (you won't need a bathing suit). Ride alone or in tandem with a friend and cruise around the harbor and the channel at speeds of around 5 mph. Glide up to one of the nearby islands, search for wildlife along the way, and stop by a waterside bar for a drink to quench your thirst. Or, join a two-hour guided tour (the Castaway Island Tour) to learn more about the area as you ride. There's also a sunset trip (the Mallory Glow Tour).

Details: The hydrobikes are available to rent by the hour, starting at $30 for a single and $60 for a tandem, at Key West's Lagerheads Beach Bar (0 Simonton St.). The Castaway Island Tour has three departures daily and is $35 per person; the Mallory Glow Tour is $40 per person. Book online and save $5 on personal rentals and group tours, or text 435-229-8049.

View sealife on an eco-friendly craft. Snorklers can venture out to sea with Honest Eco Tours aboard its custom-designed SQUID in Key West. SQUID is one of the first electric-powered passenger boats in the U.S., specially designed to access protected, calm and clear snorkeling spots. The company's four-hour Dolphin Watch includes a guided snorkel with use of snorkeling equipment and short wetsuits in the wintertime.

Details: The tour departs from 231 Margaret St. at Key West Historic Seaport, twice daily, four days a week; $109 per person. Book online or call 305-294-6306.

For more on sustainable travel in the Florida Keys, download the Florida Keys & Key West Travel App, which features a section on sustainability to encourage low-impact exploration.

Susan B. Barnes is a Florida-based freelance journalist with a passion for travel and the environment.

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