Visitors from around the globe come to the Florida Keys to experience the island chain’s wealth of natural wonders. And local residents who live among those wonders — including the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef, an environmental treasure that parallels the Keys — are committed to protecting and nurturing them.

Captain Andrea Paulson kayaking Lower Florida Keys

Captain Andrea Paulson, a dedicated steward of the Keys’ natural world, and her “first mate” Clark kayak the Lower Keys backcountry. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Maybe it’s because the people of the tiny Keys islands live so close to the ocean, almost instinctively absorbing the rhythms of the tides and subtle seasonal changes.

Or it might be that residents who love the Keys forge personal connections to the unique environment and therefore are motivated to preserve it.

Whatever the reason, scores of locals from Key Largo to Key West enrich their days with eco-activities and experiences — and many have become stewards of the Keys’ natural world and way of life, passionate and proactive about protecting those elements.

They include sustainable fishing and dive charter operators, hoteliers and innkeepers who manage green-focused properties, coral restoration innovators, leaders in “voluntourism,” wildlife rehabilitation experts and those who offer on-the-water eco-tours and cultural excursions.

Many impart their earth-friendly mindset to visitors, encouraging them to share the local passion for conservation while having memorable vacation experiences.

For example, Captain Andrea Paulson, owner-operator of Reelax Charters on Sugarloaf Key, takes clients on custom kayak eco-tours to the Lower Keys’ pristine backcountry and urges them to respect the environment as they would their own homes.

Bette Zirkelbach at Marathon’s Turtle Hospital — the world’s first state-licensed veterinary hospital for sea turtles — is dedicated to healing ill or injured turtles. Every day she inspires visitors touring the hospital to discover their own passion for the endangered reptiles.

Captain Billy Litmer designed and built the Keys’ first electric-powered charterboat, SQUID, inspired by his commitment to the environment. (Photo courtesy of Honest Eco Tours)

The Keys offer travelers a remarkable variety of earth- and sea-friendly options to enjoy, guided by residents who cherish their close-to-nature lifestyle, strive to preserve it and have intriguing stories to tell.

They include Captain Billy Litmer of Honest Eco Tours, whose sense of environmental responsibility led him to design and build Key West’s first electric-powered charter boat for sustainable dolphin-watching excursions.

Artists too are guardians of the Keys natural world. Michelle Nicole Lowe is known for the vivid images of indigenous fish, birds and sea turtles found in her Islamorada gallery.

Painted with skill and sensitivity, her pieces underscore the need to protect those creatures and their habitats.

You can discover the islands’ unique environment — and meet the people who have become its stewards — during eco-travel experiences, paddleboard treks, explorations of wildlife refuges and rehabilitation centers, soft-adventure activities and visits to environmental attractions.

underwater scientist Florida Keys

REEF’s Dr. Alli Candelmo and a colleague work in the Keys’ underwater realm.

Meet coral restoration leaders who are replanting new growths from coral nurseries to the reef, learn about their vital work and assist in their efforts during Keys voluntourism experiences.

Dive or fish with a certified Blue Star operator, increasing your awareness about environmentally responsible dive techniques and catch-and-release fishing.

Or explore the campus and exhibits at Key Largo’s Reef Environmental Education Foundation, where experts like Dr. Alli Candelmo share their commitment to marine conservation through citizen science, informative programs, research and special events like the annual REEF Fest.

Throughout the Keys, you can revel in nature’s richness, immerse yourself in eco-experiences, enjoy opportunities for volunteer and learning vacations, and discover why local residents are so passionate about protecting their environment and lifestyle.

As 2020 unfolds,  make (or deepen) your own connection with the Florida Keys’ fascinating natural world and embrace practices that preserve it. Once you do, you too will become a steward of the Keys.