Florida Keys residents who live among the island chain’s natural 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 Bill Keogh (left) leads kayak eco-tours of the Lower Keys’ backcountry, encouraging clients to open their eyes and minds to nature’s wonders.

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.

Squid electric charterboat Key West

The Keys’ first electric-powered charterboat, SQUID, was designed and built by Captain Billy Litmer. (Photo courtesy of Honest Eco Tours)

For example, Captain Bill Keogh, owner-operator of Big Pine Kayak Adventures, takes clients on kayak eco-tours of the Lower Keys’ pristine backcountry — where he delights in opening their eyes and minds to the beauty and pace of the natural world.

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.

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.

Florida Keys reef survey

In the Florida Keys, recreational divers can connect with and help protect the ocean realm in many ways. Here, a diver is shown volunteering by participating in a fish count, collecting valuable information for environmental organizations. (Photo by Nathan Brown)

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.

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.

This year is the perfect time to make (or deepen) your own connection with the Florida Keys’ fascinating natural world, and start adopting practices that preserve it. Once you do, you too will become a steward of the Keys.