Interested in learning about coral restoration techniques, how to capture invasive lionfish or the ways Florida Keys wild birds are rehabilitated? Four non-profit environmental organizations — that are also unique attractions appealing to nature lovers and eco-conscious vacationers — provide meaningful ways to connect with and protect the natural world during visits to the island chain.
The Reef Environmental Education Foundation and Coral Restoration Foundation in the Upper Keys protect and restore precious coral reefs — including the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef, which runs parallel to the Keys and provides a genuine wonderland for divers. And aviaries such as the Middle Keys’ Marathon Wild Bird Center and the Key West Wildlife Center rehabilitate and nurture injured wild birds so that, whenever possible, they can be released.
If your passion is protecting corals, birds and the environment, visit the organizations here during your next escape to the Keys.
Reef Environmental Education Foundation. Known for conserving oceans through citizen science and research, REEF encourages recreational divers and snorkelers to conduct fish surveys and capture invasive lionfish during Keys dive activities. Housed in a classic Conch-style structure known as the Upper Keys’ oldest building in its original location, REEF is adjacent to the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail in Key Largo at mile marker 98.3. Explore the interpretive center’s educational exhibits and check out the gift shop that supports REEF’s mission.
An employee from the Coral Restoration Foundation works underwater in the organization’s coral nursery. (Photo by Tim Grollimund, Florida Keys News Bureau)
Coral Restoration Foundation. The world-renowned CRF is dedicated to restoring reefs (in Florida and globally) through the large-scale cultivation, outplanting and monitoring of reef-building corals. CRF’s educational programs enable “citizen scientists” and recreational divers to participate in coral restoration with marine scientists. Its core mission is to restore reefs, provide education about the importance of the planet’s oceans and use science to further coral research and reef monitoring techniques. To find out more, visit the education center at 5 Seagate Blvd. in Key Largo.
Marathon Wild Bird Center. Located within the Middle Keys’ captivating Crane Point Hammock at 5550 Overseas Highway, the center has rescued or protected more than 22,000 wild birds. Founder Kelly Grinter first began caring for injured birds from her car’s backseat (yes, really!) in 1995. Today Kelly and her team assist more than 750 birds each year. The center’s volunteers and local veterinarians nurse injured birds such as wild hawks, ospreys, spoonbills and egrets back to health and release them. Visitors can help by donating medical supplies such as bandages and tapes, bird carriers, fresh fish and bird food as well as money.
Key West Wildlife Center. Tucked inside Key West’s seven-acre Indigenous Park at 1801 White St., the facility rehabilitates more than 1,400 native wild birds annually. Basically a field hospital and trauma facility with an on-site clinic, the center focuses on rescuing, rehabilitating and returning avian species to the wild. It also provides emergency rescue services for sea turtles, tortoises and marine mammals in partnership with other rescue groups — plus rescue, medical care and relocation services for Key West’s beloved and protected feral chickens. The property’s nature trail, a great place for observing migratory birds in spring and fall, has a freshwater pond and two aviaries.
Many Keys environmental organizations welcome visitors who are interested in “voluntourism,” or spending a portion of their vacation giving back to the local environment and its inhabitants. Find opportunities to help by clicking here.