FLORIDA KEYS — Truly unique environmental organizations attract visitors to the Florida Keys & Key West who are marine scientists, ornithologists, nature lovers — and eco-conscious vacationers.
Interested in learning about coral restoration techniques, capturing invasive lionfish or how Keys wild birds are rehabilitated? Four non-profit environmental organizations that are also attractions provide meaningful ways to connect with and protect the environment when visiting the Keys.
The Reef Environmental Education Foundation and Coral Restoration Foundation in the Upper Keys protect and restore precious underwater coral reefs. Aviaries such as the Middle Keys’ Marathon Wild Bird Center and the Key West Wildlife Center rehabilitate and nurture injured wild birds and, whenever possible, return them to the wild.
Reef Environmental Education Foundation. The organization known for conserving oceans through citizen science and research encourages recreational divers and snorkelers to conduct fish surveys and capture invasive lionfish during Keys dive activities. Housed in a classic Conch-style house 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 or 98300 Overseas Highway. An interpretive center has educational exhibits and a gift shop supports its mission.
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 alongside 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. An education center is located in Key Largo at 5 Seagate Blvd.
Marathon Wild Bird Center. Within the Middle Keys’ 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 in 1995. Today Grinter 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 are encouraged to donate 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 organization rehabilitates more than 1,400 native wild birds annually. The center, a field hospital and trauma facility with an on-site clinic, 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. A nature trail, an ideal spot for observing migratory birds in spring and fall, has a freshwater pond and two aviaries. The center also provides rescue, medical care and relocation services for Key West’s beloved and protected feral chickens.
A noteworthy milestone:
In early 2019, the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center celebrated its 30th birthday at mile marker 92 in Tavernier. Its Mission Wild Bird Hospital, although not open to the public, houses a visitor education center. Visitors can explore its nearby Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary at mile marker 93.6, home to non-releasable wild birds with permanent injuries or disabilities.
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. For more information and opportunities, visit fla-keys.com/voluntourism/.
Florida Keys sustainability information: fla-keys.com/sustain/
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS
The world-renowned Coral Restoration Foundation is dedicated to restoring reefs through large-scale cultivation, outplanting and monitoring of reef-building corals.
A raptor patient receives caring treatment at Marathon Wild Bird Center, that has rescued or protected more than 22,000 wild birds.