Skip to main content

Travel Fixing the Florida Keys: Locals turn conservation into ecotourism

St. Thomas, a rehabilitated juvenile green sea turtle, is given a final check at the Florida Keys-based Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Fla., on July 19, 2019.

Andy Newman/Handout

"You’ll see a lot of sick turtles,” warns our guide as she welcomes us to the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Fla. “Don’t let that depress you.”

Once a motel and strip bar in the middle of the Florida Keys, the Turtle Hospital rescues and treats about 100 sea turtles a year, some with permanent injuries.

We spot Bubble Butt, for instance, floating haplessly on the surface of what used to be the guest swimming pool. Part of his misshapen shell was replaced with fibreglass after he was struck by a boat, but a bubble under the shell still prevents him from diving. Entering the hospital’s surgical unit, we watch in grim fascination as veterinarians operate on a green sea turtle that’s infected with fibropapilloma (FP), a herpes-like virus that affects between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of green sea turtles in Florida Bay. Intubated and anaesthetized, the turtle lies limp on its back as the vets remove hideous pink tumours that sprout like cauliflower from its flippers and belly.

Story continues below advertisement

“The FP virus is only found in and around developed islands, which tells us a lot,” says Bette Zirkelbach, the hospital’s manager. “It’s a gauge of pollution and the quality of our water.”

Turtles are in trouble – that much is obvious – but after just a couple days in Florida’s Keys I’ve learned that this string of 44 subtropical islands faces a litany of environmental problems. From the almost total destruction of the coral reef that runs down the Keys’ Atlantic coast, to the invasion of venomous lionfish, there’s much to make anyone sad, mad or both. But, I learn, the Keys are also where passionate locals are turning their problems into compelling visitor attractions.

Visitors to the Turtle Hospital staffer meet a female green sea turtle that underwent treatment for intestinal ailments.

ANDY NEWMAN/Handout

At the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo, for instance, I learn that the Florida Reef Tract, the third largest barrier reef in the world, has been devastated by everything from septic-waste runoff to sunscreen chemicals.

“We call it death by a thousand cuts," the foundation’s Alice Grainger says. “There’s no one thing.”

About 97 per cent of the reef’s main types of coral – staghorn and elkhorn – have died, leaving underwater landscapes barren for its entire length – almost 600 kilometres.

The Florida Reef Tract has been devastated by everything from septic-waste runoff to sunscreen chemicals.

Zach Ransom/Coral Restoration Foundation/Handout

In the late nineties, a commercial fish collector in the Keys, Ken Nedimyer, realized he could grow coral more quickly than it would grow in the wild. In 2007, he formed the foundation, which now has seven underwater nurseries where finger-sized fragments of coral are hung to grow on plastic “trees”. In just six to nine months, the pieces are big enough to be glued onto the reef itself. Incredibly, the foundation’s small staff, along with many intern and volunteer divers, has now painstakingly “outplanted” 100,000 pieces of coral – one by one – mostly on eight small sections of reef.

“They’re fusing together, behaving normally and they’re spawning,” said Roxane Boonstra, the volunteer co-ordinator. “This is critical.”

Story continues below advertisement

The Coral Restoration Foundation grows coral fragments at seven underwater nurseries.

Zach Ransom/Coral Restoration Foundation/Handout

Visitors can do their part by signing up for dive programs that take them out to the Coral Tree Nursery for monitoring or outplanting.

“Even if we can’t bring back the entire reef, we can bring these [eight] reefs back,” Grainger adds optimistically.

A one-hour drive south in Marathon, John Mirabella – owner of Castaway restaurant – is doing his part to help the ocean environment by hunting and serving lionfish. It’s not known how these flamboyant fish, native to the Asia-Pacific, got into Florida’s waters, but they’re here and they’re deadly. Their zebra-like stripes make them an aquarium favourite, but lionfish compete with local fish species for food, or devour them outright.

“When you see how many lionfish are on a wreck it’ll blow your mind,” says Mirabella, who dives and spearfishes with his buddies as often as he can. Lionfish are easy prey, given their numbers and behaviour. “All they do is sit in one place and open and close their mouths and suck these little baby fish in, 20 to 30 minnows an hour.”

Mirabella has been stung by their venomous fins – an excruciatingly painful experience, he says – but that hasn’t stopped him. “We need to eradicate lionfish because if we don’t they’re going to eradicate all of the other species that spawn locally.”

Fortunately – or perhaps unfortunately for Mirabella’s patrons – Hurricane Irma killed a lot of lionfish and since then, he’s had trouble meeting the demand. His “King of the Jungle” sushi roll is hugely popular and it’s easy to see why. It arrives artfully displayed along the spine of a lionfish, head and feathery fins still attached. The firm flesh of the lionfish, combined with avocado and asparagus, is savoury-sweet and tasty.

Story continues below advertisement

By the time I arrive in Key West for a dolphin-watching and snorkel tour on Squid, the town’s first electric-powered charter boat, I’m curious about how much wildlife is actually still out there. But an hour into the excursion, a dozen or more bottlenose dolphins appear, diving under and around the boat.

A sea turtle swims among Coral Restoration Foundation divers off Key Largo.

Zach Ransom/Handout

Later, in a shallow spot, we don masks and snorkels. This isn’t part of the Florida reef, but it looks just as barren. Then our guide finds some floating strands of sargassum, a seaweed that’s been piling up on beaches in Florida and the Caribbean recently.

Resorts don’t like it, but sargassum supports lots of life, much of it microscopic. Swimming closer, we see a dozen or more small yellowtail snappers nibbling on the frilly fronds, their blue scales sparkling in the dappled sunlight.

That night, I go for dinner at the Stoned Crab, a restaurant that specializes in its namesake. Stone crabs are only caught for their claws, and usually only one is removed at a time, which grows back within a year. “It’s the only animal you can eat without killing it,” restaurant owner Chris Holland says with a chuckle.

Licenses to harvest stone crab come with strict regulations. They must be a certain size, for starters, and live ones must be returned to the water to regenerate new claws – all of which makes it another ideal food for people who want to help these islands get back to their natural state.

Who knew helping the environment could be so delicious?

Story continues below advertisement

The writer was a guest of Florida Keys tourism office. It did not review or approve this story.

A man bikes on the Old Seven Mile Bridge near Marathon, Fla. The bridge, which is only open to pedestrian traffic, is a popular biking, running and walking spot for visitors and locals.

Laurence Norah/Handout

Your turn

Things to do and see in the Florida Keys, with a focus on sustainability.

Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary, Tavernier

More than 90 wild birds are living out their lives here after being permanently injured. Get up close to birds such as Bonnie and Clyde, two red-shouldered hawks that were hurt with pellet guns. Open every day from sunrise to sunset. A US$10/person donation is requested. missionwildbird.com

Coral Restoration Foundation, Key Largo

Get hands-on training to plant coral or simply learn how the foundation is restoring reefs. Then, take an educational snorkel excursion to the reef with Rainbow Reef, the foundation’s partner and a Professional Association of Diving Instructors-certified dive shop. Coralrestoration.org; Rainbowreef.us

The Turtle Hospital, Marathon

The US$25 (a person) admission includes a guided educational tour (on the hour every day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Reservations are recommended. turtlehospital.org

Mote’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration, Summerland Key

Like the Coral Restoration Foundation, this centre works to restore reefs, but uses different technology. Free tours are offered Tuesdays from 10 to 11 a.m. mote.org

Story continues below advertisement

Honest Eco, Key West

Watch for dolphins and snorkel on a tour with Honest Eco’s electric-powered boat Squid. Honesteco.org

Key West Eco Tours, Key West

I opted to snorkel on the Florida Reef to see how bad it is. It’s shockingly beige and barren, but colourful yellowtail snappers were feeding on clumps of floating sargassum. Kayaking is also available. Keywestecotours.com

For more information about volunteer opportunities and attractions that support sustainable tourism see fla-keys.com

Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter