Animal Encounters in the Upper Florida Keys
Many people visit the Florida Keys for the relaxed vibe, tropical setting and endless water activities. But the Keys are also known for the various wildlife that can be found on their shores and surrounding areas. We were visiting the Florida Keys a few weeks ago and used Key Largo as a base for day trip adventures. Even though we had some fun in the sun and the warm beaches, our animal encounters were just as memorable.
Visiting Everglades National Park
This large national park covers 1.5 million acres and is considered the “largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S.” It is home to some of the most unique wildlife in the world, including some rare and endangered species. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has been on our National Park list for a while. It is located about an hour north of Key Largo. We covered the southern portion of the park by entering through Homestead.
The Ernest Coe Visitor Center is a great place to start. You can pick up Junior Ranger packets for the kids and get ideas from the park rangers on the best family-friendly trails and where to find Everglades animals. The center also offers educational displays and films which were great ways to get oriented to the park.
We loved our ranger guided walk on the Anhinga Trail to learn more about the plants and animals. This was our first sighting of Everglades animals such as baby turtles, alligators and an egret. We also spotted many bright lubber grasshoppers during our walk.
Another great way to see the park is driving 38 miles south from the main entrance to Flamingo. Considered by some as the park’s most scenic sunset spot, the Pa-hay-Okee Overlook on this drive is an excellent place to see wildlife and the sawgrass marshes. Everglades National Park is vast, but there was hardly anyone on the roads during our drive. High season is during winter. We saw many birds and even a turtle crossing the road that another driver had to move out of the way.
We enjoyed the almost two-hour boat tour by the Flamingo Visitors Center that went through mangroves and the backwater areas. Alligators, crocodiles and even migrating manatees plus many birds are usually spotted here. They also offer tours of the Florida Bay here. It was a relaxing way to see some parts of the park.
Tips: Bring your own food and drinks when visiting Everglades National Park. Food concessions and choices are limited. There are three entrances to the park so choose one that best suits your itinerary.
The First Turtle Hospital
Visiting the first turtle hospital in America was so educational and inspiring. Located in Marathon (about an hour from Key Largo), their motto is Rescue, Rehabilitate and Release. They have successfully treated and released over 1,500 sea turtles. We went on a 90-minute guided educational tour of the facilities and the rehabilitation area. One of their open fields also had a lot of iguanas laying out.
The number of turtles varies, but they do have permanent residents that can’t be released to the ocean due to their conditions. We loved meeting the turtles up close and hearing how they got there. It was interesting to see how they were taken care of and eventually released back to the ocean. My kids loved feeding the turtles after the tour.
Sea turtles pretty much eat anything so it was sad to see items they have ingested from our trash that impact their digestive system. Turtles also get entangled in fishing and buoy lines or get hit by boats.
If you’re in the area and find a turtle needing help, please feel free to call the Turtle Hospital 24/7. They will come and get the distressed turtle, and you will have the honor of naming that turtle. It explained some of the bizarre names like Smelly Cat, Alfalfa and Dirty. Here are some other ways to help.
Experience the Dolphin Research Center
One of our favorite experiences was visiting the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon. There are over 25 bottlenose dolphins and two California sea lions that reside here. Most of the dolphins were born here, while the others came from other facilities or were rescued and considered non-releasable into the wild by the government.
The center offers several activities from observing dolphins at various sessions every half-hour to swimming with the dolphins. We enjoyed watching the trainers feed, train and interact the dolphins. It was particularly amusing to watch the dolphins slide into the scale to get weighed. My kids were lucky enough to have an opportunity to touch the dolphins and learned to train them briefly. It was definitely an unforgettable experience for them.
We loved how the dolphins swam up close to visitors for some interaction. If you’re visiting on a Florida summer day, the Family Sprayground had water blasts to keep the kids cool.
One animal we really wanted to see was the manatee, or sea cow, found in Florida’s waters. Unfortunately, we didn’t see one during our cruise at Everglades National Park. We got really lucky and saw a small herd of five manatees that included three calves at Hilton Key Largo’s dock area on our second night there. It was so interesting to watch them interact with each other and surface every so often. It goes to show you sometimes don’t have to go far from your lodging to spot wildlife in the Florida Keys.
Other ways to interact with Florida Keys animals
- My kids really wanted to go to Theater of the Sea, located in Islamorada, but we ran out of time. They offer various marine animal interaction programs and shows that include dolphins, sea lions, turtles, crocodiles, sharks, rays and raptors.
- The Alligator Farm is located just outside Everglades National Park. We planned to go here but it started to rain hard. Read about fellow traveling mom, Kristine’s day trip to the Everglades alligator farm.
We stayed at Hilton Key Largo Resort which was a beautiful waterfront property with great amenities and activities. It also served as a great base to explore the rest of the Florida Keys.
Mary’s family was graciously hosted at the Turtle Hospital and the Dolphin Research Center courtesy of Florida Keys and Key West.
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